March 03, 2011

Playing the language game (on abortion)

By Andrew Haines *

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the differences between modern and not-modern thought. The popular reaction in many orthodox Catholic circles seems to be 1) that there are one or two big features that set these periods apart; and 2) that these words actually define “periods” in the first place.

The second of these inclinations turns out to be false. And so the first one must be wrong as well. Right?

If you’re not following, that’s okay. It’s part of the point. (If you are, then kudos!) Regardless of what we think of “modernity,” one thing is certain: We’ve gotten sloppy with the way we use words, and because of this we often fail to detect bad strains of logic until it’s too late. In short, we get routed into believing something because we’re led there; and we persist in believing it because figuring out why we believe it is too difficult a question for our tired minds. It’s the veritable plight of modern man – and incidentally, it’s why many are inclined to reject modernity while at the same time succumbing to its disastrous effects.

All of this is to say that language games aren’t child’s play. Take for instance this recent statement by Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, indicating that “abortion is generally safer than continuing a pregnancy to term.” You should be left shaking your head: What could have possibly gone so wrong as to permit this sentence to be meaningful? (And, in fact, so meaningful that it was found worthy of proclamation by the U.K.’s highest authority on women’s health.) What happened?

“Safe” has become the buzzword of the pro-abortion faction, both in America and around the world. “We’d rather have safe abortions than back-alley ones,” they say. “And when we say ‘safe’ we’re talking about the well-being of the woman getting the abortion.” The unspoken conclusion, of course, is that we’re doing no violence to reality by opting to use the word “safe” in the second, more politically charged way than in the broader way it would originally have been used – i.e., as pertaining to the safety of the pregnancy.

The second proposition is wrong; that is to say, restricting safety to the mother in a two-person game – pregnancy – isn’t a real option. And that makes the first part – namely, desiring safe abortions – wrong too. Right?

As it turns out, abusing language is abusing power. Josef Pieper, the great contemporary Catholic thinker, writes about this in a book of similar title. When we employ language so as to deceive and promote an agenda, we do an injustice to the integrity of others (an integrity that coincides with our capacity for seeking the truth). Violence against the truth in words – leading others who are genuinely desirous of it away from it – is immoral in itself (we call it lying); and it usually bespeaks a further, hidden immoral cause.

Still, the onus of making things right falls squarely on both sides. People are inclined to twist reality in order to make it align better with preconceived ideas. We know this; and we do it ourselves in one way or another. But knowing agendas and untruths are out there doesn’t give us license to throw in the towel – or perhaps worse, to give up on engaging people “where they are” and instead opting for the easier path. We see this all the time in the case of abortion, where waging a counterstrike on language is merely the game of “academics.” Sometimes we find it more amenable to concede defeat and move to a new battleground.

But we should be perfectly clear: Surrendering language is surrendering the thing that connects us most closely with the truth and with other people; and giving upon it is giving up the fight.

Socrates, the virtuous pagan of Athens, identified sophistry (i.e., the professional twisting of language) as one of the greatest ills to a healthy society; and he spent his life devoted to rooting it out in charity and conviction. He was put to death for it – put to death for defending the truth even before Christ came into the world to proclaim it. How much greater, then, is our responsibility to defend this truth? How much more do we owe our culture an account of the truth as one of the most basic civic virtues of a believing Christian?

We are all called to defend language, because nowadays defending language is defending life.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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