Really, how important are the words we use? Here’s what Jesus tells us in Matthew 12:36 & 37:
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
George Orwell’s fine essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946), attacks pretentious language. It also undresses political language: “In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” He despises words that conceal a harsh, ugly reality: “Inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.”
Orwell puts his finger on an aspect of language that you and I use. “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
In his novel 1984 Orwell introduces us to Big Brother and Newspeak. When I read the book half a century ago or so, I got a good laugh out of the phrase, “War is Peace.” But it stopped being funny when our government began referring to soldiers in combat as “peacekeepers.” When the news media picked it up, I knew we were moving into an Orwellian era.
Sadly, Big Brother and his disciples are running rampant today. Maybe I can do nothing about matters like “tax reforms” that rob the American worker. But I can stop calling tax schemes “reforms.” I won’t even accept the label “Fair Tax” until it becomes clear to me that it is not regressive. As soon as you call it a “Fair Tax,” you have become its advocate. Don’t think I’m against this particular tax plan: I just won’t call it by a name that removes it from the field of legitimate political argument. Am I against the Fair Tax? Have I stopped beating my mother?
Here’s a pair of words I will NOT accept: homophobe and homophobic. While I neither hate nor fear homosexual persons, I despise the homosexual sex acts.
So what can we do? What can I do?
I have decided to employ the following tactics: Whenever someone uses one of these words, I politely say, “Excuse me, but when you say ‘homophobe’ are you denoting a person who hates and fears homosexuals, or are you condemning any person who is disgusted by buggery and such?”
Buggery is carefully chosen. It is the technically correct term for one type of sodomy. Most persons who do not practice it are revolted by it. It is an ugly word, for an ugly practice. I use this particular word to strip the mask of respectability from the deed, and to repudiate the implication that there is something severely wrong with persons who object to it. I am against murder; does that make me a murdererphobe?
I use the same technique on other words that are pejorative against what I believe, and words laudatory of what I know is wrong.
In discussions of abortion, when I hear the term fetus, I POLITELY ask, “Do you mean any unborn baby, or just the unborn babies eight weeks or more after conception?”
When someone suggests that there is no God, I politely ask, “Is this the result of studies and experimentation, or is it an article of faith?”
About ten years ago, I was sandbagged by the word “fundamentalist.” One sandbagging was enough. In response to an inclusive use of the word, I ask (politely, of course), “Do you mean a fundamentalist Christian who loves everybody, or a fundamentalist Muslim who tries to kill everybody?”
It’s widely understood that if you play a game by your opponent’s rules, the opponent will win. Just as surely, if you speak with the opponent’s vocabulary, the opponent has already won. If you show that you are angry, your opponent will happily feel confirmed in the belief that you are a Neanderthal. It’s better for us to understand how to take the high ground politely.
Any of us can do what I’m doing. As a contributor to Catholic Lane, I presume that my reader opposes abortion, homosexual practices, and, for example, the secular humanism that would confine Christians to church buildings. But there are some concepts, and their vocabulary, about which you and I may not see eye-to-eye. Here are some of the words I don’t like, but you might. Most of them have become pretty much meaningless as technical terms; they are labels used to elicit approval – or disapproval – from the audience: liberal, conservative, moderate, progressive,, etc. These words once denoted something, but they have become victims of semantical hijacking.
A century ago, one of my heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, was a Progressive. In fact, when he ran as a third party candidate, that party, though popularly called the Bull Moose party, was officially the Progressive Party. But the word has been hijacked, imprisoned, tortured. Now, when I hear the term used by someone whose political ideals run counter to mine, I ask, “When you say ‘PROGRESSIVE’ do you mean SOCIALIST, COMMUNIST, or simply FASCIST?” Mea culpa. I guess I’m not being nice.
But the overriding fact here is that God loves all of us, including the bad guys, so much that he sent his only begotten Son to save as many as would receive him. Saint Paul reminds us (Romans 5:10), that you and I were once enemies of God, but he reconciled us to himself “through the death of his Son.” Some of the persons I challenge with questions have already been reconciled to God through Jesus’ blood. Those who remain unwilling may yet come to him; and it would be wrong for us to lose that hope. But at the same time we must be on guard lest our thoughts become corrupted by accepting or employing the Great Deceiver’s language.