By Definition


In the midst of a smarmy and crowing post on the Iona Institute website, David Quinn whines about “the worst of motives” being imputed to “those who believe that marriage is the sexual and emotional union of a man and a woman by definition”.

What does this mean, exactly?

Some people hold that the authoritative source for the definition of a word is a dictionary. If I select one of the words as I wrote this on my phone, the option ‘Define’ comes up, allowing me to consult an online dictionary. This is quite an arbitrary way of deciding things. In reality, words have no universal definition, and their meaning depends on the particular context in which they are spoken.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Where I come from, the word “boy” is often used as a form of address towards someone male who is considered an equal, rather like “mate” or “bud” in similar situations. Innocuous. But when uttered in the USA by a white person addressing a black man, it carries a heavy racist charge.

You can’t impose permanent limits -definitions- on what words mean, no matter how hard you try, because there is a potentially infinite range of contexts in which a word can be used.

The definition of words is never a matter of text handed down on stone tablets. For example, for many people in Ireland right now, the meaning of the word “homophobe” is now bound up with mental images of certain people. Right now it is harder than ever to say, “no, no, “homophobe” doesn’t mean people like that (refined and articulate media performers): it means violent and incoherent bigots with mouths flecked with spittle”.

You may be so concerned about what “homophobe” means that you can try and lay down the law on this. You can contact your legal team. They may establish an agreement with an entity that broadcast the use of the word with that particular meaning that it was wrong of it to do so. But that doesn’t mean you can control the meaning of the word. Quite the contrary, in fact. As we have seen.

You might write an article for the newspaper of respectable opinion saying “homophobe” is a horrible word, and should not be applied to respectable people, such as our parents or grandparents, or other People Like Us (including, presumably, the Iona Institute), in order to keep the word defined along the lines of what Rory O’Neill describes as a “horrible monster who goes around beating up gays.” But again, that doesn’t mean you can control what the word means.

I once had a flatmate who kept an aluminium baseball bat in his room. Other friends of his had been badly beaten up in vicious homophobic attacks, and this was his protection against anyone who might try doing the same to him. That’s homophobia there – right?  The thug who follows someone back to their home after they leave the pub, not the calm and reasonable man on the TV talking about the need for respectful democratic debate.

But wait. Where does the violent thug get his phobia from? Where does he get his ideas about what’s natural and unnatural? Where does he get his ideas about what’s normal and abnormal? Why does he find certain expressions -even suggestions– of sexuality so intolerable that they have to be violently repressed and punished?

It’s not as if, in Ireland, homosexuality were ever deemed illegal or considered a disease. It’s not as if the religious organisation that took charge of Ireland’s schools and hospitals, and exercised huge influence over public morality, ever taught that homosexuality was sinful, or deviant or intrinsically disordered, or that the family unit based on heterosexual marriage is the cornerstone of society.

It’s not as if such an organisation is still in charge of a large part of Ireland’s schools and hospitals. It’s not as if its most conservative figures have easy access to major media outlets in order to shape ideas about what is acceptable and what is not.

So: where could a violent thug get his ideas and impulses concerning homosexuality from, given that Irish society’s most powerful and influential institutions had nothing to do with it?

Do you see what’s happening here, then?

When you seek to fix the meaning of “homophobe”, so that it is applied only to violent thugs and not People Like Us, you are, in effect, hiding the social wellsprings of homophobia from view. You are hiding the way it is rooted in institutional practices that impose a sense of what is natural and normal, and as a consequence, establish homosexuality as something unnatural and abnormal.

In a plea for moderated language as a basis for democratic persuasion in Saturday’s Irish Times, Noel Whelan complains about people being “branded” as homophobes, calling to mind the image of a red hot iron being plunged into the person’s flesh, as if the victims of homophobic violence did not exist.

We might like to think otherwise, but definitions are not set in stone tablets sent from the top of the mountain. Even if they were set in stone tablets, people would still differ over their interpretation, and maybe don wigs to argue the point. Definitions -despite what the word suggests- are never definitive, never permanent, because that’s not how language works and it’s not how societies evolve.

The Iona Institute says it believes that “marriage is the sexual and emotional union of a man and woman by definition“. Leaving to one side the fact that there are many men and women in marriages that have precious little sexual or emotional union for years on end, the “by definition” here should give pause for thought: who does the defining? Is this definition handed down on stone tablets? Did it appear out of nowhere?

In this particular case, the implication is fairly clear: whoever is doing the defining, it sure as hell won’t be the gays (and as a committed democrat, I can speak without fear of contradiction when I say I’m not a homophobe etc etc).

Never mind. The inescapable reality for the Iona Institute is that people shape definitions and institutions, not vice versa. Or, as one person put it, in terms rather archaic now, Man is not made for the Sabbath.

In its apology to the Iona Institute, RTÉ stated “it is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues”, in terms presumably agreed in advance with the Iona Institute.

What these words tell us that it isn’t just a definition of marriage or homophobia that the Iona Institute seeks, but the power to enforce definitions that maintain proper order, including the definition of democracy.

According to the idea of democratic debate shared by RTÉ, the Iona Institute and Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan (and many other people), democratic debate doesn’t need to account for inequalities and prejudices enforced by dominant institutions.

It doesn’t need to account for the power to summon lawyers to threaten and prosecute.

It doesn’t need to account for the history of violence perpetrated against oppressed minorities and communities and the social wellsprings of such oppression.

It doesn’t need to account for conflicting interests and motives (‘it is also a very important part of democratic debate that individuals do not constantly have their motives and intentions called into question’)

It doesn’t need to account for the fact that calls for tolerance and respectful debate and liberal persuasion are a great deal easier in these parts when you are invited to speak up on behalf of the oppressive tendencies of the State, not against them.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled, says Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Similarly, the hardest forms of oppression to eradicate are the ones we aren’t even aware of because we are conditioned to see and experience them as part of the normal order of things: this is the way it is, and it can be no other way.

But there are always people behind the curtain doing the conditioning: drafting laws, lobbying, delivering lectures, applying penalties, threatening the force of the law, defining terms. And it’s never because God told them to, whatever they tell themselves.


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12 responses to “By Definition

  1. Reblogged this on Siobhan Schnittger and commented:
    This is a really well articulated post on the changing definitions of homophobia…

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  3. Éilis Ní Anluain


  4. This is wonderfully reasoned and written.

  5. Pingback: By Definition | Cunning Hired Knaves | critical media review

  6. Flemingway61

    Reblogged this on The Working Class Heroes and commented:
    A fantastic argument against the concept of homophobia. It also eloquently argues against the “definitions” of homophobia created by the state and it’s institutions.

  7. Orla-Jo Duill

    Reblogged this on Orla-Jo's Not Dead and commented:
    An Excellent discussion of the issues at hand with Iona’s legal actions.

  8. Grainne Keane.

    Well spoken words .

  9. This is really excellent Richard.

    It is worth bearing in mind that the law of defamation (which we can assume was what got RTÉ all panicky and profligate with our license fee) has never been too concerned with whether a particular offending term in a defamatory statement has a fixed meaning or definition. But I think RTÉ’s legal advice regarding possible civil liability was naive at best.

    Defamation (a legal norm that I would defend as having an important place in any legal framework seeking to engineer an inclusive democratic culture – please note this defence of defamation is based on it as a general concept, I wouldn’t for an instant defend how defamation operates in practice in this jurisdiction, which is typically as a useful tool for the rich and powerful to silence critics) is concerned with whether the statement itself lowers its target’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society.

    We can safely say, given the general furore over Rory O’Neill’s comments and subsequent censorship, that reasonable members of our society would consider being homophobic a bad thing. But that is not the end of the story with defamation. If the statement is true, then there is no defamation.

    For me, the issue of truth in this context isn’t problematic. The Iona Institute are, at the very least, arguing for discrimination against gay people in the context of marriage and adoption rights. The Iona Institute have made (what I consider spurious) arguments about whether or not this is really discrimination in a way that might offend equality provisions in our legal system. They say that their arguments are based on sound empirical evidence about the best interests of children. Luckily, discrimination is a concept that exists independently of those legal provisions, and encompasses a broader array of social interactions.

    So, whatever about the possibility of their lobbying aspirations violating Equality law, the Iona institute want to discriminate against gay people.

    Desiring discrimination against gay people can only really be described as homophobic – no other word exists to cover groups or activities intentionally seeking discrimination against gay people. In fact, there are plenty of dictionary definitions that include discrimination against gay people as homophobia. If the Iona Institute want to come up with a new term to reflect the nuances of their moral outlook in relation to gay people, they are free to begin campaigning. For now, the only adjective that accurately reflects their discriminatory endeavours is homophobic.

    But even ignoring this absence of defamation because of the reality of the Iona Institute’s advocacy and campaigning, as our national broadcaster, and the dominant player in Irish current affairs broadcasting, RTÉ is arguably obliged to test the legal limits of defamation in contexts such as this, so that the boundaries of inclusive and fair democratic debate can be clearly understood.

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