Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Watch those adjectives and adverbs; in language, they tell us a lot about our "social capital"
One tip that they give writers in symposia (I went to a lot of them when I lived in Minneapolis) is not to overuse adjectives and, particularly, adverbs. It strikes me – I tweeted about this last night – that when referring to “previously normal” marriage (one with the physicality we used to expect) in a blog post on social policy (particularly when reacting to Rick Santorum) I have to use the adjective “heterosexual” or “traditional” when referring to “marriage” – to mean what it used to mean. Gay marriage has gotten far enough in the states and in the courts that now this is necessary for clarity. (Imagine the adverb use: “heterosexually married”.) I joked further about this last night: In French, it’s common to use adjectives this way (“la jeune fille” or “le petit dejeuner”) – never mind that in Romance languages, everything is either masculine or feminine. But, since English is a Germanic language (first), “neutrality” (“the” is like “das”) is an important concept, and it ought to be possible to just invent new nouns to handle a social issue like this.
So why is the “meaning” of the word “marriage” so important, to some people?
On the social issues debates, it seemed so straightforward 15 years ago to emphasize “personal responsibility” and “live and let live”. That was pretty much the approach in the first “Do Ask Do Tell” book. And, yes, “personal responsibility” came to include being able to provide for other people, and share risks. I called this (seven or so years ago) “paying your dues”.
But for marriage, in the 1990s, I thought that the key "political" concept ought to be, at least when looking for government benefits that others pay for, whether one has economic dependents. A “marriage” between two adults could be recognized when they have dependents (adopted or biological), including as yet unborn (no problem with providing it for pregnancy). The dependents could include elderly (parents) or other disabled adults. Such a policy might help families with “stay-at-home” parents (moms or dads) and put a little more incentive back into the economic system to support the old idea of the “family wage”.
But the Christian Right seems much more concerned with the social connectivity of people, and willingness to share the emotional risks of others, and accept others into one’s own sphere without so much insistence on personal choice (that is, “family first”). It’s concerned that people can maintain intensity in a relationship after unpredictable adversity as well as normal aging. So the Right has a theory (elaborated by the Vatican but not as clearly Biblical as the Right thinks) that if sexuality is confined to “heterosexual marriage” and always implies an openness to the “risk” or “responsibility for others” inherent in procreation, then the entire social fabric stays locally connected (“social capital” is maintained), and the world is, through this idea of subsidiarity, a fairer and more involved place, without so much need by supervision or handouts from Big Government. Unfortunately, you can’t carry out a theory like this without walling out a lot of people and treating them as potential enemies. “Caring” really applies only for those within the walled city of social capital. Remember the sin of Sodom – inhospitality.
While, in the past decade or so, “gay rights” has been debated in terms of “equality” (which doesn’t happen in “nature” anyway), in the more distant past it was hardly so abstract. In the early 1980s, police bar raids in Dallas would happen before every local “election”. I’ve written much about my own college expulsion and “treatment” in the early 60’s. At NIH, therapists weren’t concerned about my future ability to earn enough to provide for a “hypothetical” family; they were concerned about my level of and investment in “fantasy”, and about my lack of interest in matters (courtship of women) that could ever lead to babies and responsibility. I was not a threat to be a deadbeat dad, but maybe someday a deadbeat son.
So I became separated from “their” emotional world, standing alone, apart from it , then observing and reporting about it as if I were the “alien anthropologist”. I got pretty good at being different, while outwardly remaining "responsible". The world became more hospitable to "people like me". Since conformity was humiliating, I could always want to “step on their toes” and make “them” aware of their own “competitive” shortcomings. So, in recent years, sometimes, others tried to recruit me back into their world, away from my own independent purposes. I found that, without my own lineage, this would again become a humiliating proposition. And I could see that, standing alone, any loss I sustain is real, regardless if it is because of someone else's "fault" or indignation. I came full circle.
Our language has a hard time pinning down exactly what is happening.
(Note: because of some recent changes in Blogger with font propagation, I've had to convert some posts to larger fonts. This may become standard in the future.)