Abuse of Language Leads to the Abuse of Power

The great Thomist Josef Pieper penned a short book in the late seventies on how totalitarian regimes use words to gain control over the masses: Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power. Pieper’s treatise came to mind as I read that the Canadian government is no longer going to refer to ISIS as ISIS (that is, the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or sometimes just the “Islamic State”). Rather, they will use the more neutral term “Daesh,” so as to avoid, they say, painting all of Islam with the bloodstained brush of terrorism. Ironically, not only does this name (which is in fact an Arabic acronym) mean more or less the same thing as ISIS, but the terrorists of ISIS have threatened to cut the tongue out of anyone using it.

Of course, this opens up many questions, not least the relation between Islam and terrorism. Taken to its logical conclusion, this change in nomenclature would mean that no terrorist act can, by definition, be termed “Islamic,” even if the terrorist confesses it so with his dying breath. Whence, therefore, Allahu Akbar? Is any and all bloodshed in the name of Allah no longer Islamic? Who is to say? What therefore do we make of Islamic “radicalization,” which literally means “going back to the root”? Do we not mean by this returning to the very origins of Islam that, even to the most irenic of historians, is steeped in blood and carnage? Can a change in name change this reality?

Well, no, but it can change our perception of reality, the “reality” of our thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

This is by no means the first time a regime has used Orwellian language to mollify evil: Hitler had his lebensraum, carving out a little bit of “living room” for “real” Germans in central Europe. No worries, just a little blue-eyed Aryan expansion. Oh, and we also have to “cleanse” the race of “impurities,” culminating in the “final solution.” Little written record was kept of Hitler’s decisions; it was all dark and secret, for light exposes the truth. The “labour camps,” wherein one was worked to death, or transported to the gas chambers, had the infamous sign in wrought-iron over the gate, Arbeit macht frei, “work will make you free,” a demonic parody of Our Lord’s words that, rather, it is the truth which shall truly set you free.

Few could outdo the Communists in their use of doublespeak: “Five-year plans,” “free the worker,” the “People’s Party,” “equality for all,” “enemies of the State,” and, proclaiming all the lies in official form was their official paper Pravda, which did anything but speak the “Truth.”

Beware of Soft Totalitarianism
The so-called “hard” totalitarian regimes are on the wane, but beware the soft variety, which is creeping into our very brains and thoughts, as our government, schools and their mouthpieces in the media, subtly alter the meaning of our language and its terms. Ponder the following:

Gay, which until quite recently meant “happy” or “joyful,” now applies to a group that engage in unnatural vices that will make them anything but happy and joyful.

The same goes for queer, which once meant “odd” or “out of the ordinary.” Now, it is a term of “pride,” which, along with gay, now forms “Gay Pride.” Are they proud for being happy? If memory serves, I recall a local brewer years ago marketed a beer that they called Pride Lager, bedecked with a pink triangle as its label, targeted to the homosexual community. It did not fare well. As you can guess, no one wanted to be seen with one in his hand, at least outside a “gay” bar.

From gay, to gender, a term once upon a time applied only to inanimate objects, while the term sex was used for people, as in “male” and “female.” Now we are taught a fluid notion of sex or, pardon me, gender, and even our traditional terms are fraught with discriminatory overtones. We are no longer male, nor female, but rather somewhere on the spectrum of who-knows-how-many (some say infinite) possible “genders.”

Hence, the expectation to no longer use the all-encompassing, and inclusive, “he” or “his,” but the awkward and clumsy “he and she,” “she or he,” or, alas, “s/he,” to say nothing of all the bizarre neologistic pronouns carved out of the thin air of political correctness, zhe, zir, shi and so on, soon to be prescribed in law. A column this morning in the National Post cautions against state interference in this gender war, but declaims from its media-moral throne that we should in all fairness use whatever pronouns people want us to use.

But do not pronouns mean something, and point, or not point, to an underlying reality? Why would I want to be complicit in someone else’s disordered “gender fluidity” or, as they now say, “dysphoria”?

I wonder how long it will be before Hamlet’s monologue, and much else in literature, is bowdlerized:

What a piece of work is man!… And, of course, woman, or, er, is that womyn? Humyn, anyone?

In the midst of an address to seminarians on his recent pilgrimage to Georgia, Pope Francis warned that there is a great enemy to marriage today: the theory of gender. Today there is a world war to destroy marriage. Today there are ideological colonizations that destroy, not with weapons, but with ideas. Therefore, there is a need to defend ourselves from this threat.

The Illiberal Liberal Prime Minister of Canada
Of course, if one were so to “defend oneself,” he (and, yes, she) would be accused of bigotry, hatred, and being anti-freedom. Speaking of which, here in Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau and his cronies govern under the mantle of Liberal, derived from the Latin verb liberare, to free, or set something free. Even heterodox Catholics have adopted this term: They are “liberal,” while we benighted knuckle-draggers are “conservatives” or “traditionalist” (or something worse). As truth would have it, such “liberals” are anything but for true freedom.

Case in point: Trudeau and parliament recently legalized euthanasia, which, as its Greek etymology attests, literally means a “good death,” eu-thanatos. Who does not want a good death, surrounded by a priest and family, having received the Last Rites, breathing one’s soul into eternity, and carried to heaven by the Angelic Host. But that is not quite what they mean, as some healthcare worker injects a semi-compliant patient-victim with a syringe full of potassium chloride in the dead of night.

Trudeau has also made clear that his government will always and everywhere defend a woman’s “right to choose,” which, translated, means the right to have her unborn child killed. This issue seems “settled” in Canada, at least so far, but not so in Poland, already with one of the strictest abortion laws, but which the other day voted against a bill to outright ban the grisly procedure. The legislators were swayed by a host of protesting women, presumably educated into ignorance, out marching for their “right” to choose what is good for their own bodies.

Well, what of pro-choice? Why does that term bring to mind being pro-abortion? Are we not all pro-choice, in any real sense of that term? Saint Augustine’s phrase for “free will” was liberum arbitrium, which translates more precisely as “free choice.” After all, as Augustine rightly reasoned, we cannot not will our final end, which is God whom we all desire by nature. Rather, all we can really choose are the means to this end, whether well or badly. So everyone, not least Catholics who have the fullness of truth, is “pro-choice.” It’s just that some choices are evil, and lead us away from our final end, and from the common good of society.

Pope Saint John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae puts the point even more forcefully in speaking of the ‘unspeakable’ crimes of abortion and infanticide, and I cannot put the case more eloquently and clearly than he:

But today, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet is extremely straightforward: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20). Especially in the case of abortion there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as “interruption of pregnancy,” which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion. Perhaps this linguistic phenomenon is itself a symptom of an uneasiness of conscience. But no word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth.

Time to Take Back the Language
By so altering the terms of our language, the powers of darkness have proved themselves wiser than the children of light. By co-opting the common and customary meaning of our words, with shrewd epistemology, they have altered our thoughts and concepts, which connect us with how things really are, or are not, which in turn is how Saint Thomas defined truth, adequatio rei et intellectus: a conformity between the mind and reality, a relationship that is forged, built up and maintained by what we mean by the words we use. Josef Pieper argues that it is in changing our use of language that totalitarian regimes change our notion of truth. We are enslaved not with guns and tanks, but by the ignorance resulting from the warping of our words and thoughts. We, and by that I mean especially our young people attending modern state-controlled educational establishments, are being turned into a nation of mind-controlled zombies.

Who of them connects “happy” anymore with “gay”? Perhaps they think of “gays” as joyful, happy people, surrounded by hateful bigots wanting to take away the source of their, er, joy? That is often how they are portrayed in films and sit-coms.

And who considers abortion “murder” anymore, except a few fringe “anti-choicers”? Even bringing the topic up in any discourse is considered bad taste. We will soon see the same thing with euthanasia, made even more palatable with the antiseptic phrase “medical assistance in dying.” Helping someone to die used to be “accessory to murder,” a federal crime, but no more, so long as the person has, and here we go again, “terminal,” or now the subjectively even more ambiguous “unbearable” suffering.

We are in strange waters here. As our minds get muddied and fogged up, we must breathe in the pure and clear air of truth in how we use our words, which shape our thoughts, which in turn influence our actions, for good or for ill.

Here is some advice: A good place to start in forming our minds is a decent primer on Aristotelian logic, then move on to some scholastic philosophy and theology, the two primary hallmarks of which were clarity and precision: To say what you mean clearly, and cut away what you do not mean. And amongst the greatest of the Church’s minds in training us how to think is Thomas Aquinas, held up by the Church as the paradigm of theological method, of the synthesis between faith and reason, and a source of much of the established terminology of the Church (and our culture).

John Paul II went so far as to praise Thomas in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio “as an authentic model for all who seek the truth. In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason.”

The American author Flannery O’Connor supposedly read a page of the Summa every night, a practice that bears much imitation.

After that, read good books, essays, articles, encyclicals. Look words up, find out their etymologies and meanings, and use them correctly, even if, especially if, it is politically “incorrect” to do so.

Let’s take back the language, so that our thoughts and our reasoning may be as clear, pure and, yes, as courageous in the truth as Christ asks of us, so that our “yes, may mean yes, and our no, no.” Anything more, comes from, well, you know…

John Paul Meenan

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John Paul Meenan is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Natural Science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Barry's Bay, Ontario, Canada. He edits and writes at Catholic Insight.

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