This post is, frankly, poorly thought-through. I feel like I’m reaching for something here. But I have been thinking a lot about recent Supreme Court decisions, Obergefell v. Hodges and King v. Burwell, and the vitriolic responses to the two majority decisions. And the re-definition of marriage. And the age of the earth. And language. Please bear with me.
It seems possible to me that one of the differences between liberals and conservatives may have to do with issues of language. Both sides use the same rhetorical devices; both sides love anecdotal evidence and slippery-slope arguments and straw men, though I do think conservatives like arguments from authority more than liberals do. But it’s more fundamental than that. What is language? How does it function? What do words mean? And so I ask myself this: is it possible that a defining characteristic of conservatism is the idea that there exists a one-to-one correlation between word and meaning, that words are fixed in their meaning, that a word or sentence or phrase means what it means, and not anything else? And that liberals understand language more fluidly?
Follow me here. In King v. Burwell, the plaintiffs insisted that a plain reading of a single sentence in the Affordable Care Act meant something specific. Here’s the ever-invaluable SCOTUSblog on the subject:
Seizing on language buried in the complex formula for calculating the subsidy amount, the plaintiffs argued that subsidies were available only for plans purchased on “an Exchange established by the State.
Justice Scalia’s dissent insisted that the word ‘State’ meant ‘state,’ one of the 50 states in the United States, not anything else. The majority’s interpretation of this passage, which made the the Secretary of Health and Human Services responsible for administering subsidies, led to Justice Scalia retorting “state means state. The Secretary of Heath and Human Services is not a state.” But as Nicholas Bagley of SCOTUSblog put it, the majority’s decision was “an enormous victory for common sense in statutory interpretation.” The point of the law was to make health care more widely available. The means to accomplish that was by using subsidies. So obviously Congress can’t have meant to provide subsidies only for people who purchased health insurance on a state exchange. Congress can’t have intended, for some odd reason, not to make them available to people who were insured through a federal exchange. In context, the phrase ‘established by the state’ has to have meant something other than ‘through a state exchange.’ ‘State’ can, for example, mean ‘nation.’ Justice Roberts’ decision quite properly chided Congress for ‘inartful drafting.’ But context matters. Unpacking the meaning of a phrase has to take into account many factors.
That’s exhibit A. On to marriage equality. One of the main objections to Obergefell by conservatives is that the Court majority (‘five unelected lawyers’) ended up ‘redefining marriage.’ And that’s certainly what it did. What I can’t figure out is why it matters. Marriage has been legally redefined many times, and usually for the better, in the direction of greater equality.
More to the point, though, is this: marriages are defined by married couples. My marriage is defined by many factors. We’ve been together for 34 years; we have long-standing habits and traditions which we rely on. We’re both pretty funny, and humor is an important part of our marriage. I like to cook more than she does. She’s more likely to think of ways to redecorate our home. I can think of a million other compromises that define who we are.
There’s a family down the street where the wife is an accomplished cyclist. They define their marriage, in part, by supporting her cycling career and the various races in which she participates. Another couple who used to live across the street, the husband played golf competitively. So that, in part, defined their marriage. His golfing had no effect whatever on my marriage, nor did it impact the cycling family’s marriage. My son and his wife define their marriage, in part, by trying new things all the time. Like, there was an airshow in their community; they went to see it. They attended a college hockey game. They went to a bluegrass festival. They like that; they enjoy being adventurous. I think that’s awesome. It also doesn’t have any effect on anyone but them.
Reading the ‘redefining marriage’ rhetoric, it sounds as though people believe that the word ‘marriage’ is only defined one way, and that defining it other ways will, I don’t know, open up some massive cosmic rift, destroying our society. Words have meaning, and words have power, but language is much more fluid than we tend to think.
Going on. Why do some Mormons believe that the earth is 6000 years old? Here’s why: Doctrine and Covenants, 77: 6-7:
Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence. Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed? A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.
Joseph Fielding Smith took this to mean that that earth is exactly 6000 years old, and that any understanding to the contrary was apostate. Elder Bruce R. McConkie thought so too. But nobody really thinks that anymore, I don’t think. I mean, even apologetic groups admit that the phrase ‘a thousand years’ could mean exactly 1000 years, or it could, and probably did, mean ‘a really really long time.’ Again, we see a situation where well known conservative advocates insist on a literal understanding of certain words or phrases. And liberals think language is more about context and shifting meanings.
A dictionary is not, you know, prescriptive. It has no force of law. It’s a monument to the state of the language in the era in which it was compiled. And the marvelous flexibility of English can be found in the inventiveness and imagination of its users. Word.