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Martin O’Malley and magical words

March 23, 2015

I know little of Martin O’Malley beyond that he is a Democrat, was governor of Maryland, and detects (along with the rest of America) blood in the waters of Clinton Sea. None of which interests me. What does interest me about O’Malley is his apparent belief in the magical power of words.

To judge from this clip, if O’Malley bestows a word on something, that something apparently becomes the word he bestows on it. For example, if O’Malley calls “unjust” laws that recognize as marriage only the union of a man and woman—then, presto! such laws are “unjust”. If O’Malley calls “marriage” the civilly-sanctioned union of two persons of the same sex—then, presto! such unions are “marriages”. Pretty cool things, these magical words.

Unfortunately lost on O’Malley is, it seems, a fundamental maxim of human discourse, namely, Quod gratis asseritur gratis negatur, that is, a mere assertion warrants no assent, or, one’s claim about this point or that warrants no agreement from others in the absence of evidence for one’s claim, and evidence, in turn, requires facts and reason—two commodities in very short supply these days.

And supposin’ someone does offer compelling facts and reasons in support of the civil law’s recognition of marriage only between persons of the opposite sex, what then? Not a problem, just use some more magical words against them: label them bigots or homophobes (a word whose etymology I am still trying to parse) or as blocking human progress—and presto, they are bigots or homophobes or are blocking human progress, and can be safely ignored. Not, mind, that O’Malley uses such abrasive language himself (not in the clip or two I’ve seen). He’s too carefully crafted cool for that. But plenty of others do.

Now, truth to tell, I know two more things about O’Malley, two things that prompted me to comment on him instead of on the legion of others who apparently think words have magical powers: O’Malley is a lawyer and he’s a Catholic. As am I. As lawyers and Catholics, O’Malley and I know that there are indeed certain times when the recitation of words brings about a reality that was not there before the words were spoken: a duly elected citizen becomes president upon recitation of the oath of office, bread and wine become the Eucharist upon the priest’s recitation of the words of consecration.

But precisely because, as a lawyer and as a Catholic, O’Malley knows that words sometimes do bring about new reality—not a magical one, to be sure, but an actual one nevertheless—he, of all people, should be even more cautious about acting as if his words, or any one else’s, necessarily create realities simply because he, or anyone else, speaks them.

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