By DONALD DeMARCO
An accusation is not a conviction any more than a hypothesis is a proof, or being a suspect is the same as being a criminal. This notion is indispensable for the carrying out of justice. It is associated with the use of words which can range from reckless name-calling to naming something rightly. Thus, we can sin against justice by using words unjustly.
This point was brought to my attention recently when I read a response to an article I had posted on the Internet. In my article, I had said that whereas language should unify people by directing them to a common reality, words are now often used in a way reminiscent of the linguistic confusion that transpired among the builders of the Tower of Babel. Among the examples I choose were “bullying” and “bigotry.”
These words are now used so loosely that they can apply to anyone. One is a “bully” toward the unborn by approving abortion. At the same time, one is called a “bully” by opposing a woman’s alleged right to abortion. One is a “bigot” merely for defending traditional marriage. But at the same time, such reckless users of the word are vulnerable to the same accusation. We should know what we are talking about so that we have a chance to live in peace and build a better world.
My point, which I thought to be rather benign, was grossly misinterpreted by a respondent who claimed that my own logic indicted me as being both a bully and a bigot. I was more concerned, however, about my critic’s poor reasoning rather than his accusations, which, supposedly, were aimed at putting me in my place.
What fascinated me was how any literate person could mistake an accusation for a conviction. If someone calls me a poached egg, that does not make me a poached egg. Words simply do not have the power to impose upon a person what they mean. At best, a word describes something and points to a common reality that we can all share. A word, properly used, is an affirmation that requires two persons, both the namer and the hearer.
As Walker Percy has stated, “This water, means that this is water for you and for me.” When this happens, we are, therefore, co-celebrants of a common reality.
An old Latin adage speaks to the point: De nominibus non curat sapiens. (The wise man does not care about names.) Rather, the wise man cares about truth. Names may or may not coincide with truth. To be more concerned about name-calling than truth-telling, therefore, is to be unwise. It is also, when directed toward a person, unjust since an untruthful name falsifies what the person really is.
Plato writes about a character who believed that something is good, not because it has any intrinsic claim to goodness, but simply because it is called good. Euthyphro’s position astounded Socrates, who argued that it is not in the naming that something becomes good, but because it is good in itself. If naming were primary, then anything could be anything, depending on the whims of the namers. It would be like someone going into a supermarket with an assortment of price-stickers of and re-pricing everything at random so that sirloin steak would be five cents a pound and a package of Kool-Aid would be $50. The labels would be libelous and not reflect the market value of the various commodities.
Socrates held that making the essence of a thing dependent on what it is called, leaves us with an empty and unintelligible world in which nothing has any intrinsic value. It also ascribes power where power does not exist. “You’re nobody till somebody loves you” is false. Rather, you are loved because you are lovable. No word has the power to convert the unloved into the lovable.
In Rev. 2:17, it is said that “the Lord will give to the victorious “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” This name will be our true name, revealing who we really are, and not what others think we might be. It is much easier to rest at name-calling and not go on and uncover the truth of things. Injustice is easy; justice is difficult. But it is only in justice that we discover who we are and begin to understand the truth of our neighbors.
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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.)