While it is tempting to be triumphal at success of the vote on equal marriage, I have some sympathy for some of the opponents. Not for the bigots of course – but while all bigots will oppose equal marriage, the converse isn’t true, and some opponents are genuinely unhappy at the idea of parliamentary vote to, as they see it, change the meaning of a word.
Now that may seem to many of us an odd thing to get upset about – although I would be quite unhappy if Parliament attempted to change the value of pi.
Behind this lies a philosophical difference in our use of language. To some words such as “marriage” or “chocolate” refer to a particular essence which is eternal and unchanging, and that human knowledge might form an encylopedia or dictionary where all the essences are listed and defined. If you muck about with the encyclopedia, you are just going to be wrong. The ratio of the circumference to the diameter will be unchanged and you will be perpetrating a deceit.
To others, things work the other way round. We make a delicious foodstuff out of cacao beans and we call it chocolate. That’s not the discovery of an essence, but of a recipe. Later somebody invents a horrible foodstuff using cacao butter and they call it white chocolate. It’s an obvious name for something that is like chocolate, but white. Nobody is really deceived more than once.
Creationists can get very bogged down disputing the concept of natural selection. What does “selection” really mean, they ask. Surely it means somebody is choosing, so in the case of life, that somebody is God. They are interpreting the word selection in an essentialist way, reading the entry for “selection” in the encyclopedia, and trying to understand the scientific concept of natural selection that doesn’t use the word selection that way.
What I’m saying here is that we invent names for things that we understand, using whatever analogies are to hand, and as our understanding evolves, the meanings rightly and inevitably accommodate our improved understanding, changing if necessary. The meaning of “natural selection” isn’t to be found looking up “natural” and “selection” – you read The Origin of Species, and you later use “natural selection” as a shorthand to describe the driving force of evolution that you have learned about. It’s an obvious name for something that is like selection, but natural.
It is not a coincidence that, generally, religious writing is essentialist and scientific writing is not. Religion is looking for the deep truth that lies under the surface; not how does it appear, but what is it really like? Science is adding new understanding all the time – about how things do appear and interact – and is constantly having to invent ways to describe it. Coin a scientific term, and what do you have to draw on but analogy? So planet, meaning wanderer, becomes the name for the stars that move across the background of fixed stars, which we later understood to be planets like our own.
To me it is natural, if I want a word to describe a committed intimate relationship between two people, to use the word marriage, because that’s what it means. Even if the dictionary were historically correct in saying “between a man and a woman”, it is still the closest word to the meaning I want. I and others will use it and the accepted meaning will change soon enough. This sort of thing happens all the time with other words. Whether I am literally correct or whether I am only using analogy is only a temporary question. Pretty soon marriage is between two people, and planets are planets not vagrants.
To the essentialist, this is terrifying. I am hiding the truth under another layer of misdirection, spreading ignorance and folly. Ultimately these are just two different ways of thinking, understanding and communicating. I think mine is much more effective, but others will say that theirs gives them access to a deeper kind of truth. This difference can make it hard for us to understand each other, and easy to think the worst.
Now I’d much rather not use the term civil partnership to mean something that is intended to be equivalent to marriage, but really only because it is such a clumsy term and the word marriage is perfectly adequate. But this follows from my preference to treat the question of what something is called as a practical one. The equal marriage debate is at heart – and aside from the importance of visible symbolic equality – between essentialists. That is between those who consider that straight and gay relationships are really the same or really different in essence, and that this reality must be reflected in our language. I don’t know much about essences, but I am happy to cheer on the struggle for equality when I see it.
* Joe Otten is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sheffield Central