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Calling things by their true names

The redemptive power of the truth

A computer screen displays Merriam-Webster's definition of "they," the company's 2019 word of the year. Associated Press/Photo by Jenny Kane

Calling things by their true names

I offer a modest suggestion. One of the most redemptive things we can do each day is simply this: Call things by their true names. Why? Because words have a tremendous power to illuminate or to obscure truth and, therefore, the power to make or break civilization. The great authors of dystopian fiction knew this well.

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the “firemen” of America’s future “were given a new job,” namely burning books, “as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors.”

In our day, dystopian fiction is becoming reality. The self-appointed “custodians of our peace of mind” at Brandheis University’s Prevention, Advocacy, & Research Center inform us that the phrases “killing two birds with one stone,” and “beating a dead horse” “normalize violence against animals.” “Freshman” should become “first year student” to avoid lumping people into a gender binary. Phrases like “Long time, no see” and “no can do” allegedly make fun of non-native English speakers. “Prostitute” should become “person who engages in sex work.” “Facebook stalking” should become “researching online” to avoid “making light of actual stalking.” Even the term “trigger warning” should be replaced with “content note” because “trigger warning” can be, well, too triggering. Their “Suggested Language List” was recently known as “The Oppressive Language List.” Ironically, they had to change the old title because it “centered … words and phrases that may cause harm.” Left unchecked, there will be no end to this nonsense.

Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984, spent his days changing words. Atop the concrete pyramid of Oceania’s “Ministry of Truth” hung the Party slogan in which “war,” “slavery,” and “ignorance” were relabeled as “peace,” “freedom,” and “strength.” In our day, articulating the biological reality and biblical truth that males and females are different is now redefined as “transphobia.” “Bigot” no longer means “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices,” but a catch-all slur for anyone who questions the orthodoxies of the left.

“Racism” no longer means discrimination based on race, but “prejudice plus power,” a definition invented by white social scientist Patricia Bidol-Patva (and recently enshrined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary). We are told that only those who wield power can be deemed racist.

In C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, we meet Mark Studdock. Like Orwell’s Winston Smith, Studdock is tasked with “concocting news” to drum up support for a totalitarian regime, the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). The goose-stepping police force of N.I.C.E. is euphemized as “Sanitary Executives.” The power of N.I.C.E. to “experiment on criminals” is rebranded “re-education of the mal-adjusted.” “N.I.C.E.” itself is a euphemism for what, in reality, is a cadre of pseudo-scientific nihilists in league with satanic principalities (renamed “Macrobes”) “working for the extinction of all organic life.”

Does no one call things by their names? Euphemisms abound today. It is not the termination of vulnerable pre-born humans. It is “the evacuation of uterine contents” or removing “a clump of cells” (akin to “unpersons” in newspeak). Any opposition to the procedure is a “war on women.” Then we find an expanding lexicon of new words breaking mainstream—“cisgender,” “genderfluid,” “ze/zir,” “birthing person.” The plural third-person pronoun “they” to “refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary” was hailed as Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019. Our conversations about race are shaped by loaded terminology like “white privilege,” “white fragility,” and “whiteness,” each coined by white ideologues (Peggy MacIntosh, Robin DiAngelo, and Judith Katz, respectively).

Why resist these words games? Because we must. In T.S. Elliot’s words, “The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality; the experiment will fail.” Yet, we often find ourselves at a loss as to what we can do in our busy lives, to, as Elliot says, “help renew and rebuild civilization, and save the world from suicide.”

Because Christianity is unabashedly committed to reality. Given the power of words to reveal or revolt against reality, Christianity has a long history of taking words seriously. Hold fast to that noble tradition. As Jesus said, “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). Refuse to submit to the redefinitions of our day. Help “save the world from suicide” by making a daily habit of calling things by their true names.

Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.

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