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On the Necessity of Relationships (Part II)

Posted by Gary Labels: , ,

Last time we covered the necessity of social context for our self-image. Now, I'd like us to consider how meaning develops for words. Actually, it's pretty much the same. Words, in a vacuum, have no definition. They must be studied in connection with other words. Basically, the human mind can't grasp words until they're used in a sentence.


On its own, it's hard to figure out what this word means. It's a pretty common English word, and it can mean: angelic being, authority, superhero ability, political influence, control, allure/charm, electricity, etc., etc.

Without context, there's no way to define exactly what "power" means. If I introduced a foreign word into a sentence, like some fancy Greek word you've never heard before, you probably won't be able to figure out what it means even though it's used in a sentence. Words have to be explained using other words, which is why words mean nothing on their own. In linguistics, a word's meaning exists in two parts: content is what a word says, and framing is how you should feel about it. Killing, murdering, assassinating, and executing all have the same content: making someone dead. The framing is how you should feel about it: killing is neutral; murdering/assassinating is terrible; and executing is... tolerable.

Since words only exist in relation to other words, their meanings can be stretched. Let's examine how the trick of content and framing works in reference to abortion arguments. How can anyone make the idea of killing babies for convenience palatable? You can popularize an idea by drawing upon the preexisting tradition of what is considered virtuous (i.e. words that give the idea a positive framing). For America, nothing is more sacred than personal freedom of individual choice. We will die for it, and we will kill for it. Hell, we'll even bomb civilians for it. If you can frame pro-choice arguments in the context of "American freedoms," then it sounds like a good deal. Sounds pretty American.

As an example of pro-choice wording bias: NARAL Pro-Choice America says this about themselves:

For 40 years, NARAL Pro-Choice America has been the nation's leading advocate for privacy and a woman's right to choose.

All of these words have a particular flavor to them. "Advocate" brings to mind a sense of bravely speaking out on behalf of what's right. We sure love our "privacy." "Right" suggests something that is morally necessary (and, for Americans, something worth dying for). "Choice" is, well, the golden calf of American thought. We live our lives as consumers of ever more stuff. Convenience is what makes us happy. (Well, actually, it makes us empty, but that's for another post.) When something displeases us, we throw it away. When we're unhappy with our marriage, we think s/he's not really "the one," so we get a divorce and try again.

According to Family Guy, the Emperor in Star Wars found out the formula for good Star Wars dialogue: "something, something, something, Dark Side. Something, something, something, complete." Let me give you the formula for good "pro-choice" dialogue. The sentence goes like this:
1. Start with "it is." Make the sentence an affirmation.
2. "HER." Use the third-personal singular possessive pronoun.
3. Follow up with an adjective that further indicates possession. "Own," "personal," or "individual" works great.
4. Finally, top it off with "body" or "choice."

In short, you must make sure you individualize the statement. The classic statement from this recipe is "it's her own body." Here's one I've heard when I objected to a friend's sexual misconduct: "she'll make the choice that's best...(pause for emphasis) for her." I'm sorry, but no. Sin is sin, and friends do not let friends screw around.

The points I hope to make with this post are:
1. Words must always be evaluated very carefully. The meaning of a word is slippery, since it takes its meaning from how it interacts with other words.
2. Words are the ammunition fired in the war to influence people's thoughts. People employ rhetoric of "freedom" and "choice" and other high-sounding words to make killing babies sound like something it's not.

Now, it must be said that pro-choice and pro-life are both high-sounding words, and both sides will label the other as anti-choice and anti-life. Words are the ammunition on both sides. It is because of communication gaps like this that two people can see the same thing and understand it completely differently. Ultimately, we can't just object to abortion because our side may be better at making ourselves look good and making them look bad. We have to base ourselves off of better reasons to believe as we do.

My next post in this series will cover the 8 different themes of hate speech. These same categories have been used to demean blacks, Native Americans, victims of Nazi and Soviet oppression, women, and children (both before and after birth). It's disturbing to think that the same basic way people dehumanized German Jews is the same way people dehumanize the unborn. Biology has always, up until recently, accepted life as beginning at conception. The zygote fits all the qualifications required for a thing to be alive. It also is of the species homo sapiens. Therefore, it is a living human being, as biologically defined. No fancy word games can refute this, but repeatedly telling lies will convince people that they are true.