The Underground Thomist
Politics and Language, Revisited
Roe may have been overturned, but abortion is still with us, and language is endlessly manipulable. In homage to George Orwell, here are a few more words, phrases, and idioms for the Newspeak Dictionary. The long-delayed Eleventh Edition is still in preparation.
Reproductive rights. One would think a reproductive right protected the ability to have a child whom other people didn’t want you to have. However, abortion is about being able to do away with a child that other people want to save. Properly speaking, it is an anti-reproductive right. The expression “reproductive rights” is a way to support killing babies, and yet get the good vibes associated with having them.
Pro-choice. Abortion is pro-choice in the same sense that the antebellum politicians who wanted the states to be able to allow slavery were pro-choice. It is “pro” a particular choice by particular people. The slave had no choice about enslavement; neither did the people who wanted to free him. The baby has no choice about abortion; neither do the people who want to save him.
It’s my body. The Romans used to say something like this too. A father could kill his children at any age because they were considered parts or extensions of his body. Of course, children are parts of us in the sense that we cannot separate our well-being from theirs – but they are not parts of us in the material sense, like fingernails we throw away. Biologically the baby is not a part of the woman’s body, but a separate individual inside her body, entrusted to the closest of all possible care.
It's not my business. Pontius Pilate said something similar when he washed his hands before the crowd and said “I am innocent of the blood of this innocent man.” He meant “Don’t blame me – I’m not killing Him – I’m only giving other people the authority to kill him.” We make the same excuse when we authorize abortion.
I’m not going to tell anyone else what to do. True, we shouldn’t butt into other people’s personal business. But killing other people isn’t anyone’s personal business, and stopping them from doing so isn’t butting in.
By the way, would you say “I’m not going to tell anyone else what to do” if the question were whether parents may kill their newborns? I hope you wouldn’t. But did you know that some people do? In medical ethics, the latest euphemism for infanticide is “after-birth abortion.”
Responses to “Sympathy for Stanford”
Though I appreciate responses to the blog, I don’t usually post them. Here, though, are just a few especially intriguing ones to “Sympathy for Stanford.” The first:
At the school where my friend teaches, matters have become very extreme. By his report, the latest is that teachers are not allowed to praise students for good work, because the students might find praise “threatening.”
The second is from a Latin American friend:
People seem to be going crazy in your country's universities. I just wanted to comment on a minor point. Hearing the term “American” used to describe people from the USA, some Latin Americans do lash out, saying "America is the continent not their country" or "they don't own the whole place," whether for reasons of envy or of just remembrance of past grievances. They propose alternatives, like "Estadounidense" (which means something like "Unitedstater") or "North American."
Now these two terms also have problems. “Estadounidense” cannot be translated elegantly into English; besides, Mexico is also the United States (the United Mexican States). “North American” could apply to Canada and Mexico. I just use the word American, because it is in the name -- like people call Mexicans, Mexicans.
Stanford is using a double standard, because not only in common parlance but in the press, my countrymen and I call Americans by a great variety of names, some of them not very flattering. We use the word “gringo” 24/7, and no one calls us out.
Sympathy for Stanford
Stanford University hit the news recently for its Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, a thirteen-page document listing offensive words and idioms that ought to be avoided. All right-thinking people will be grateful to those who compiled the list, because insensitive language is everywhere. For example, did you know that it’s offensive to describe U.S. citizens as “Americans”? I sure didn’t. As Stanford helpfully explains, this term demeans all the other countries that make up the Americas. Who would have known?
After criticism from dimwits and Neanderthals -- excuse me, from wit-impaired persons and distant human relatives -- Stanford locked the document to keep unauthorized persons from reading it. Fortunately, you can still see it here.
In the spirit of Stanford’s bold initiative, I’ve tried my hand at devising an index of forbidden words and idioms for proposal to my own university. Composing a language ban may seem easy, but let me tell you, this sort of thing is much more difficult to do than you might think. I have far greater sympathy and respect for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) administrators at places like Stanford than I did before. The task of purifying language is so challenging that it might be better to stop using words altogether.
To mention but a single category of forbidden words, Stanford’s thirteen-page index prohibits terms that define people by just one of their characteristics. “Prisoner,” for example, defines people by the characteristic of being, or having been, in prison. Instead, Stanford says, one should say “person who is/was incarcerated.” My first, uncharitable thought was that Stanford’s DEI experts hadn’t gone nearly far enough, for as you will see if you think deeply about it, the expression “person who is/was incarcerated” still identifies people according to just one of their characteristics, the characteristic of being incarcerated.
On the other hand, think how difficult it is to do better. For the time being, instead of “prisoner” I’m suggesting “person who at one time was incarcerated but at other times was not, and who does, or has done, many other interesting things besides.” However, this is a bit long, and by the time one remembers all the words, the conversation has usually gone somewhere else. Work in progress.
Another of the banned words on Stanford’s list is “prostitute.” Anyone can see why. Who wants to be called a prostitute? The Stanford DEI administrators suggest substituting the phrase “person who engages in sex work,” which is considerate of them. After thinking it over, however, I thought “Oho! Does not this phrase too define people according to just one of their characteristics, the characteristic of engaging in sex work?” Perhaps one might say “person who may, sometimes, perform sexual acts for money, as anyone might from time to time.” But who is to say what counts as a sexual act these days? So that’s out. This is a tough one. For now, the best substitute for “prostitute” I’ve been able to come up with is “political consultant.”
Some cases which one might think would be easy aren’t easy at all. For example, Stanford urges eliminating the idioms “beating a dead horse” and “cracking the whip,” which involve violent imagery that may be upsetting to those who hear it. Instead, we are to say “refusing to let something go” and “doubling down.” Obviously, more work is needed here too. “Refusing” sounds pretty aggressive to me. “Doubling down” conjures up the image of someone standing over another person who is in a subservient position. I also wonder why Stanford doesn’t apply the ban on violent imagery consistently. For example, it proposes the term “fire fighter” in place of the offensive word “fireman,” which “lumps a group of people using masculine language and/or into gender binary groups, which don't include everyone.” But the expression “fire fighter” normalizes violence against fires. That shouldn’t be permitted.
Since Stanford is, after all, a university – I believe it still identifies itself in this way, though the term does carry the offensive connotation of something uniform or universal (we will have to do something about that) -- I am surprised that its forbidden language list doesn’t include the terms “student” and professor.” For some people, these expressions are pejorative, although others continue to apply them to themselves. In cases like this, Stanford generally recommends asking first. Still, even if some people do refer to themselves as students or as professors, these terms pose much the same difficulty as the terms “prostitute” and “prisoner,” and some might say that’s no accident.
Suppose we were to attempt to deal with the difficulty in Stanford fashion, substituting “person who professes” and “person who studies,” respectively. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t go far enough. Not only would we still be identifying persons by just one of their characteristics, but the persons in question might not even have these characteristics. I have heard that some of those matriculating at universities do not study, and that some of those employed to stand in front of classrooms have nothing to profess.
These problems are baffling. You can easily see why my estimate of the acumen of Stanford DEI administrators has risen. Before I tried to do better, I would have said “People who police language for reasons of ideology are crazy as bedbugs.” I would never say that now. As a protective reflex prompts Stanford to explain, the word “crazy” is “ableist language that trivializes the experiences of people living with mental health conditions.” Besides, it’s wrong to disparage bedbugs, some of whom may be far more capable of doing something useful than the general run of college administrators.
Not that there is anything wrong with being incapable.
Hilaire Belloc’s occasional dourness conceals an underlying cheerfulness – for he believed in the chastening grace of God. This is from his reflection “On New Years and New Moons”:
I say that the New Year is a whimsy; an imaginary; a nothing. It is not there at all. You may receive it with all manner of ceremonies; you may treat it with solemn ritual; but all that is part of the myth-making of man. It is indeed part of reality that The Seasons do actually pass and return in a circle, a ring whence, if you like, the word “annual.” The days will actually grow longer after Christmas (thank heaven), and then they will get shorter again after Goodwood. There is a rhythm about all this which I do not pretend to understand but which is part of reality; and we human beings, bound in by reality and confined to it until we get away to better things (for I mean by “reality” all the business of this world), must set boundaries so as to know how far we have got along the round of the works and the days.
For the moment we have fixed on a certain day, the first of January, which in its turn is not there. There is no January. It is one more of those imaginations, without which in our weakness we cannot live. I would rather believe in a Janus with two faces (for I have met such people) than in a mere abstraction like January.
A New Year has this useful thing about it, whether it be Mohammedan, Hebrew, Julian, Gregorian, Chinese, or Choctaw: it makes man remember and regret his follies and his sins. If we did not become familiar and conversant with these ultimate companions we should make very poor wayfaring with them at the end. And as, before the end, we lose all other friends and fellowships, let us at least be conversant with these and learn to know them each by name and to grasp them familiarly by the hand, turning to the right and saying, “Good-morning, my dear Folly Number 8! Let us talk over the matters that concern us.” …
A Stronger Remedy
And having been first chastened by many means …. at last [man] needed a stronger remedy, for his diseases were growing worse; mutual slaughters, adulteries, perjuries, unnatural crimes, and that first and last of all evils, idolatry and the transfer of worship from the Creator to the Creatures. As these required a greater aid, so also they obtained a greater. And that was that the Word of God Himself — Who is before all worlds, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the bodiless, beginning of beginning, the light of light, the source of life and immortality, the image of the archetypal beauty, the immovable seal, the unchangeable image, the Father's definition and Word, came to His own image, and took on Him flesh for the sake of our flesh, and mingled Himself with an intelligent soul for my soul's sake, purifying like by like; and in all points except sin was made man ….
O new commingling; O strange conjunction; the Self-Existent comes into being, the Uncreate is created, That which cannot be contained is contained, by the intervention of an intellectual soul, mediating between the Deity and the corporeity of the flesh. And He who gives riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of His Godhead ….
What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it; He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal.
-- Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38, On the Theophany, or Birthday of Christ
Should Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?
It seems to me that the only way we can safeguard the view of marriage as a procreative bond between one man and one woman is to take the government completely out of the business of marriage. In this way the government can't use the coercive arm of the state to enforce its fallacious views on those who don't accept it. The Church already has a robust system for recording marriages in its own community, with its own canon laws regulating it. Perhaps, by observing the Church, the general public may gradually learn from it -- since no other robust system will exist. That's why I think that under current circumstances, the government should not be involved in marriage at all. Do you consider this position sound?
I sympathize with your dismay. If the issues were purely spiritual, I would agree with you, because the state is not our spiritual guide. But Samuel Johnson exaggerated only slightly when he wrote, “Almost all the miseries of life, almost all the wickedness that infects society, and almost all the distresses that afflict mankind, are the consequences of some defect in private duties. Likewise, all the joys of this world may be attributable to the happiness of hearth and home.” The integrity of marriage is so important to ordinary human well-being – and yet so vulnerable because of ordinary human failings – that it needs to be shored up in every possible way: Not only by the discipline of the Church, but also by custom and law.
Even when the state is confused about the common good’s requirements (as it is), civil regulations concerning marriage remain necessary for the common good’s protection. After all, marriage and family law do much more than register who is married and who is not. In ways that canon law cannot do, they enforce the duties of spouses toward each other as well as toward their children. Moreover, in cases of desertion or marital dissolution, they provide for continuing support not only for the children of the union, but also for the most vulnerable party to the marriage, who is almost always the woman.
Yes, I understand that the contemporary state labels things that are not marriages as marriages. Yet so far, this fact has not prevented the law from serving these functions with respect to true marriages. For all these reasons, I would expect enormous confusion to result from the complete withdrawal of the state from all matters marital, and the harm would fall primarily on those in most need of protection.
Conceivably, matters could become worse. Already the state is behaving oppressively toward those who do not share its views of marriage. One can imagine a future in which marriage and family law have become so depraved that they systematically undermine the duties of mothers and fathers toward each other and their children. But we are not there yet.
So Called Self-Ownership
Some political theorists think we own ourselves. The idea is especially prominent among libertarians, who often claim to find it in John Locke, the English social contract thinker who so powerfully influenced the American founders. Just for these reasons, some readers might be interested in the following after-the-bell conversation.
I’m sorry to say that it was interrupted, because my student had to go to his next class and I had to go to mine. But it stopped at an interesting point. I’ve cleaned up the ums and ahs and made the transitions cleaner.
“Prof, I thought you said during class today that you disagreed with people who say that John Locke based rights on self-ownership. Would you please go over that again?”
“Sure,” I said. “Early in his book, Locke says we have rights because we don’t own ourselves. He says that ultimately, each of us belongs to God. You have rights against me because I’m not to treat you as though I own you. I have rights against you because you’re not to treat me as though you own me.”
“But doesn’t he say later that we do own ourselves? I mean in his big chapter about acquiring property. I’m reading that in another course.”
“I don’t think so. As I read him, what he actually says in the chapter about property is that we own the fruits of our own labor because God authorizes us to appropriate things from the common stock of nature.”
“But saying that we own our own labor seems like saying that we own ourselves. What if he really does think we own ourselves?”
“Well,” I answered, “in that case he would hold two conflicting theories of rights at the same time, wouldn’t he? And they can’t both be right. One, in the earlier part of the book, says I have rights because I belong to God -- He’s sovereign. The other, in the chapter on property, says I have rights because I belong to myself – I’m sovereign.”
“So which theory do you think he really believes in?”
“I can’t read his long-deceased mind, but I would like to think he believes in the first one.”
“Why would you like to think that?”
“Just because it’s a better one.”
My student seemed surprised.
“Really? Why would you say it’s a better one?”
“Because if each of us is sovereign, then each of us can do whatever he can get away with. That wouldn’t be an explanation of how we have rights, but of how we don’t have rights. No matter what the other fellow is doing to you, you haven’t any moral claim that he not do it. All you can do is try to stop him -- and he’ll try to stop you from stopping him.”
“I see that. Hmm. It does look like maybe the first theory would make more sense.”
He considered a moment further.
“But so what if it’s a better theory?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that people today aren’t going to be comfortable with having God in the picture.”
“Maybe some people won’t be,” I said. “But what if He’s already in the picture?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“I mean that what to do if people are uncomfortable with God is an important question – but it’s a different one than the one we’ve been asking. Who we really belong to doesn’t depend on whether God makes us uncomfortable. Does it?”
Like every conversation, this one is presumably
To Be Continued