On Traditional Marriage: Where Charlie Went Wrong
Martin over The Atheist Experience chided a recent caller going by Charlie the Atheist Homophobe:
When he called Tracie and me two weeks ago, the burden of his argument was that the word homophobia has a colloquial meaning that has changed and evolved from its dictionary definition, so as to incorporate such things as “disgust” rather than strictly “irrational fear” (the meaning of “phobia” in a nutshell). Charlie was supportive of this evolution of homophobia’s meaning, of course. (source)
Then, Martin points out that it is inconsistent not to be supportive of the same evolution for marriage:
While homophobia gets to expand its meaning to include a variety of emotional states, marriage does not get to expand its meaning to include a variety of relationship commitments, including same-sex couples (even though the almighty dictionary says it can). And Charlie’s whole justification for opposing any expansion of marriage‘s definition is an appeal to tradition and consensus, the very things he thinks should be ignored in the case of homophobia.
It’s a pure double standard, of the sort that people who are smart enough to know better often hold, so as to convince themselves that an intellectually and morally offensive point of view is in fact intellectually and morally justified. But as Russell said, if the guy isn’t actually out to impinge on anyone’s rights, then his word games are just so much noise.
Martin is absolutely right. But, the essence of Charlie’s arguments hold, provided that he would have been more careful about phrasing himself. The evolution of the definition of “marriage” results from a group lobbying to change public opinion of homosexual union. That is perfectly legitimate. Why is that legitimate, but the redefinition of homophobia was not? Let’s explore the legitimacy of the “marriage” redefinition first, then see why the same is untrue of “homophobia.”
Let’s look at the civil rights movement as an example. Folks of color had an uphill battle when they first gained their freedom. Slowly, both activists and their supporters gained support and were able to pass Constitutional Amendments to eliminate slavery, discrimination of voting based on color or previous slave status, and to give women the right to vote.
These campaigns required a minority group to sway and influence the opinions of the majority. This sort of thing is permissible in a democracy such as our own, where freedom of speech and of the press are guaranteed and can be utilized effectively by motivated people to persuade the majority that their views are wrong. Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword (and not just so you can sign for packages that contain superscience gadgets to strike ninjas with lightning).
The redefinition of marriage by gay activists took a similar turn. They worked hard to persuade the general populace, and they successfully have most people of the opinion that marriage could be between any two people. There is nothing wrong with that; that is the privilege of having freedom of speech and of the press. Charlie would have been better off to concede this point.
Having so conceded, what would Charlie do next? He should demonstrate that the meaning of “homophobe” did not evolve at all. The meaning of that word was unilaterally co-opted by gay activists to mean anyone who argues against gay marriage, and is used skillfully as a rhetorical device to discredit opposition.
There is measured opposition against the redefinition of marriage, and not just from the religious. There is purely secular opposition as well. The gay activist should try to meet these challenges squarely and argue with his opponents rationally.
Now, is that what we see? Nope. To those who argue to keep the traditional definition of marriage in tact, the gay activist simply calls him a homophobe. This is a tactic to shut down dialogue and gain the emotional support of the audience. No one wants to be a homophobe. No one wants to be a bigot, either. And certainly no one wants to stand in the way of moral progress.
But, that’s how gay activists paint people like me who oppose gay marriage–as bigots, homophobes, and people who maliciously try to undermine the civil rights of others. Never is my religious opposition dealt with. Never is the purely secular opposition of others dealt with. We are dismissed as homophobes.
I posted on this issue before. Meanings of words evolve by common usage, and it is acceptable to petition the public to understand a term differently and thus change the common usage. Companies like Xerox did it so they wouldn’t lose their copyright; remember when people used to say, “Can you xerox this for me?” Now you can’t because Xerox successfully ran ads that taught the public it wasn’t good to use their company name as a verb. Now, you very seldom hear that.
But, let’s not disingenuously co-opt a loaded term and use it to strike down opposition to a particular viewpoint. Never did Martin strike the obvious redefinition of “homophobia” as incorrect, so we can conclude that he agrees those who oppose gay marriage are homophobes. Therefore, if Charlie had simply admitted that the definition of “marriage” evolved naturally through skillful public debate by gay activists while the definition of “homophobia” had been co-opted and used for emotional appeal, then he would have avoided charges of holding a blatant double standard.