Friday, March 11, 2005

Redefining 'family'

Here's my question of the day: how come so many elements on the Christian Right are so worried about redefining various terms? We're told that the "homosexual agenda" is committed to "redefining 'family'". We need a Constitutional amendment to protect the definition of "marriage". Not the institution, the word. I don't get it. I mean, I think it's usually bad when people just make up new definitions of words. I just graded a pile of papers in which some students tried to defend a substantive view by redefining the terms until the string of words in question represented a tautology. This is bad philosophy, but it's hardly immoral, or a threat to civilization (except insofar as it's a threat to effective communication). In general, people are free to use words as they see fit. It helps if we're all speaking the same language, so it's usually not a good idea to grossly redefine our terms, but it's hardly a political issue to do so. If someone is using a term in the wrong way, then we should perhaps ask for clarification. If it's especially confusing, maybe we should hope he looks for a new word -- or maybe, if the revolutionary linguistic sentiment is strong, we should just be careful to make our own distinction between the old meaning and the new one. But instead, the Right rallies itself around a threat to a definition. Weird. I used to think that when they say they're concerned about protecting definitions, they were just not choosing their words clearly; that they don't really mean they were willing to stand up and fight for their preferred definition of a term in English. They say they're concerned about the definition of "marriage", but really they're just concerned about whether gay couples should be permitted to be thought of as committed, more or less the same way that married heterosexual couples are. This latter *is* a political issue, and a thing that I don't find confusing. I find worrying about the definition of a word to be confusing; I find worrying about whether society will think that it's ok to be in a gay relationship to be morally reprehensible, but not confusing. Insofar as I interpret views to minimize my own confusion, this made me lean toward the latter interpretation. But I've recently come across some evidence that this can't be right -- evidence that no, what they actually care about is a term of English. Check out this, from Focus on the Family's "Citizen-Link" email today:
The guide itself treats the classroom as a family, defining a family loosely as any group that is bound by love and caring for each other. Sometimes, pets and imaginary creatures are seen as family. That, while not specifically pro-gay, is cause for concern among pro-family analysts. "For parents who look closely at the teachers guide and DVD, it is apparent that this is yet another example of the kinds of materials intended to redefine the family," said Marc Fey, director of worldview outreach at Focus on the Family. "This curriculum has one objective — to redefine the traditional view of a family."
Apparently, they've reached the point where even metaphorical uses of the word 'family' are dangerous and/or offensive. I think that's just weird.

1 comment:

  1. They're right. Definitions are vitally important. I disagree with them about what the definitions should be, but I agree with them about the importance. When I was little, I watched countless episodes of Sesame Street that told me that families were people who loved each other. I credit Sesame Street with indoctrinating me in this notion, along with the ideas that cultural diversity is fascinating and learning about other cultures is fun, that every person is valuable and unique, that it's good to share and to cooperate, that asking questions is a good way to find things out, that you should turn off all electrical appliances when you leave the room so as to save electricity and not leave the water running so as to save water and not throw trash on the ground, and that washing your hands before you eat keeps icky germs away.

    Which is more about indoctrination of children than it is about redefinition of terms, but since children are apparently the only people in our society open to learning new things, if we're going to battle to change our definitions of things we're fighting over the children. What I'm saying is, I learned as a kid that family means love and caring and helping and sticking together. If you believe family means a mother, a father, and their two point five biological children, and any other kind of family threatens the bedrock of our society, then you're right to feel threatened by Sesame Street.