Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

On the Misappropriation of Words

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 04, 2009

When a statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled on Capitol Hill yesterday, Nancy Pelosi gave a speech at which she could not resist praising Nancy Reagan’s support of embryonic stem cell research: “Your support for stem-cell research has made a significant difference in the lives of many American people. It has saved lives. It has found cures. It has given hope to people.” Actually, of course, embryonic stem cell research has produced no positive results; you can count the resulting cures on one hand in the shape of a fist. All successful treatments have emerged from non-destructive, non-embryonic stem cell research.

Back in February, when Bill Clinton appeared on Larry King Live, he talked about the bioethical problem of embryonic research, emphasizing repeatedly that it was morally acceptable to use embryos for research purposes as long as it is made clear that we’re “not going to fool with any embryos where there’s any possibility, even if it’s somewhat remote, that they could be fertilized and become human beings.” Clinton thought this point so important that he returned to it four times. Actually, of course, embryos are already human beings. It is the fertilization of the ovum (egg) by the sperm that marks the moment of conception, and begins the development of the embryo as a new human person.

On March 9th, Fox News reported that President Obama had promised that he would “ensure the government ‘never opens the door’ for human cloning”. But what Obama actually said was that “we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” This was by way of announcing guidelines for embryonic research. But if one clones an embryo for research purposes and then destroys that embryo before it can be “born”, it is at least unlikely that Obama would regard this as a case of human reproduction. Indeed, to regard it as such would be to admit that a human person exists from the moment of conception.

The New York Times argued for years that the only embryos to which it wanted scientists to have access were those left over from in vitro fertilization procedures, embryos that were to be discarded anyway. But a few days after Obama announced his opposition to cloning “for human reproduction”, the Times jumped in with a strong editorial in favor of “somatic cell nuclear transfer” so that scientists can “extract” more stem cells for research. As the Times editors know but did not say, “somatic cell nuclear transfer” is the process description of cloning. Moreover, to “extract stem cells” is to kill the cloned embryo. But as the editors asked, “Why not gain potential medical benefits from studying their stem cells?”

The Importance of Language

If I were to go back over the news reports since last November, I could multiply these examples, which came effortlessly to hand just from materials sitting on my desk. One would have to be naïve indeed to attribute this constant misleading and blatantly false information to ignorance. The conclusion seems inescapable that we are dealing, across the board, with knaves rather than fools. Indeed, misappropriation of language is almost instinctive on the part of those who either have bad consciences or wish to avoid the consequences of their positions.

Yesterday’s blog entry on Terrorism and the Pro-Life Movement is another case in point drawn from a different context. All of this reaffirms that, when properly used, words have a great capacity to shed light on everything from our private thoughts to our public deeds. But when used improperly, they have a similar capacity to obfuscate and obscure. Through their emotive power, words can rouse to action, but they can also make us drowsy and comfortable, lulling us to sleep. An honest man will be extremely careful in his choice of words. But so will a dishonest man. One chooses words to make the truth manifest, the other to keep the truth from being known. From the first moment we are at home in our use of language, we must fight the temptation to rely on self-serving words.

I recall an episode in my childhood, perhaps around 10 or 11, when I was playing catch with a much younger boy. At some point during the game, the sheer existence of this other boy began to annoy me. He hadn’t done anything wrong. But I suddenly wanted to torment him in some minor way, so I threw the ball at him with a force I knew he could not handle. It hit him, and it hurt. Immediately he ran inside to tell his mother that I had thrown a ball at him. She came out and asked if this were so. Drawing on that vast well of verbal cleverness which always makes itself available when we need to save our own skins, I simply looked at her and said: “No, I threw the ball TO him.” There was a sort of technical truth to this claim. It did not accurately describe reality but there was no way she could judge.

My misappropriation of words had succeeded admirably. Whether it was worth it may be judged by the fact that I still remember the episode with shame fifty years later. But this sort of thing is so instinctive, so automatic, that we actually have to make a commitment to personal integrity to avoid falling into very bad habits. It may be too much to expect such integrity to be plentiful in either politics or journalism under any circumstances. But when one side in the culture wars subscribes to a theory of relativism, the problem grows far worse. In relativism, everything becomes like my hard-thrown ball: There is ultimately no objective standard, no objective reality, against which anyone can judge the truth.

What It Means to be Human

The misuse of words strikes at the very core of what it means to be human. The human person is unique on earth in his ability to conceptualize reality and share its understanding through language. Any deliberate distortion of meaning is a form of theft, a refusal to share that truth which is the common property of all. Ultimately such distortions tear apart our common inheritance, making a shared vision impossible. Falsehood must inevitably not only undermine meaning but destroy both trust and collaboration. The misappropriation of words breaks down community; it always isolates. In truth alone can we find camaraderie. In falsehood, there is only loneliness.

We live in a very dangerous world, this world in which so many falsehoods have become conventions. Where two men or two women are termed a married couple; where the children of divorce are considered better off; where sex is just another form of recreation; where the family can be anything at all; where personhood is a myth; where what is living is called dead, and what is dead is called living. The very structure of our world depends increasingly on a series of enforced lies. We deliberately worship the pagan god of confusion, whose gifts are alienation and despair.

This is what comes of affirming with Humpty Dumpty that our words mean exactly what we choose them to mean, neither more nor less. Words have a power for good only when they describe objective reality, only when what one says and another hears enable both to share in a common experience of the truth which can, in its turn, be verified and shared by others. Language is utterly useless if there is no reality beyond the self, no common inheritance, no ground of being. Though it is not an argument, it is nonetheless true that we must affirm reality and use words carefully just in order to survive. Good and evil are as objectively different as white and black. Hope lies only in learning to describe both properly, with no intention to deceive.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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