15 December 2016

Language and Opinion on Gay Marriage

The literary theorist Roland Barthes once provocatively remarked that language is fascist. In his mind, the given language is a tool imposed from above which prevents independent outside-the-box thought. To some extent I believe that this viewpoint has been widely disseminated throughout our culture such that we all believe in language as a tool of force. Do you want to control the culture? Control the language. Numerous Christian cultural pundits have used this idea to show how American culture has shifted so rapidly over the last decade toward an acceptance of gay marriage and other unbiblical ideas. The thought is that there is a “gay agenda” among the minority of the cultural elites, and that these elites have been using media in order to shift the way language is used to talk about these issues. After all, why have a debate about homosexuality and morality when it’s much easier to label opponents of gay marriage as bigots and homophobes? This top-down cultural control by leftist media elites is a popular narrative among certain groups of conservative Christians, and it even makes a good deal of sense. After all, it does seem that movies and T.V. shows seem to have a specific agenda to push, and it’s rarely a conservative one.

On the other hand, Umberto Eco, in his 1979 essay “Language, Power, and Force,” argues against the opinion of Barthes that “language is fascism” by showing that, while the given language does shape the way the speakers of that language are able to think and articulate their ideas, this force is not imposed in a top-down tyrannical way. Rather, using the book The Three Orders by French medievalist Georges Duby as an example, Eco shows that the force applied by language is often a grassroots flow of power imposed from below. He writes:

“The fact is that over a period of three centuries numerous evolutions of European society took place, and different alliances came into play: between the urban clergy and the feudal lords, to oppress the populace; between clergy and the populace to escape the pressure of the knights; between monks and feudal lords against the urban clergy; between urban clergy and national monarchies; between national monarchies and great monastic orders…The list could continue to infinity…

These relationships of strength, however, would remain purely aleatory if they were not disciplined by a power structure in which everyone is consentient and prepared to recognize himself as part of that structure. To this end, there intervenes rhetoric, the ordering and modelizing function of language, which with infinitesimal shifts of accent legitimizes certain relationships of strength and criminalize others. Ideology takes shape: The power born from it becomes truly a network of consensus, beginning from below, because the relationships of strength have been transformed into symbolic relationships.”[1]

By this model, the rhetoric that develops within a society is a result of competing forces within that society coming to a consensus and establishing a new normative way of speaking. Applying this to our cultural issues today, we have to consider whether the changes in language regarding issues such as gay marriage have been imposed from the top by liberal elites or whether they have arisen in the push and pull of competing forces in our increasingly secularized society. If the second is true, then the problem isn’t a power above that must be fought; the problem is cultural decay brought about by a rejection of God’s Word and a drifting away from the gospel. The solution then won’t be found primarily in attempting to control, counteract, or attack the media. The solution is the spread of the gospel on a grassroots level transforming the culture from the ground up, rather than the top down. Only then will the balance of forces competing for a voice in our society change and language shift in a more biblical direction.

[1] Umberto Eco, “Language, Power, and Force,” in Travels in Hyper Reality, translated by William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 246-247.

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