Semantics and Homosexuality

Homosexuality is the most pressing social issue of our time.  Whether or not it should be is open for debate, but as far as public attention goes, the debates surrounding homosexuality and society get the most play.

The conversation around this issue has been so charged that the task of getting to the bottom of what both sides are attempting to communicate is a daunting one. The underlying struggle of the whole debate actually comes down definition of terms. Both sides of this issue will say different things using the same terminology and then debate right past each other. Language itself is critical in the whole debate, and in the end whoever gets to define the terms wins the debate and determines the public perception. When someone says “it’s just semantics” and writes off ‘semantics’ as a mere secondary thing to the debate they have already lost, regardless of what side they are on.  Semantics are at the heart of every debate, and it is semantics that will form the collective conscience of the society. This is true for any public discourse, not just debate around homosexuality. In the gun control debate for instance, the old line “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is merely semantics nothing more, but it is the heartbeat of the debate. If that statement is collectively agreed upon by society, those who argue against guns have a huge uphill battle to fight in the public eye. Semantics are the heartbeat of every debate, and again I reiterate, that whoever successfully defines the terms of a public discourse will always be the primary drivers of policy.

In the abortion debate it is probably more obvious than anywhere else.  We might ask the question: “After conception what is growing in the mother’s womb?” Seems to be a fair enough question, but even that question itself assumes an anti-abortion position by calling the impregnated woman a “mother”.  Before the debate even begins as to whether it is a fetus, child, embryonic tissue, or whatever you may choose to call it, the woman carrying it has already been called ‘mother’ in the question, which of course presumes that what she has been impregnated with is a child. My adamant position against abortion is beside my main point, which is that semantics matter.

Now regardless of your position on gay marriage, or the morality of homosexuality as a ‘state of being’ or ‘homosex’ as an action, you are not equipped to even navigate your way honestly through either side’s position without first giving notice to the semantics involved.

Let’s take the most obvious term, ‘homosexual’. Believe it or not, this is not a term that’s definition is universally agreed upon, not even close.  Some would say a ‘homosexual’ is a person who engages in sex acts with a person or persons of the same gender. If that is the definition then there is no such thing as a celibate homosexual because the term is defined by the act itself.  Others would say it is a person naturally disposed toward engaging in same sex acts with a person of the same gender.  Notice that this is a drastically different definition. In the first definition the term is based on an action, in the second definition it is based on a disposition toward an action. Another definition might be that it is simply some intrinsic characteristic of person that affects far more than mere sexuality and that the term ‘homosexual’ really has nothing to do with the physical acts of ‘sex’ at all.  Again, this definition which is also popular (maybe the most popular) is drastically different than the first two. In this third definition you could, in theory, have a homosexual who is content in a happy and functional ‘heterosexual’ marriage.  The point is that it is impossible to have a discussion around this issue if you have no idea what definition of ‘homosexual’ your discussion partner is operating with. Truth be told I am sure there are countless other definitions people are operating from that I haven’t even considered.

Marriage is another term that a lot of battle has been done around. There is the simple definition that many will work from that marriage is the coming together of a man and woman as a family unit.  With that definition it really does not matter what legislation is passed, there is no such thing as same sex marriage because of a conflict of terms. Of course there are other definitions of marriage that abound, namely that marriage is the union of two persons in a committed monogamous legally certified union. With this position the battle for gay marriage is one of legalization. Those holding this position would say that the only thing that stops gays from being married is a legal barrier, and that if that barrier is dropped then same sex marriage is validated. Other views deny the legal side altogether, and say that gay marriage has been going on for a long time and the only battle left to fight is getting the already existing and future gay marriages to have legal protection. Of course there are other views as well and society is divided. The case can be made both for and against polygamous marriage, but the question must be raised whether or not the wives of polygamy are actually ‘wives’. It depends on the semantics. I do not bring up polygamy to try to lump it into the debate around homosexual marriage, not at all, I only bring it up to say that there are debates surrounding the word 'marriage' that go back even further than our current one. There are many other facets beyond heterosexual, homosexual, and polygamous to the definition of the word marriage.

The very act of sex itself needs to have a clear definition as well. We all remember the whole “what is is?” debacle during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. At what point is something ‘sexual’? It is an important debate to have. Certain practices which are culturally normal in other parts of the world would be seen as sexual in here in Northwest Ohio, and I am sure that is a two way street.

Love itself might be the hardest of words to define, but it plays into the debate as well. I love men. That is a true enough statement coming from my fingers to this screen. However in the context of this debate what could those three words mean? It’s hard to tell. It could mean that I love men exclusively, or love them sexually, or that there are some men like my son and my father that I love, or that I love humankind in general. The ambiguity of any statement regarding love is alarming.  As is the ambiguity of terms like ‘homosexuality’ ‘marriage’ or ‘sex’.

If you actually want to engage anyone in this debate, you owe it to them to at least define the terms you are working with, and you really should go an extra step and try to understand the terms they are working with.  Otherwise you just continually talk past each other, and whoever ends up on the wrong side of the war of semantics will just look like an unloving, or immoral fool in the end. In truth we are all both, but the odds are that you would see the people you debate with in a different light if you understood their terms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post