The Name Game

Most of us have had conversations with friends regarding the hot-button topics of abortion, same-sex unions, or euthanasia. Is there anyone who has not heard the justification, “Well, I just feel that . . .”? It reminds one of the lyrics from an old Elvis tune: “If it feels so right, how can it be wrong?”
The one unforgiveable sin today is to cause anyone to “feel bad” about what he or she is doing. The apparent assumption is that if people “feel” something is good, it is indeed good. What is missing from the public discussion is any appeal to rational thought. The emotive pleas for “compassion” remind one of Flannery O’ Connor’s dictum: “Compassion leads to the gas chambers.”
The goal of political engagement is no longer to encourage thoughtful examinations of particular matter of urgent concern to our society. How this group or that cause “feels” about an issue trumps any non-emotional analysis. Furthermore, we as a nation have been socially bludgeoned into pretending that ill consequences are brought by storks and are not the result of behaviors. It has become a national fiction that few challenge.
When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi insisted that $335 million of the stimulus package be allocated for the study of sexually transmitted diseases, no one responded with the truth: STDs are the result of promiscuous behavior. No one suggested that the $335 million would be better spent teaching abstinence and fidelity. How is this triumph of pretense over reason achieved? The trick is linguistic deception.
This week, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life made a similar observation about the manipulation of language. Archbishop Rino Fisichell, preparing for a conference on genetics and eugenics, warned:
As often happens, a subtle linguistic formalism coupled with good advertising supported by powerful economic interests makes [us] lose sight of the real underlying dangers, and tends to create a mentality that is no longer able to recognize the evil objective nor make a corresponding ethical judgment.
We can readily see how this works in the matter of abortion: The abortion industry has created a mentality that short-circuits ethical, rational judgment.
The essential intent of phrases such as “freedom of choice” or “compassionate death” is to deceive. When our language is engineered to hide the truth about the action it describes, it does so precisely because the truth is found to be too disconcerting. Those who seek to reset our cultural standards know that an emotionally comforting phrase must be found to substitute for a frank description of the actual act that is cloaked in soft language.
In “freedom of choice,” the baby has no choice; thus, the procedure is simply a “might makes right” move against an innocent being. No one speaks of abortion in straightforward terms: “This baby is inconvenient and I have the power to terminate it, so I will.” Once power is the premise, removing the infirm, the old, or the inconvenient is less difficult: The premise of might over right is established, and the culture grows comfortable with it.
Language shapes our understanding of reality by guiding our thoughts to elicit particular emotions. It is no accident that the phrase “perception is the reality” is a core component of Madison Avenue’s slick advertising campaigns. Cars may be pre-owned but never “used.” Such manipulation shields the listener from the unpalatable reality; he is eased past the truth by means of a deceptive sleight of hand.
The abortion industry cleverly employs these marketing tactics. Who can object to “freedom of choice” or “reproductive rights,” where the content of choice and rights is never spelled out? The emotional response is to the perception of a good thing — freedom of choice. The act that is committed under the deception that one is exercising a “choice” is then done in some measure of comfort — until reality overcomes the perception after the fact.
In his instructive little volume Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Josef Pieper states, “The abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word . . . so much so that the latent potential of the totalitarian poison can be ascertained, as it were, by observing the symptom of the public abuse of language.”
Our current political options in the battle for the culture may be few, but culture precedes public policy. We must name things for what they truly are. Refuse to participate in the fictions fed to the public. Refuse to screen a dreadful act behind emotive happy talk.
Prior to the recent election, a fundraiser called me to solicit funds to “protect a woman’s right to choose.” The call took an unexpected turn for the solicitor when I asked him, “Choose what?”
You know,” the caller said. “I don’t know,” I replied sweetly. “Choose what?”
“Well, you know, the right to, uh, to terminate.”
“Terminate? What is terminated?”
“The pregnancy,” said the caller.
“But a pregnancy means a baby. Do you actually mean to terminate a baby?”
Pieper warned that the general public “are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.” Our task as culture warriors must begin at the beginning: Name things for what they are.


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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