What's In A Name?

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has created quite a stir of late because of his outspoken refusal to conform to the language police of the social justice movement.  “I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for language I detest”, he says. He is particularly referring to such language as relates to modern innovations in sexual identity.

Derick Dillard, husband of one of the Duggar girls of 19 Kids and Counting fame, has discovered that failure to use approved language can cost a fellow his job. Dillard was recently fired from his role on the TLC network’s Counting On reality show because, among other things, he “refused to use feminine pronouns” when discussing a transgender colleague at TLC.

Totalitarian movements throughout history have long understood the criticality of conscripting the general population into participating in a myriad of small fictions, or lies, as a means of moral humiliation. But such pressure also serves to bring the individual’s perception of reality into conformance with the requirements of the state.

Theodore Dalrymple, one of the finest contemporary essayists around, has reflected on the moral aspect of this pressure to conform one’s language:

“When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is...in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed.”

Even the very term “social justice movement” represents, in some ways, a kind of derisive reality distortion field, because there is nothing actually just about the ends being sought by that movement. The movement seeks to subjugate individualism to collectivism (something that cost the lives of millions in the 20th century) and to eliminate the human right  of conscience. If you doubt this, just try being Jack Phillips for a day. Or Brendan Eich. Or James Damore. Or a multitude of others.

Ours is not the first culture to be subjected to this kind of pressure. A great deal of writing and thinking was done in the 20th century exploring the relationship between human flourishing and truth - specifically in the context of totalitarian societies. Thinkers who lived under regimes that pressured them to “assent to obvious lies”, as Dalrymple said, thought deeply about what integrity means.

Vaclav Havel was, perhaps, one of the leading writers and thinkers along these lines. Havel was a playwright, recipient of the U.S. Presidential medal of freedom, and one of the early prime ministers of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the iron curtain. In his famous essay The Power of the Powerless, Havel wrote of the pressure to conform one’s speech and actions to things one knows to be false. He argued for the importance of “living within the truth”, by which he meant having the courage to speak and act within the context of what you actually believed to be true. “Living within the truth” begins, he said, with something as simple as “calling things by their actual names”.

The surprising thing, for me at least, has been that the social justice thought police appear to have given much more thought to the criticality and uses of language than some of the Christian writers and thinkers I’ve been reading.  I have been recently struck by the readiness, on the part of contemporary Christian writers and speakers, to adopt the terms and language of the social justice movement.  

It surprises me for at least two reasons. First, it seems to be a widespread phenomenon across many Christian publications and speakers, but without any explicitly stated thought process by which the decision to embrace the language was made.  I have not come across any lengthy or public discussion within the Christian community on the use of such language.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that such discussion doesn’t exist. But I’m a fairly avid reader and consumer of Christian publishing, and what I’m experiencing is likely to be representative of other readers. And what I’m finding is that the new language is being slipstreamed into Christian writing with little acknowledgement of even having done it.

The second reason I find this surprising is that Christianity, of all religions, places a high value on the use and meaning of words. Jesus himself is described as the logos - the word.  The very faith we espouse is described by the apostle Paul as coming to us primarily through the auditory word.  Satan certainly understood the mischievous and destructive power of words, beginning his entire landslide of disaster by first calling into question God’s words:  “Did God really say...?”

So I find it surprising, I guess, that so many Christian writers and thinkers seem to have casually adopted the language of sexual identity and social justice.

The use of social justice language in Christian circles ranges from such things as obscuring the meaning of pronouns when speaking of transgender people to speaking of gay men as having “husbands”. A gay man can be said to “have a husband” only if we drain the word husband of so much of its original meaning that it ceases to have any correspondence with the historical reality. A surgically altered man has not become a woman no matter our use of feminine pronouns.  

This is not merely a pedantic concern. The danger of adopting the language of sexual identity is that its impact isn’t limited to smoothing over potentially awkward social exchanges.  At one level, I want to say “who cares” about what pronouns we use, or “who cares” if we talk about gay “husbands”. But if I think very long about the uses of language, it gives me pause. Over time, such accommodating language may turn out to be a vehicle for subtly altering our own presuppositions, acting as a kind of moral anesthetic. Altering language as a means of glossing over the pain of our differences may ultimately have the effect of eliminating any principled differences at all. And I sort of suspect that the longer term elimination of principled differences may be the very motivation for going to the extreme of penalizing dissenting voices like Mr. Dillard.  Language works in such a way that how we use it inevitably begins to inform our own perception and understanding of reality. We may start out knowing that we’re only humoring the other side, but we’re likely to end up thinking along the very lines we had originally rejected.

I’m nagged by the recurring suspicion that “living within the truth” in the 21st century may start by something as simple as using pronouns that conform to reality.