What Little Girls Teach About Being
Rick Barnett on the Corruption of Words
When my daughter was first learning to name the world, she liked to play a game with words wherein she would call an object by another name and then try to make the thing function as if it indeed were that object. She would put a Peter Rabbit saucer on her head and say “hat.” When it would not stay put and be a hat, and instead fell clattering to the kitchen floor very much like a dropped saucer, she would squeal with joy and try again.
She was discovering something fundamental about being: that no matter what you call it, a saucer is not a hat, and one cannot by an act of sheer will truthfully name a saucer a hat. Yet how sadly common it is these days to hear half-truths and outright lies—saucers named as hats—nonchalantly delivered as truth from government, the academy, and the evening news. It is no wonder our young people are so morally confused and that many of the students I and others teach in college literature courses believe there is no ultimate right or wrong; they are chary to make moral judgments of even the most basic kind, leaving it instead to “whatever works best for the individual.”
Modernity’s Golden Rule
Such a relativist approach to humanity is, in Professor Christina Hoff Sommers’s words, “no better than the moral philosophy of a sociopath.” Moral equivocation seems the “golden rule” of the day as the meliorist evangelists of modernity, the television news anchor/talk-show host, the celebrity, the academic specialist, and the government spokesman hold forth daily and nightly, on television, in newspaper columns and academic journals, in classrooms and from within government houses, preaching sovereignty of the individual will (all truths, especially regarding good and evil, are considered mostly matters of human opinion) with enough officious, supercilious conviction that public discussion often is left bereft of intelligibility.
The highfaluting term for this linguistic and semiotic sleight-of-tongue is reification (Oxford English Dictionary), and it goes by other equally urbane names, such as deconstruction and nominalism, wherein names as truth are deemed subjective, and objective moral truth is reduced to the status of personal opinion. In university English departments, this tomfoolery is called “therapeutic textual intervention”—therapy, if you will, for “bad texts” like Huckleberry Finn. In South Georgia, where high-school football is tantamount in its following to “one God, one religion,” they called such chicanery “fifth and long.”
Daily and nightly, by fiat of the will, the fundamental semiotic nature of words is usurped so they may become dead gray matter to be manipulated in service of the human expedient of the moment. Thus, lie becomes plausible deniability, and community becomes any group of people gathered under the nebulous umbrella of agenda, as in adult entertainment community, which I heard used in a recent Atlanta radio advertisement. This “trickle-down of nominalism,” as Marion Montgomery has called it, is so ubiquitous we swill it down with our bottled water.
Speaking specifically of Christianity, years ago, Walker Percy lamented that the “language of grace” has been usurped by hostile forces. Now incarnation may mean a new variation of a Bach Suite or a refurbished 1966 Mustang. Turn on the television and you will find an air-freshener touted as a votive, never mind that that word is from the Latin votum, which means “devotion,” the candles being placed before representations of Christ, the Blessed Mother, or the saints as a way of prolonging prayer. Votive has nothing to do with “smelling clean.”
Among our leaders, the constant parsing of words by former President Clinton and his staff to obfuscate his answers to some rather simple questions regarding his character and integrity, and the same equivocation by former Speaker Newt Gingrich regarding whether or not he lied to those investigating him for breaching House rules and providing false and misleading statements to Congress—these are but two recent examples of reification among our highest government officials. It is no wonder students today are so cynical about government; they know a dodge when they see one. Of all the monsters in Dante’s Inferno, the one they recognize most is Geryon, the reptilian personification of fraud, with the face “of a just and honest man.”
The mainstream print and media journalists perhaps are the most prolific reificators of all. Not long after the reports surfaced questioning the president’s faithfulness in his marriage, the news and talk shows were awash with reporters and political pundits debating whether or not certain sexual behavior other than coitus constitutes marital infidelity. This question was posed out loud repeatedly for days over television by noted journalists, as though it could seriously be considered that there is sexual “wriggle room” within the bonds of matrimony.
Of course, in one sense there is nothing new here. Adam, confronted by God in the Garden, was the first to misuse words (the highest gift of God up to that point) to subvert and confound the truth: “The woman thou gavest me gave it to me and I did eat.” Hamlet, after exposing Claudius with the “play within the play,” says, “I see that villains can lie and smile.” Our time surpasses all others in the mass production of words; ours is “the communication age” after all, we are told.
Surely this is a misnomer, for never has so much been said, so little worth our attention. No one in Washington dares to speak in public on certain issues without a lawyer at his side, as though words themselves have become the Enemy. Perhaps the Antichrist is not the monster of my childhood, but this smiley-faced subversion of language; it was Christ who named Satan “the father of all lies.” Indeed, the degradation of words and their proper use is the opposite of “the Word made flesh” and antithetical to “the Holy Spirit, which is truth and light” (the Roman Missal).
Words Still Matter
Perhaps it is because the South as a region is suspicious of such gnostic Sonderbehandlung (“special handling,” the word marked on the charts of the euthanized by Nazi doctors), but words still matter a great deal hereabouts, I notice, as in a recent local case where a man was charged and summoned to court for using “fighting words.” (He had called a tax assessor a liar.) We Southerners are often cited for being a violent folk, with our “dueling past” mentioned by some sociologists as the reason.
But let’s not confuse contained, ceremonial violence, our mark of Cain, with the plain cussedness of lynchings, drive-by shootings, and random bombings. There is nothing random about a duel, and though I do not recommend such as a means of settling disputes, just imagine if what you said mattered, as it did with Christ, unto the shedding of blood!
We’d likely have much more thoughtful silence. We may even find it quiet enough to discern the truth amid the noise of the devil quoting Scripture all about us.
“What is truth?” Pilate cynically asks Christ when he says that his kingly commission from God was “to bear witness to the truth.” It is highly interesting here that Jesus associates “the truth” with recognition of the voice of God: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37). Plainly, human beings and dark principalities have been playing games with “the truth” for quite a long time. Childish experimentation with objective truth is excusable, even necessary for two-year-olds; the same behavior in adults is foolishness at best, blasphemy and unpardonable sin at worst (cf. Mark 3:29–30).
As novelist Andrew Lytle observed in From Eden to Babylon: “A lie is nothing, no thing, and cannot exist until somebody accepts it as the truth. This is the opposite of the divinity fusing with the body of the world. A lie can only seize the mind of that man who has forgotten the Incarnation.”
Rick Barnett, a convert to Roman Catholicism, lives in Atlanta, where he teaches part-time at Mercer University. His essays have also appeared in the Chattahoochie Review and Notre Dame Magazine. Professor Sommers’s quote is taken from Imprimis (March 1998).
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Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
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