I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, so my first understanding of bigotry was that it referred to a very large tree (“Hey, dat’s a big-a tree!”). Now, many years later, I know that it really means supporting traditional marriage. Like President Obama, I have “evolved.” I have advanced on the semantic spectrum from being ethnicized to being politicized. Who needs Noah Webster?
William A. Jacobson is an Associate Clinical Professor at the Cornell University Law School. The sesquipedalian title of the statement he posted on July 29, 2012 encapsulates its essence: “Most important legacy of Obama’s gay marriage switch was freeing Dems to play the ‘bigot card’.” Now, according to Jacobson, Democrats are free to accuse anyone and everyone who supports the traditional understanding of marriage as bigoted. Those who thus stand accused would be nearly everyone in history together with the vast majority of the living. Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, and the Ku Klux Klan would all be tarred by the same brush. And, since the accusers are also being accused of the same abnormality, the number of bigots is now virtually equal to the number of rational bipeds. This sweeping accusation, simply from a logical point of view, should be most disheartening to those who fancy themselves democrats.
The problem of labeling defenders of traditional marriage as “bigots” has reached near epidemic proportions. Various websites from The Ruth Institute (Aug. 5, 2012) to the Huffington Post (May 11, 2012) report how common this practice has become. Meanwhile, in the London Telegraph, Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, finds that the accusers are projecting their own bigotry onto the innocent: “People who oppose gay marriage are being treated like homophobes and bigots by those who call for tolerance.” He goes on to suggest that it seems that it is the accusers themselves who personify the venom they spew at their innocent targets.
Jimmy Akin, writing for the National Catholic Register (July 26, 2012) illustrates how easy it is to be called a bigot. In his case, it was simply because he dared to say that being against same-sex marriage does not mean that one is against people who have a same-sex orientation. Is one also a “bigot” for opposing marriage between a mother and her daughter? “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Can there ever be harmony in the modern Tower of Babel? The word “babble,” denoting noise or a confusion of different sounds, has its roots in the Biblical story. The Humpty Dumpties of the world are babblers, not builders.
We wonder whether language is still serviceable. “Never,” Aldous Huxley once remarked, “have misused words—those hideously efficient tools of all the tyrants, warmongers, persecutors and heresy hunters—been so widely and disastrously influential.” What would he say if he were alive today to observe the way words are currently misused? He would need to amp up his rhetoric considerably, even though amplification and communication do not necessarily go hand in hand.
The word “bigot” is now routinely used, not to convey meaning, but as a kind of verbal slap in the face, as an expletive rather than as an argument. It signals the end of discourse and an invitation to violence. Demonizing supporters of marriage between a man and a woman does not change minds or hearts; it simply terminates dialogue and welcomes vandalism and warfare.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, that quintessential American essayist, went so far as to suggest that bad rhetoric made bad men. He may be in good company. In Matthew 12:36 we read: “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” According to Confucius, “If language is incorrect, then what is said is not meant. If what is said is not meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.” Former United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld had this to say: “To misuse words is to show contempt for man. It undermines the bridges and poisons the wells. It causes Man to regress down the long path of his evolution.”
We will be judged for our words, as well as for our deeds. On second thought, the politicization of words (and consequently, thoughts) truly is regressive, bringing Homo sapiens back to the time when grunts preceded words, and violence antedated rational communication.
Now where did I put my Webster’s dictionary?
This column first appeared August 24, 2012 on HLIAmerica.org and is reprinted with permission.