“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, George Orwell
When I was a young child, maybe 4 or 5 years old, we had a housekeeper named Emma, who happened to be
colored. negro. Afro American. African American. black. Forty or so years later, I still remember her humming while she dusted the living room with a feather duster and shushing me into silence when “As the World Turns” came on the old black and white TV (how she could hear “her program” over the sound of the vacuum cleaner, but not over my voice, I will never understand). Just like all of the adults in my life at the time, she was one of my favorite adults and thinking of her now brings back fond memories. Blissfully unaware of the distinctions that grown people like to draw between themselves, the color of her skin meant no more to me than did the color of her hair or her eyes.
Another thing I remember about Emma is a very stern lecture delivered by my grandmother telling me that the polite way to describe her appearance was to use the word “colored”. This was my introduction to racial politics. It was very important to use that word and none other. Somewhere along the way, I was astounded when the word “colored” became offensive – replaced by “negro”, then “negro” was replaced by “Afro-American” and then “African American”. The APA Style Guide now tells me that “African American” and “black” are both acceptable. In my opinion, “African American” has too many syllables, too many letters, and it’s not an accurate description for black people in other countries, or for black people who have lived in our country for generations, so I use “black.”. But I honestly don’t see anything wrong with “negro” or “colored” or any other word that is not malicious and communicates a meaning that can be understood by both the speaker and the listener. Why are other words off limits? How can it be that the word “colored” was polite and respectful in 1972, but rude and offensive in 1982?
It was probably around the same time as my grandmother’s lecture that my mom taught me what it means to be married. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I’m sure it went something like this, “Getting married is when a man and a woman decide that they love each other so much that they want to spend the rest of their lives together, they make a promise to God and to each other, move in together and start a family”. For me, and for 96% of American society, that is a perfectly fine definition of marriage, but I can feel myself being herded away from it by the political elite on a near daily basis. I have noticed recently that the politicos are replacing the phrase “gay marriage” with “marriage equality”. Implicit in the latter phrase is the idea that a committed gay relationship is already a marriage, one which is unequal by reason of state suppression. It’s actually a very clever propaganda technique, but according to the definition I learned from my mom, it is also an oxymoron. I already discussed this topic here and here and I’m not going to replay the topic, but whether one supports or opposes “gay marriage”, this terminology is undoubtedly an attempt at social control through the manipulation of language.
Even though we all agree that everyone deserves equal rights, two gays in a committed relationship does not fit my understanding of what constitutes a marriage. Under the law, I believe that a gay union should be treated identically to a straight union, but to my mind, the two types of unions are simply not the same thing – no matter what anyone else says. It’s not a values or morals or political judgement. It’s language. I feel as if someone’s coming along and telling me that the number 7 must now be considered to be an even number. Sorry. The definition I use for “even numbers” does not include 7 and the definition I use for “marriage” does not include same sex partners. Go ahead, use your own definition of even numbers as “7 and all numbers divisible by 2″ if you like and and use your own definition for marriage, too – but don’t try to force either of those definitions down my throat. If your definitions are useful, they will catch on without coercion and eventually, if I want to be understood, I’ll adopt them too.
We see the same phenomenon with “Indian” morphing to “American Indian” and then “Native American”. Coercive changes driven by the politically elite language enforcers instead of natural mutations occurring among free speakers. The problem with offensive language has never been the word that’s used. The problem is how the word is used. The same word can be offensive or not, depending on the context. If you want to eliminate malicious use of words, my mom had lessons for that, too, “Don’t call people names” and of course “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all”. Manipulating language will not make a better society. Being nice to each other will.
The way language should work is that if a word is needed, someone creates it. If the word is useful then its usage spreads. If it is not useful it dies out. Over time, the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of words can also mutate and evolve as people find and share new ways to use them. That’s communication. When the political elite attempt to change society by manipulating language, this is something very different. This is control, not communication.
So they are herding us around from word to word. What does it matter? Does anyone really care whether the word marriage is expanded to include a few more people? Does the world come to an end if we use “black” instead of “negro” or “colored” to describe some people? Aside from detesting the feeling of being stampeded around like a piece of livestock, I’m not going to lose any sleep over words like these. But, here’s why it matters – accepting changes like these conditions us to submit to definitions from the elite even on the words that really do matter – and there are some. They have also used this technique on words that make a fundamental difference in our lives. We must learn to recognize and resist this tactic in those situations where it really does matter.
For example, what does “free speech” mean? What are the rights to “free exercise of religion” and “due process?” Do we let the very same people who are charged with respecting these rights also define what they mean? What does “commerce among the several states” mean? Is it the definition that was understood and agreed to by the Constitution’s ratifiers or is it whatever the people in power tell us it is? What does “General Welfare” mean? Through the poisonous idea of the “living Constitution“, this tactic of herding people around by manipulating their language extends even to the Constitution, the supreme law of the land. This is an abuse and it must be put to an end.
The people we elect and the ones who they appoint cannot be allowed to redefine the meanings of the very words that are intended to limit their power. If they are, then language becomes their tool for controlling us. If they have this tool, they will use it. There is only one answer. The language of the Constitution means what it meant when it was ratified. Any attempt to alter the meaning of the language of the Constitution is, fundamentally, a power grab which must be rejected. If the government really believes it needs a new power, the Congress can submit a Constitutional amendment to the states for ratification. There is no other Constitutionally valid method for the federal government to increase its power and the states and the people must learn to insist that the Constitution be followed – to the letter.