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The meaning of words.

"The only thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance."

The above statement is a verbatim quote that I heard on a talk radio show some time ago. I cannot recall the exact context. It might have been in regard to the Canadian Alliance during the 2000 federal election. The statement is of course self-contradictory and implodes upon itself under the slightest bit of critical examination. This statement is of the same ilk as "there are no absolutes," which in itself is an absolute statement, and therefore contradicts itself.

The point here is not to explore the domain of logic and reason in philosophical arguments, but rather to take a brief look at words and their definitions, the meaning that we attach to them, and how we interpret them in order to communicate with one another; words like "tolerate" and "marriage."

Sensible communication and reasoned debate depend upon accepted definitions of words. If we cannot engage in an intelligent debate using words that should have commonly accepted definitions and meanings, how are we ever supposed to arrive at any sensible conclusions that both parties agree to and understand on the same terms? The answer is that we cannot. Instead, we are subjected to the absurd level of word refinement as former president Bill Clinton used in trying to parse the word "is" in defence of his reprehensible sexual transgressions while in the White House.

A good example is the word mentioned in the first statement above, "tolerate." My dictionary defines the word thus: "to permit without protest or interference." There is nothing in this definition that indicates approval. As a parent, I tolerate or put up with a lot of indiscretions from my children, but this does not imply approbation. But these days, the definition of "tolerate" has changed to mean "approve." If I am intolerant of something--homosexual acts for example--then this is interpreted as being disapproving. To further muddle the issue, the distinction between action and being has been blurred. So, today, "intolerant" means disapproval of a person for what he or she is, not being just intolerant of that person's actions.

In all honesty, society by and large, for ill or good, has come to tolerate (by the traditional definition) the homosexual lifestyle as a result of Pierre Trudeau's famous statement regarding the state having no business in the bedrooms of the nation. But the changed definition of "tolerate" now involves that society must not only put up with the homosexual lifestyle, but also wholeheartedly embrace and approve of it as well. Even celebrate it in "gay pride" days and parades!

Which leads us to the recent and reckless push to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. Thoroughly sound and reasonable arguments against redefining this historic institution that has served society eminently well have been made in countless articles and columns. To add to these arguments, if the meaning of the word "marriage" can be so cavalierly discarded in order to meet the demands of a sexually charged political agenda, then sensible communication has been sacrificed to quell the vocal grumbling of a small minority in our society. And once this Pandora's box has been opened, where will it end? The precedent has now been set if the current redefinition of marriage is permitted to stand. What will stop any further redefinition to include other forms of unions, such as multiple partner relationships down the road, when representatives from this group stand up and declare themselves discriminated against under the Charter of Rights?

Simple conversations where somebody mentions that he or she is married will lose what was once their obvious interpretation and simplicity. Married to whom? A man? A woman? One of each? And if we start losing conventional and traditional definitions of common words, especially ones with a moral aspect, by what authority are we bound to understand and interpret them? In our modern age. I suspect there is no authority, for in today's value-oriented society, we are our own authority and this leads to chaos and confusion.

I think that this is what the same-sex marriage debate is really about: denial of external authority, any authority, but most especially divine authority.

Nick Burn is a computer statistician. He, his wife Karen and their three children live in Ottawa, ON.
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Author:Burn, Nick
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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