The goal in this series is to look at the current use of words by many on the ideological left in American society, a trend which has increasingly caught my attention in recent years. As we noted in part 1, the postmodern roots of this trend go back hundreds of years and have naturally extended to how things like gender and even human life are treated. Our concern here, however, is with the issue of words.
There is a limitlessness of semantic range when it comes to how the postmodern, secular, progressive, ideological left uses words in our day. But it’s more than mere semantic range. It’s definitions that have never been seen before, words imbued with nuances and meanings they’ve never had before or that don’t actually cohere with reality, or—worse than that—that actually shape, create, and dictate reality.
For instance, those who are morally opposed to abortion are accused off-hand of being against a woman’s right to choose when it comes to her own health care. But is it actual health care that we’re talking about, and are we really against a women’s right to choose that? And is it (either health care or abortion) a “right” in the actual, legal sense of the term? And is all of that what I am really against?
But the phrase has created a new reality entirely in which I am no longer someone who is reasonably morally opposed the dismemberment of a live, unborn child in its mother’s womb—or the extraction of its brain at delivery as it’s half-way out of the birth canal.
Rather, in this new reality created by the phrase, I am a morally-backwards bigot who, against all rationality, is against a woman receiving medical care and her choice of how that happens.
The most disturbing part about this new use of language is that there doesn’t seem to be any recognition by its practitioners that any of it is happening. Things like meaning, definitions, nuance, or how they’re actually using the words they’re using do not appear to be anywhere on their conscious radar. But this should really come as no surprise, because postmodernism—which is what makes up the infrastructure of their thinking—is, by its very nature, grounded in experience and not rationality.
“In this new reality created by the phrase, I am a morally-backwards bigot who, against all rationality, is against a woman receiving medical care and her choice of how that happens.
Plasticity in Practice
For example, take this panel discussion, and notice how NYU School of Law student Viviana Bonilla Lopez uses words like ‘safe,’ ‘accessible,’ ‘accommodating.’ These terms are contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to which Ms. Lopez is appealing, and understood according to their actual definitions and in the context of what those words mean in the world of disabilities.
However, notice how Ms. Lopez is using those terms. Clearly, she’s talking about making the classroom ‘accessible’ for everyone, which is fair enough. But what she means by ‘accessible,’ however, is ’emotionally comfortable with’ or ‘not containing content that offends me.’
When a person in a wheelchair can’t “access” a restaurant because there’s no ramp, that is in a different universe entirely from someone being offended in a classroom because the professor actually has the audacity to say things that are offensive (such as, for example, that there are people who exist who actually believe that there legitimate arguments against legally mandating preferred gender pronouns). And yet, here is Ms. Lopez equating the two scenarios by an independent, wholly-original use of terms like “accessible.”
The same thing—and the most prominent example in my mind—can be seen in this article which deals with a proposed law in Great Britain seeking to limit gender reassignment surgery to people over the age of 18. The article quotes a statement by a spokesperson for an LGBTQ activist group, who says:
“It would be an extraordinary move for the Minister for Women and Equalities to support the introduction of a new form of inequality into British medical practice by effectively treating transgender teenagers as less capable than their cisgender peers” (emphasis added).
We will not deal with the fact that a person would find it unreasonable for another person to be opposed to minors undergoing gender-reassignment surgery, or that the British law did not seek to allow “cisgender teens” any special access to that surgery that it denied “transgender teens.” Those issues will leave for another discussion.
What we are interested in here is other of the spokesperson’s words. Is it really “medical practice” that is at stake? Is this actually a debate over medicine as a practice? More than that, is this in reality a question of actual “equality”? Is that actually what’s going on? Is the drive behind this law—in all honesty, in the real world that we all live in—a malicious, narrow-minded, bigoted attempt to exclude certain people from actual, biological, health-improving or life-saving medical care?
Or could it rather be, just possibly, that the only real novelty here is this spokesperson’s use of the term “inequality”?
The Problem of Systemic Racism
A primary example that has been really troubling me in recent months is the term “systemic racism.”
I do not deny at all that oppressive governments and societies exist. They are a fundamental feature of fallen humanity and have existed at all times wherever there have been people. (In fact, one might say that they are the rule and not the exception, which Thomas Sowell does in so many words.)
And for the record, this is an indictment on humanity, not a justification of oppression.
Also for the record, we absolutely affirm that the United States is no exception to that. America, without question, right along with nearly every other society in the history of humanity, is guilty of actual systemic racism. And it is a relatively recent history at that. My dad died last year; he was 70 years old, in perfect health, had all his mental and physical faculties—still a “young old man,” as it were. There are people walking around who are his age who experienced what was without question systemic racism—people who are still in their full health and strength who were oppressed by the very institutions that should have protected and honored them as people made in the image of God. My own grandparents spoke Spanish as their first language, and I’ve heard the stories of some of the things they experienced—even in California, which was a considerable distance both geographically and culturally from the Jim Crow South.
And also for the record, racism is a moral monstrosity. Anyone who doesn’t say so is in sin and in opposition to the mind of God regarding what a person is.
Having acknowledged all of that, the way the term “systemic racism” is being thrown around in current society is troubling. In the same exact way that Ms. Lopez used the term “accessible,” or our LGBTQ spokesperson used the term “inequality,” so “systemic racism” is used without any actual, working definition of either of those terms or any attempts to accord with reality.
“The most disturbing part about this this new use of language is that there doesn’t seem to be any recognition by its practitioners that any of it is happening. But this should really come as no surprise, because postmodernism—which is what makes up the infrastructure of their thinking—is, by its very nature, grounded in experience and not rationality.
And I have asked multiple people to define those terms for me: “What do you mean technically by the term ‘systemic,’ and what do you mean by ‘racism’?” For my part, as someone who is a minority, and who believes that words matter, and who believes that it is crucially important and morally obligatory that I get my opponents right (as opposed to painting them with some broad-brushed caricature that serves my ideological purposes), I have labored to work out what I think those terms mean. That way I don’t use them sloppily or inaccurately, or—even worse—destroy someone’s reputation or livelihood by recklessly accusing them of some gross evil that isn’t true.
Because, as we all know, society on the whole right along with every organization in the country with any meaningful degree of visibility is running from racism like the plague. Every single organization is clamoring as if their existence depended on it—because it does—to let everyone know that they’re champions for racial diversity. Practically, this means that if I were to accuse someone of racism—which I could easily do as a minority—that could have the potential to turn that person into a social pariah if enough people, or if one important person, were to believe it. To my mind, all of this seems to be a factor when it comes to gauging the extent of racism in America and how “structural” it actually is. But we digress…
Our point is just this: the term “systemic racism,” as it is commonly used in our current American context, seems to me to be another instance of verbal postmodern plasticity without any attempt to attach it to reality or the actual definitions of words. In the end, it’s foundationless, irresponsible, and dangerous.
God, Words & the Christian
I am persuaded that we likely are fighting a losing battle, not just with respect to words, but on the societal level on the whole. I do not have confidence in the preservation of peace and actual justice in the United States. Whether that takes 10 years, a generation or three, or more is up to the Lord’s sovereign plan, but for my money, I suspect that the American ideal as reflected in our governing documents has reached the beginning of the end. As Shai Linne said, “this world is post-Christian, the glory days are over.” I don’t know that that’s true of the world, but I do think it’s true of the U.S.
Be that as it may (or not), as words continue to be misused and weaponized in our society, what are we to do about it as Christians? There are two things:
1. We need to have integrity in our speech and a high regard for words.
God is a God of truth who values words (Ps. 1, Ps. 15, Ps. 119, Jn. 1.1, 17.17). Therefore, as Christians, we must people of truth who have the highest regard for words and what they actually mean, especially God’s words (Dt. 8.3). Verbal accuracy matters to God (Eccl. 12.9-12), and it should matter to us. We cannot allow ourselves to be guilty of reckless, thoughtless speech that is not only wrong, but that so easily becomes a slanderous misrepresentation of our opponents. We need to understand people accurately and address them accurately. And it goes without saying, of course, that we need to be people who speak with truth, integrity, and grace, no matter what it costs us (Eph. 4.16, 29, Col. 3.9, 4.6).
2. We cannot lose heart and fall prey to the idea that Jesus’ throne is tied to the destiny of the United States.
Nations rise and nations fall at the discretion of God, but Jesus reigns on an eternal throne (Dan. 2.21, 7.13-14). All the plotting of nations, peoples, kings, and rulers is vain (Ps. 2). “Jesus who died shall be satisfied” on the day the Father makes his enemies a footstool for his feet (Heb. 10.12-13). We cannot forget that and put too much stock in this or that election, or in what happens to American society. We are but strangers and aliens here, and we look to a city whose Maker and Builder is God (Heb. 11.13-16). Amen. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus (Rev. 22.20).
“Verbal accuracy matters to God, and it should matter to us. As Christians, we cannot allow ourselves to be guilty of reckless, thoughtless speech that is not only wrong, but dangerous.