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Not merely semantics

Culture | Changing words does not change reality

Issue: "Clinton: Final straw?," March 28, 1998

God, by his Word, created the universe. Congress, by its word, created a Great Lake. Today people think that by altering the language they are changing the reality. As a result, the way people think, argue, and behave has turned into a language game.

President Clinton signed into law a bill to establish the National Sea Grant Program, which would provide funding for oceanographic research into the vast freshwater sea that constitutes the five interconnected Great Lakes ("Test of greatness," March 14). In a typical pork-barrel tactic, whereby lawmakers manage to get a cut of the federal largess for their own states, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) inserted a line into the bill that would designate New England's Lake Champlain not merely a good lake but a "Great Lake" so that it too could get federal funding.

As someone who lives in Wisconsin, on the shores of mighty Lake Michigan, I join my fellow Midwesterners in being irked beyond belief, not so much at the pilfering of tax dollars but at the violation of traditional geography. Lake Champlain covers 490 square miles; the smallest of the real Great Lakes, Ontario, covers 7,430 square miles. If Lake Champlain, hundreds of miles away and totally unconnected to the Vast Inland Sea, were to be poured into the Great Lakes, it would scarcely raise the water level.

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But the issue is more serious than that. Twentieth-century philosophy has been dominated by the curious position that ideas, values, and truth-claims are "only words." From the linguistic analysis school of philosophy to the postmodernist critics, language is held to constitute thought. The objective truths and meanings that words refer to are thought to be inaccessible. We live in a "prison house of language," trapped in illusions of truth and cultural conventions that are nothing but words.

Thus, thinking is reduced to a language game. And whoever controls the language controls the way people think.

"Killing babies before they are born" sounds barbaric. "Abortion" is acceptable. And "the woman's right to choose" is downright unassailable. Not many people would advocate "killing sick people"; but the majority of Americans advocate "euthanasia."

The words people use to think about an issue will determine what they believe about it and, often, how they behave. Those whose vocabulary is shaped by the Bible-especially in its good old translations-will think about sexual sins in terms of "fornication," "adultery," and "sodomy." Those who think in terms of "having an affair" or "being gay" will have a different attitude about sexual morality.

Our discourse today is shaped by euphemism, finding nice-sounding words to name unpleasant facts. Tax increases are "revenue enhancements." Closing factories and putting people out of work is called "downsizing," or (in one I heard recently) "corporate transformation."

Many of our debates hinge on who wins the battle of the language. In other words, what will something be called? This has been especially evident in conflict between those who are anti-abortion-sorry, I mean "pro-life"-and those who are pro-abortion-that is to say, "pro-choice."

This is also why those who control the language-the media, book-writers, educators, and others who make their living with language-end up controlling the culture. The language we hear and pick up for our own use shapes our attitudes and our ideas. The new acceptance of homosexuality, the demonization of conservatives, and the triumph of feminism were all victories engineered by our language czars.

The late English author George Orwell was the best analyst of the manipulation of language, which he explored in his novel 1984 and in a pivotal essay, "Politics and the English Language." In writing about Nazi and Communist propaganda, he showed how the habits of language and of mind were also taking hold in England and America. To cut through the obfuscation that passes for public discourse today, he recommended thinking in concrete terms (picture, for example, what happens in an abortion) and demanding clear language, rather than abstract jargon.

The Bible projects a high view of language, that is, of God's language. God's Word, we are told, is truth (John 17:17). It is living and active, a means of grace (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The capacity for language is a sign of God's image, and violating language as is done today surely partakes of sin.

Christians would do well to take up what the rest of the world is casting aside, namely, cultivating good language. We need to enter the language-shaping vocations ourselves. In the meantime, let's refuse to play along with the rest of the world's language games. Perhaps we can shape the growing debates by avoiding the abstraction "euthanasia" and calling it instead "killing sick people."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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