Part 4: Why Does a Word Matter?

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by James Goldberg

This essay is the fourth in a series about Gay Marriage and Proposition 8.

Passing prop 8 trashed rightsIt is difficult to estimate just how much human energy, in the forms of volunteer man hours and donated money, went into the campaigns for and against California’s Proposition 8 — all in a conflict over a single word. Considering the energy spent at the time and the bitterness that has festered since, it’s easy to wonder: what could possibly make a single word worth arguing over? Why can’t Proposition 8 supporters just let each couple make their own decision about what marriage means? And why were Proposition 8 opponents so set on having the word marriage describe their relationship when they already had domestic partnerships?

To understand why the word marriage might mean so much, it may be helpful to examine the name of another significant social institution. Let’s consider the word college to explore just what the power of a word is. Why might someone feel deeply invested in changing or maintaining the system for classifying what makes a college?

It seems to me that the word college plays three overlapping roles:

1) The most obvious reason the word college might become a battleground is that it affects one’s relationship with the government. The government gives grants and loans to student. They tax and regulate colleges differently than other enterprises. Etc.

2) In addition to having legal meaning, the word college has significant social meaning. In most of American society, college matters a great deal. The word is tied up in the social expectations of parents, the judgments of business owners, the aspirations of young people. Etc.

3) The word college serves as a shorthand to unite many different purposes and expectations into a single institution. The word matters precisely because it’s difficult to define just what college is about and why the government and society value it so much. Is college a place where advanced education happens or a process by which people learn certain skills and concepts? Is it a place where people gather to network and exchange ideas before going on to careers or an institution where scholars come together with each other and with the next generation? Maybe it’s a rite of passage into middle-class society or a system for funding research and keeping young people off the streets. The word college has power precisely because it has accumulated different functions and meanings gradually over a long period of time.

Barnard College, 1913 (LOC)

Now, let’s imagine a controversy over the word college. Perhaps a group drafts a college equivalency test and lobbies the government to give recognition to the test and to open up college grant funding to online prep courses. If college is about education, they might argue, shouldn’t we acknowledge new media models for getting educated?

I don’t mean to make this a direct parallel to marriage debates today, but I do hope that imagining the debate over such a proposal might shed light on why people might care deeply about a single word.

To some people, this proposal would represent significant progress: why should the core educational purposes of college still be tied up in old notions of centralized physical place when technology has altered our relationship to space so much?

To others, such a change would be disastrous. They might object that decentralized online classes are untested in quality. They might argue physical colleges are more community-centered while online coursework is more individual-centered.

Especially if there’s pre-existing tension in this debate between traditionalists (who have been turning up their noses at every online innovation from Wikipedia to Facebook to online journals for years) and new media enthusiasts (who have been lashing out against the slow pace of change in college bureaucracy for years), such debates might quickly turn bitter.

New media advocates might dismiss the online classes are untested in quality argument as simple bias and point out that plenty of courses in traditional college are dismal failures in terms of actual learning produced. Traditionalists might shoot back that if we’re going to fund students who take online classes, why not give money to young people to study recreation management by spending a weekend at Disneyland?

For both sides, the debate will matter initially because our definition of college will really have legal, financial, and social ramifications. It will change our norms and values in ways that may prove subtle or significant. As the debate becomes more heated, it will also matter as a contest between two groups. New media enthusiasts will feel that their visions for a freer, more interactive world are at stake. Educational traditionalists may begin to associate the debate over college with the same feeling of disorientation they felt when their students started using texting acronyms in their everyday speech.

Beneath all these strong and complicated feelings, though, and beneath all the back-and-forth accusations, there’s the potential for an undercurrent of discussion that takes seriously the question of just what a college is supposed to be and what the consequences of any shift in the definition of college might be. Most Americans can agree that college matters. Most Americans can agree that the definition and purposes of college shift and change over time. But none of us can articulate clearly and concisely off the top of his or her head just what college really is.

The word marriage matters because it has legal and social weight, but perhaps most of all, it matters because it’s so hard to pin down exactly what it means.

Read the 6-part series

About James Goldberg

James Goldberg's family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle. Goldberg co-edits the Everyday Mormon Writer literary website, teaches composition and creative writing courses at BYU, and blogs at Mormon Midrashim. His debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, was published in September 2012.

One Response to Part 4: Why Does a Word Matter?

  1. Paul says:

    “The word marriage matters because it has legal and social weight, but perhaps most of all, it matters because it’s so hard to pin down exactly what it means.”

    In part, at least, because it means different things to different people. To covenantal people, it is more than a legal arrangement.

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