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Calling things by their true names

Thaddeus Williams | 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
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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 serves as associate professor of systematic theology for Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. His books include Reflect (Lexham, 2018), Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth (Zondervan, 2020), and God Reforms Hearts (Lexham, 2021). He resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.

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JULIE UPMAN

Gee, in our ESL program at church, my fellow teachers and I are teaching our adult students that ‘they’ refers to more than one person, ‘he’ and ‘his’ refer to males and ‘she’ and ‘her’ refer to females! I wonder when the thought police are coming for us?!

Dreher’s book is a warning to Christians that the culture war has been mostly lost and we’re well into what he calls “soft totalitarianism’. He offers strategies for persevering as Christians and preserving Christianity in a hostile culture. I’m seeing pushback though from parents challenging their school boards and now alumni forming groups to challenge their universities over free speech issues. So perhaps we’re not yet in Orwell’s 1984 world.

BarryJULIE UPMAN

And, Alliance Defending Freedom has just taken on the fight against critical theory in public schools.

CaptTee

The nominative case, singular, proper pronouns are "he", "she", and "it".
If you remove the reproductive organs of a male or female, you make a neuter. Artificial organs do not change one between male and female. Ideology does not trump scientific facts.

BarryCaptTee

CaptTee, "...you make a neuter." Well, not really. Every cell in our bodies contains either an x-chromosome and a y-chromosome, (us guys), or two x-chromosomes, (the gals). Even with body parts removed, every remaining cell says whether he or she is a he or she.

MTJanet

I definitely agree that we do not need to play the word games. It endorses delusional thinking, especially with regard to the transgender. As a woman, I do not identify with a "transwoman", nor should I. He is not nor can ever be a woman, no matter how many cosmetic surgeries he obtains or how much hormonal therapy his body consumes. The real danger is that we are lying about God's creation. Once you consider that you may be agreeing with satan, you see the truth quite clearly.

JerryM

The article recalls my past interactions with World over the use of the word "marriage". The editorial decision, I was told, was to refer to same-sex "marriage" as marriage (i.e. no quotes). Do we actually agree that two people of the same-sex can be married? World's editorial decision, in this case, was indeed implying that same-sex "marriages" are the moral equivalent of heterosexual marriages.

not silent

I highly recommend the C. S. Lewis book mentioned in this article (That Hideous Strength), though I should probably warn people who know C. S. Lewis from The Chronicles of Narnia that That Hideous Strength is written for adults and contains some pretty intense scenes. An additional point in the book that I don't think the article mentioned was that Mark Studdock asked if the NICE was liberal or conservative and was told it was NEITHER and that true power came from pitting the left and right against each other so that chaos would result and the NICE could step in and take over.

PWAH6756

Does this dovetail with the book "Live not by Lies" by Rod Dreher? I have not read that book. I must admit the screen shot of the dictionary web page grabbed my attention. Bradbury, Orwell, Lewis and Elliot bring historical context to this "modern" development.

RHAR1831

The link to this article only shows the image of a computer screen with M-W display of the definition for "they". The text of the article is not displayed, nor is there a link to the text portion. Thanks.