The Meaning of Words

by Paul Mero

Last year, Sutherland Institute hosted a public debate at Thanksgiving Point on immigration. The room was large, filled almost to capacity seating with more than 700 people, and raucous. The air in the room was electric. Opposing teams were filled with heavy hitters in the debate. My role was “the closer.” By the time I stood to share my prepared remarks the crowd was heated, loud and disruptive. I knew that what I was about to say wouldn’t calm them down. In fact, I knew it would inflame them.

I second-guessed myself momentarily, thinking I ought to bag the prepared remarks and adapt my comments to the mood of the crowd. But no, sometimes the toughest words are the best – as long as the words are truthful and delivered with a constructive spirit. Of course, those qualities are always up for debate. In the end, I said what needed to be said in front of those who needed to hear it.

The topic of homosexuality in law and policy requires the same directness and clarity, in my opinion. Sutherland Institute has published extensively on the subject. Sutherland staff members have spoken extensively on the subject. And in every case we’re conscious of and, perhaps surprising to some, sensitive about the words we use.

The push for non-discrimination ordinances in Utah is a case in point. Sutherland’s opposition to those ordinances centers on specific words – “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and “perceived as.”

Words have meaning. Sexual orientation has a tangible meaning under the law, or it doesn’t. The same goes for gender identity. Sexual orientation cannot have a circular meaning, as defined in these non-discrimination ordinances, and still have tangible meaning. We cannot say, “It means what it means.” We cannot reasonably say that sexual orientation means homosexuality, for instance, unless we then define homosexuality (which the ordinances do not do).

It is no coincidence, or bit of irony, that sexual orientation (let alone gender identity) is touted mostly as feelings and attractions. Both concepts are subjective and vague. Sutherland has argued that such definitions cannot possibly be argued satisfactorily in a court of law – and, when someone is accused of violating someone’s feelings or attractions as the ordinances permit, those accusations are impossible to defend against, except maybe to say, “Nuh-uh!” Add the “perceived as” language and we have created unequal rights in the name of equal rights – giving ever more credibility to the position that “gay rights” are simply special rights not afforded other human beings.

The meaning of words can unite or divide people. We know that specific usage of words can bring people together or drive them apart. But we don’t give enough attention to how the meaning behind the words can have the same effect.

At a memorable debate at the University of Utah between Sutherland Institute and Equality Utah nearly three years ago – part of which was subsequently memorialized in the movie 8: The Mormon Proposition – I stated that I couldn’t see any common ground to be found between our two sides. Not because I didn’t want to find common ground, but just because both sides were looking at the same thing and seeing it differently. Both sides can see homosexuality. From Sutherland’s legal and policy perspective, our side necessarily sees homosexuality as sexual behavior, a tangible “measurement” of identity. From a personal vantage point, the other side sees feelings and attractions more than behavior. As opinions go, to each his own. But as laws are made, both sides find themselves unavoidably separated by the meanings behind the words.

The war of public opinion in Utah demonstrates this point. When public opinion polls survey Utahns about homosexuality-related topics, sentiments swing one way or the other based on the words used to form the questions. Words such as “gay” or “sexual orientation” or “discrimination” or “equality” prompt sympathy. Words such as “homosexual” or “sexual behavior” or “special privileges” prompt antipathy in these surveys. There are specific meanings underlying these words.

This reality is precisely why advocates of homosexuality push for tolerance (which also has multiple meanings, it seems) and what some of us refer to as “politically correct” language – and why “nice” people tend to embrace such appeals. Who wants to be unnecessarily unkind?

Certainly no one associated with Sutherland Institute wants to be unkind to anyone. Surely our reasonable efforts in the immigration battle have demonstrated that. In fact, at the immigration debate previously mentioned, I shared these remarks:

“Justice is most often served when we leave people with some hope. People without hope can become desperate and will resort to anything to survive. Undocumented immigrants might have come to Utah in desperation, but we shouldn’t want them to remain desperate while they’re here. Take their hope away, especially in a punitive manner, and we’ll see many more problems before we ever see any lasting solutions.”

I understand that for many people inside and outside of homosexuality, hope is more than important – it is essential. Sutherland’s efforts to address these issues legislatively, whether proactively or reactively, focus on what it means to be a human being, the meaning of freedom and a free society and, last but not least, the meaning of family.

Words have meaning because life has meaning – and this is why hope matters at all to human beings. Truth undergirds it all. Pontius Pilate is infamous for the cynical question to Jesus, “What is truth?” as if truth were nonexistent or meaningless. If Utah is to come to unity on issues of homosexuality and “gay rights,” we should seek truth or, at the very least, agree on the importance of the meanings behind the words we seek to memorialize into law.

Paul Mero is president of Sutherland Institute.


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