Bench Memos

“Marriage”—A Question of Usage

A reader calls to my attention a tweet by libertarian legal commentator (and same-sex marriage proponent) Walter Olson that takes offense at my putting the word marry in quotation marks in a passage from point 3 of a recent post. Olson tweets:

Stay classy, @EdWhelanNRO: still using scare quotes around “marry”

Let me briefly explain why I think that Olson’s complaint is unfair and misguided (even apart from the fact that the particular passage he objects to involves competing state laws on whether a same-sex couple should in fact be regarded as “married” and thus would seem particularly to justify the quotation marks).

Olson and I have a substantive disagreement over what marriage, properly understood, is. Consistent with the understanding that nearly all humans have had throughout nearly all of human history, I regard male-female complementarity as intrinsic to marriage.

In setting forth my position, I don’t see how etiquette and civility require that I adopt Olson’s preferred usage. I don’t think that the word marriage can properly apply to a relationship between two persons of the same sex, just as I don’t think that a circle should be called a round square.* I understand why Olson, given his commitments, finds my substantive position deeply objectionable, but I don’t see how he can fairly have any separate objection to the manner in which I have stated my position.

But, Olson might be saying (I gather this is what he means by “still using”), the fact that the federal government and a number of states now recognize same-sex marriages somehow compels me to conform to a politically correct usage. If that’s what Olson means, I find it very odd that a libertarian would invoke government authority as the arbiter of what words are acceptable.

Lincoln famously asked how many legs a dog has if you count a tail as a leg. I don’t think that the answer is five, even if the government or most people were to say it is.

* Contrary to what Olson’s tweet would suggest, I have routinely used the term same-sex marriage (and, in the same-sex context, the term marry) without quotation marks. I have done so in part because I recognize that some readers may mistakenly believe that placing the term in quotation marks is intended to insult (rather than to signal a core substantive disagreement). I may need to reconsider that practice, as it tends to obscure that the term is best understood to be an oxymoron and it instead seems to bespeak a reality that I think is false. (If “round squares” had received as much favorable attention as same-sex marriage, I’d guess that many or most Americans wouldn’t understand that squares can’t be round.)


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