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Words As Weapons

March 9, 2014 Frontpage No Comments


I may be pegged as being ultraconservative for saying this, but, nonetheless, I dare to say that the primary purpose of words is to express thought. “One of the disadvantages of wine,” Samuel Johnson once remarked, “is that it makes a man mistake words for thought.”
The inebriate spouts drivel, even though he may be deluding himself into thinking that he is waxing eloquently. It may also be said that one of the disadvantages of supporting an unsupportable ideology it that it, too, makes a man mistake words for thought. Thus, gobbledygook substitutes for thoughtful expression.
“Choice” is not a thoughtful defense of abortion. “Compassion” does not justify euthanasia. “Equality” does not give legitimacy to same-sex “marriage.” These terms are designed to prevent thoughtful communication. Such thoughtless words, in turn, tag all dissenters as, respectively, “anti-choice,” “lacking in compassion,” and “bigoted.” The dialogue is over before it ever gets started. In the standoff, the ideologists carry off the flag of victory.
The distinguished philosopher and novelist Ralph McInerny commented that the term “homophobia” is “a neologism that requires linguistic as well as moral illiteracy.”
Is homophobia an unnatural fear of anything that is the same, such as homonyms, homogenization, and all things homologous? As a word, it is an ideological contrivance. As a moral invective, it is entirely misdirected.
A term of more recent coinage is “homosexism,” which refers to the bullying directed toward anyone who clings to the view that homosexual acts are morally objectionable. “One of the most divisive influences in Canada today is homosexism,” states a Toronto school board trustee (The National Post, February 14, 2014). He also refers to its disseminators as “maliciously rabid.” Predictably, he has been branded as “homophobic” and, perhaps more imaginatively, “a creepy straight guy.”
The curious thing about the new term is that it has competing definitions. On the one hand, it means “discrimination or prejudice against straight men or women by Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, or Bisexual people” (the UrbanDictionary web site). At the same time, the open-source dictionary called Wiktionary lists the word as a synonym for homophobia. Here we have the anomalous situation in which opponents wearing the same uniforms find themselves warring against each other. Homosexists are fighting against the homosexists. One dictionary is pitted against another. Thought is eclipsed, and words go to war against each other.
The war of words has become common enough so that novelist Philip Roth can feel the need to retrieve the thought that once gave words their meaning: “My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you’ve got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren’t only bombs and bullets — no, they’re little gifts, containing meanings!”
Can society survive with any degree of civility where people truly do not know what they are talking about? Is Humpty-Dumptyism replacing intelligent conversation? “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a scornful voice, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Ideology and subjectivity go hand in hand. They withdraw from reality. Words, on the other hand, link us to reality and to each other. They provide a common thread by which we express our thoughts to each other about the reality we have come to know. They provide a kind of circulatory system through which objective ideas and personal thoughts flow to nourish a sane world. Choked off from thought, words become weapons and pit citizens against each other in an uncivil war that neither side can hope to win.
“Never,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “have misused words — those hideously efficient tools of all the tyrants, warmongers, persecutors, and heresy hunters — been so widely and disastrously influential.”
Since he phrased this trenchant sentence several decades ago, things have gotten considerably worse. For example, it has never been easier to be unfairly accused of bigotry. All one needs to do to invite that scurrilous epithet is to defend traditional marriage. The stakes are high. Civility lies in the balance.
And we have been warned: “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36).

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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)

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