When words lose their distinct meanings, they no longer sound clearly in our ears. They dissipate and fade. They buzz—and hence, they become “buzzwords.” This occurs most often to words that initially have powerful meanings. But the desire to harness the power of these words leads to their abuse, their twisting and mangling to suit the user’s purpose. It is the linguistic equivalent to the mutilation of elves into orcs in Tolkien’s mythology. In these cases, words have their proper referents hollowed out, leaving an empty vessel which can be filled with whatever the speaker desires but which retains its shape, the emotion associated with the term. The denotation shifts, the connotation remains. Allow me two examples that will be all too familiar.
“Hate” originally meant an aversion to something. The proper object of hate is evil, since we ought to oppose and be repelled by it—what you hate is the lack of perfection in a thing. But we can never hate the thing in which the lack of perfection exists. We can never hate a person for the evil thing they do, though we must hate the evil thing they have done—as St. Thomas puts it, “it is part of our love for our brother that we hate the fault and the lack of good in him, since desire for another’s good is equivalent to hatred of his evil” (ST II-II, q. 34, a. 3, c.). This is one of the greatest challenges of the moral life, to “love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you,” but nevertheless it is a necessary distinction: we must hate the persecution but love the persecutor.
But the movement promoting same-sex “marriage” in its rhetorical efforts has removed this distinction. It has taken the term “hate” and applied it to anyone who doesn’t adhere to their position. Certainly there are people who err and direct their hatred towards the persons committing the acts rather than against the acts themselves, but no such distinction is made by the advocacy groups. Whether your disagreement is expressed as rational argumentation against the act or vulgar bile against the person is irrelevant: both are hate, according to them, because for them hate is defined simply by lack of support of their cause. To the advocates of this position, if you oppose same-sex “marriage” through reasoned appeal to natural law, you are being hateful. Hate for them is found in the conclusion, not the content of the premises or the nature of their expression. Justice Anthony Kennedy said as much in his opinion in the Obergefell decision, writing that such opposition could only be the result of an “irrational animus.”
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Indeed, animus and emotion do seem to be at the heart of this matter, but it is to be found on the side of those claiming to be victims of hatred. When you disallow any rational distinction and when you side-step any rational discussion about what is the good of the human being, you are left only with emotional response. But they still employ the term, with all its rhetorical strength, so that they conclude, “if I don’t like what you say, if it makes me feel bad, your words must be hateful.”
Let us turn to our other term. Mercy originally meant grief at the evil suffered by another, as well as acts intended to alleviate that suffering. (The Latin term, misericordiae, literally means “wretchedness of heart.”) Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas calls mercy the greatest of the virtues which relate to our neighbor, and says that God’s omnipotence is most manifest in his mercy (ST II-II, q. 30, a. 4, c.). Pope Francis has made mercy a hallmark of his pontificate, rightly highlighting it as a central aspect of the Christian message.
But with the increased focus on the concept, there are also increased instances of the term being used but its content left behind. Mercy can only be exercised when we have rightly identified the source of the suffering and addressed it adequately. Thus, when a person sins and causes himself spiritual harm, it is an act of mercy to admonish the sinner, so that he will not suffer that evil again. It is an act of mercy to offer absolution to the penitent. It is not an act of mercy to attempt to alleviate his guilt by telling the sinner that he has not sinned. This will only harm, not help, the sinner, like pouring a salve on a wound that soothes for a moment but makes the infection worse. Mercy is thus used as a catch-all term for sentimental non-offensiveness. It is often used in conjunction with a diluted use of the word “pastoral,” about which I have written here. But in both cases, we find that the true object of the allegedly merciful or pastoral action is the self: when we act this way, we are less concerned with aiding the suffering of the other than in assuaging our own grief at seeing them. Thus, anything I do to help me feel better when I see them suffer is a mercy. In other words, if what I do makes me feel good, I must be being merciful.
Heidegger called language “the house of being,” but when we abuse language in this way, we find the house abandoned and in decay. We can see here why Joseph Pieper wrote a book called Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. We can see here why George Orwell made one of the most powerful weapons of the totalitarian regime in 1984 the “new dictionary,” which contains words like “double-think” but not “freedom.” Concepts need words in which to reside. Let us not leave these crucial concepts homeless.
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