Friday, July 18, 2008

Language and License

One of the most dispiriting consequences of the rise of relativism is that words have failed to mean much of anything at all.

Take P.Z. Myers and his ilk's persistent and insulting use of the word "cracker" to describe the Eucharist. Now, any Catholic, and nearly any Christian whose church has any sort of communion service at all, knows that "cracker" doesn't even accurately describe the communion wafer, whether we are talking about the accidents of bread which remain after transubstantiation for Catholics, or about the properties of the wafer itself for other Christians for whom communion is a more symbolic ritual. A cracker is clearly different from a communion wafer, and Myers knows this, but he's using the word on purpose to advance his peculiar ideology.

Or take the word "marriage." Thanks to the actions of a couple of runaway judges in two liberal states, the word "marriage" really has little if any meaning at all anymore. If someone from California or Massachusetts says he or she is married, for instance, you have to pause and wait to find out if they are speaking of a putatively valid union between themselves and a member of the opposite sex, or a completely disordered and invalid union which may have been defined to equal "marriage" by judicial fiat but which bears no more resemblance to it than a communion Host bears to a Keebler Town House snack item.

Or consider the phrase "faith-based initiative," which meant one thing under a Republican administration, but which is likely to mean something completely opposite under a Democratic one (thanks to John Jensen for sending this along). When a "faith-based initiative" starts to mean a government-run program with government hiring rules and heavy government involvement, it's not really "faith-based" anymore, is it?

Writers like Lewis Carroll and George Orwell knew only too well how quickly language could cease to mean anything intelligible at all once it was divorced from any notion of truth. Carroll, of course, had fun with the concept, while Orwell recognized the sinister potential, but both were aware that communication pretty well ceases when Jones insists that "red" is a color made up of blue and yellow, while Smith declares that it is made up of yellow and orange. If Roberts is in the corner muttering that "red" is a primary color not made up of either of those things, he is shunted aside and disregarded as a madman; what is important is not what "red" actually is, but only what Smith or Jones feel it to be, or find meaningful about it, or have decided based on their personal experiences what it ought to be.

Such is the dictatorship of relativism, where communication rapidly disintegrates into meaningless babbling as words cease to have fixed definitions, become unmoored from such archaic notions as "truth," and are the victims of the endless manipulations of the chattering throng.


Irenaeus said...

Have you read CS Lewis' Abolition of Man or his novel That Hideous Strength?

Red Cardigan said...

It's been years since I've read the first, and the Perelandra series has been sitting on my shelf for months, I'm afraid! I'll have to crack it open. :)

Irenaeus said...

When you get back to them, let me know. They really speak to our situation. Prescient, that Lewis.