The Changing Definition of “Definition”   Leave a comment

Note: This is an exercise in idea presentation. The point is to convey speculative knowledge about a complex subject using simple language and logic that is easy to follow.

The government plays an important role in deciding who can have sex, with whom, and for what reason. Prostitution, sex with children, and rape are bad things — it is a good thing that there are laws that punish these types of sexual behavior. If the government didn’t regulate sex at all, sexual violence, STDs, and sexual abuse of children would be even bigger problems than they already are. But when it comes to consenting adults in private space, it seems wrong for the government to decide what type of sex is good sex and what type of sex is bad sex. So goes the argument for same-sex marriage (‘marriage analogy’ if you prefer), and it makes sense.

The gay marriage debate, as far as legalization goes, seems to be ending, and that’s as sure as global warming. But the battle for human rights is endless and the next oppressed minority will quickly rise to claim what’s been unfairly denied them. Legalizing gay marriage is by no means the last hurdle for human rights. It’s up to its advocates to have the progressive vision to pursue the next human rights milestone. We can start by fulfilling the slogan “marriage equality for all.”

And wouldn’t you think legalizing LGBT marriage accomplishes that? The problem is the “all” part, which traditionally includes everyone. Because brainless mobs often continue to oppress minorities, it’s up to the Supreme Court to defend the rights of anyone who’s being discriminated against. The Supreme Court is a panel of nine judges who decide if a law is consistent with the Constitution and acceptable, or unfair and must be struck down.

When the Supreme Court makes a decision, which includes determining the best rule for a case and how that rule applies to said case, the ruling becomes precedent. Precedent means that all future Supreme Court cases have to apply the same rule in the same manner when a similar case comes up in the future. This principle is called stare decisis which is Latin for “to stand by decisions” and is pronounced just like you’d guess if you want to remember it and impress people in future conversations.

Stare decisis gives consistency to the law, preventing legal chaos and ensuring that all protections won will be upheld in the future. One of the most famous precedents is Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which found that a) “separate but equal” has no place in public education, and b) The 14th Amendment prohibits segregation in public schools. The ruling only applied to public schools in the Brown case, but set a precedent that soon applied to all society.

There’s plenty of precedent regarding sex and marriage in the Supreme Court’s history, most of which is based on the right to privacy. The right to privacy isn’t explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution, but it has become part of the official canon and protects your right to do what you want to do in your own home with anyone that wants to do it with you. That’s a pretty important protection if you ask me — the point of having a house is to do things you can’t do safely in public.

Here’s some important Supreme Court precedents that have to do with sex and marriage:

It seems like there’s enough precedent in there to squeeze out a decision protecting the right to gay marriage. There isn’t one yet, but there could be soon and it might look something like this:
AwesomeParents v. Morons (2012)
a) Right to marry regardless of partner’s sex
b) Right to marry regardless of couple’s ability to jointly procreate

And that would really help seal “marriage equality for all.” Let’s stitch different precedents together and see who else can be included in marriage equality. Adding the Lawrence v. Texas (2003) Rights to homosexual sodomy and to privacy concerning “intimate, adult consensual conduct” to the right to not bear children that Griswold and Roe both protect, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to prohibit gay marriage. Adult couples can have any type of sex they want, and they don’t have to have kids if they don’t want to. What large swaths of society think about that behavior isn’t relevant to its legality.

“Marriage equality for all” should mean marriage equality for all, and under the precedents we’ve seen here, especially when bearing children isn’t required of any individual woman, that seems achievable. Say an 18 year old daughter is motherless and her father loves her very much. Society doesn’t approve of that, but there’s the right to privacy, isn’t there? And the chances of them having a genetically disabled child doesn’t apply if the daughter is allowed to control her own body and not have children if she doesn’t want.

But say the “retarded children” argument repulses enough powerful people to discard precedent in this case, so the father-daughter marriage is out of the question. Elsewhere, there’s a fatherless daughter who loves her mother very much. Under the precedents above, there’s no reason they can’t get married. Arguments about morality are really passé and two women can’t produce a child anyways, so there’s no worries about a higher chance of genetic disability.

Going back to the daughter and her father, say they didn’t get married because that would be gross and illegal, but they still had two children together. One is a genetically sound son, but he has a brother who is genetically disabled and requires expensive treatment. Well, their mom and dad were hauled off to jail for incest, and so normal brother and disabled brother are on their own. If gay marriage were legalized, could normal brother marry disabled brother under homosexual protections and put his brother on his health insurance as a spouse when he finds employment? There may not be another affordable way to care for his brother. But WTF is happening to marriage at this point and where did it all begin?

Definitions of words change. Happens all the time. And the process seems to more or less be democratic. But courts aren’t democratic and things get sticky when put in their hands. Clever interpretations by bright and motivated judges can have large impacts on society. Say the Eisenstadt precedent that prohibits discrimination based on marital status was broadened from access to contraceptives to an at large status. Like if the government couldn’t discriminate against a married person or unmarried person when it comes to marrying a third party — bigamy (at least) could be justified pretty easily.

The definition of marriage seems to be changing. Powerful interest groups contend that the essence of marriage is that it takes place between two people who love each other, and the number of parties involved is the essence, not their gender. Objectively, it could just as easily be the number of individuals involved that changes, and it seems no less radical. There’s historical precedent for polygamy just like there’s historical precedent for homosexuality, and, well, incest and cannibalism if you want to go there.

Marriage isn’t something that exists in nature — kind of like numbers — and whether you believe these things were created by God or by man, they still need definition and order to be useful. Some people are upset about changing the definition of “marriage,” but it’s even more astonishing that they’re changing the definition of “definition” to do it. “Definition” is something that is being dictated by courts and powerful interests, not by consensus, and the consequences of changing definitions are obscured while horrible insults are hurled at anyone who points them out. People can complain about the definition of “marriage” being changed against their own personal will, but that battle’s beginning to wind down, so it’s time to figure out what happened and strip the power of defining from the linguistic dictators who have seized it. Take back the definition of “definition” first, and be prepared for the next linguistic battle.


Posted June 25, 2011 by Wada in Uncategorized

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