I’ve been thinking over on of the comments on the last post and it’s taken me back to some of my earlier discussions of language. It’s seems clear to me that the words we use matter a great deal. Sometimes we think we disagree (I mean this as a general observation, not related to a specific discussion) because we might be using the same word to mean slightly different things or different words to mean the same thing. Sometimes it takes quite a while to figure out exactly what we disagree about.
Part of the problem is that many of the words we use have layers of meaning some of which are necessarily imprecise. Think of “family” for instance. I sometimes use family to mean my immediate household but other times I use it to mean a much wider array of kin. I know what people mean when they say ‘are you planning to start a family,” too, even though that’s not a phrase I use.
It’s easy to see how this can lead to dispute. Suppose a business offers “family memberships.” Who’s included? My (theoretical, because I am an only child) adult sister? My parents? Would it matter if my parents lived with me? My kids? My kids only if they are under a certain age?
There’s a second issue besides clarity, however. Language has power. The language that is used helps to shape our understanding of the world. So when a lesbian couple is raising a child together, the assertion “this child has two mothers” is a meaningful one. Equally, it might be important to say “this child does not have a father.” This is not a denial of biological reality–it’s a statement about the structure of the family involved.
This brings me to the problem with talking about mother/father/parent. Some people are going to look at that statement–“this child does not have a father”–and want to argue. Would it be satisfactory to rephrase that as “this child does not have a social father?” I think that many people who would make the statement in the first place would find that an unacceptable substitute. That’s because the word “father”–like the word “mother” and maybe even “parent”–has content even when it is modified by “biological,” “social,” “legal,” or whatever.
I am sympathetic to this concern and so have tended towards terms like progenitor instead of biological father. That’s what I’ve talked about in the past.
All of this leads me to another language problem I’ve been thinking about recently, one related to the word “real.” I’m beginning to think it is an entirely unhelpful modifier. What it generally does is to diminish the importance of whatever the “real” thing is being compared to. So when someone says “but X is the real father” there’s almost always someone else around–Y, say–whose status is diminished by this move. This is also why two parent lesbian families find it problematic when someone asks “who’s the real mother?”–as though one of them were not real.
I’m fairly sure I’ve used the word “real” in this way myself in the blog, but I think I’m going to try to stop doing it. I don’t see that the word adds useful content. It’s just a subtle way of advancing an argument that ought to be out in the open.