Language matters

If I understand the term correctly, nominalism holds, in practice, that words have no objective meaning or reality in themselves, but are merely tools for describing whatever we want them to describe. That is to say, words are contingent only upon the meanings we assign to them, not upon an “abstract” and unchanging reality that demands expression. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“Nominalism consequently denies the existence of abstract and universal concepts, and refuses to admit that the intellect has the power of engendering them. What are called general ideas are only names, mere verbal designations, serving as labels for a collection of things or a series of particular events.”

Most everyone today is a nominalist to some degree. We can be sure that many Californians who voted for Proposition 8 did so on the basis that the people, rather than judges on a court, ought to have the right to define marriage; they did not vote for Proposition 8 because the term “marriage” describes an objective and universal reality that cannot be altered by votes of any kind. Such voters, already committed to nominalism, will be completely out of arguments when the people change their minds.

The importance of language in the culture wars cannot be overstated. We are losing the culture wars because we are losing the language wars. We have conceded the idea that people get to define words however they wish, whether individually or as part of the “democratic process”. I touched on the importance of language in my essay on feminism some time ago. For the cultural vandals and barbarians among us, language is a mighty barrier to their goals. In order to attain their wicked ends they must co-opt the language, redefine words, and eliminate old concepts and categories. Feminism has made tremendous strides towards ruining English in this manner, and the homosexual activists are attempting to do the same. Hence, you will (hopefully) never see me refer to homosexuals as “gays”, since “gay” is already a perfectly good English word – widely used and understood for centuries, and having nothing to do with homosexuality – for which there is no suitable replacement. The use of the word “gay” to mean “homosexual” has so corrupted the English language that schoolchildren can’t read literature more than 50 years old without snickering or giggling when they encounter the word.

All of this is by way of introducing a very important essay by Lydia McGrew, titled “Fighting the Leftist Nominalists Every Step of the Way”. Even more important than voting or political activism, fighting the homosexual agenda requires holding the line on the meaning of words in everyday life – even, perhaps, at considerable personal cost. It seems like a small matter, but once the language battle is lost, the cultural and political consequences are a foregone conclusion. Lydia writes:

“I’m more than a bit worried about what is going to happen to all of my good Christian friends if and when homosexual ‘marriage’ is put into place (with or without the will of the people) in their parts of the country. It seems to me not implausible that some of them will simply start referring to same-sex couples as ‘married,’ to the partners in such so-called ‘marriages’ as each others’ ‘husbands’ or ‘spouses’ or ‘wives’ and excuse doing so by saying, ‘Well, no matter what you think, it really is the law that they are married.’ They might even think in some confused way that they, even in private conversation, are obligated to ‘obey the law’ by using this terminology. In fact, I suspect that any employer in such a state or any businessman who sells any goods or services to the public and refuses to go along in conversation with the ‘marital’ status of a homosexual employee or customer will face lawsuit. And the comments of this hard-core leftist commentator suggest that conservatives will be told exactly this: ‘Shut up. Homosexual marriage is now a legal fact. That is what you are being asked to acknowledge. Whatever you may think about the matter, you cannot deny the legal facts now in place. Just refer to those and keep the rest of your opinions to yourself.’ (Notice, among other things, his reference to ‘refusing to accept a plain legal fact.’) (See also this story about the ostensibly Christian Condoleeza Rice, though some might well question whether Rice is a conservative in any sense worth mentioning. The homosexual pair did not even have any pretense of legal ‘marriage,’ but Rice went out of her way to call the one man’s mother the other man’s ‘mother-in-law’ nonetheless.)

Whether or not arguments about the homosexual agenda usually involve nominalism, that argument (about our using the word in this way because ‘now that’s true legally’) is nominalism pure and simple. The idea is that a positive law can simply create a legal reality regarding marriage–however crazy that new ‘reality’ is–and that we can and should now refer to this new reality in our own usage, regardless of ‘what we think,’ as though the fact that a man literally cannot be married to another man is a mere matter of opinion. This is all very bad indeed.

I say that all conservatives, Christian and otherwise, who know perfectly well that two men or two women literally cannot be married must resist this usage to their last gasp. Fight it every step of the way. Do not give in to this specious argument about a legal reality. In using this terminology without some qualifier such as ‘so-called’ or scare quotes, you are, whether you like it or not, both caving in to and furthering the homosexual agenda and the erosion of marriage. Just say no.”

As with any other conversation involving Lydia McGrew, the discussion in the comment boxes is guaranteed to exercise your critical thinking faculties.

6 thoughts on “Language matters

  1. +JMJ+

    Happy New Year, Jeff!

    We haven’t found a good replacement for the word “gay” yet, have we? =( Now I have to say something like, “lightheartedly happy”–which is barely the same thing! Yet why should we have to replace it? It’s not fair!

    Anyway, we have some people who say that words are more real than meaning and others who say that meaning is more real than words. Yet why should words and meaning be yin and yang? The key to the relationship between what is real and what is spoken is in the mysterious words Verbum Caro Factum Est.

    So, yes, language does matter, because the Word Itself became matter that would satisfy the most fastidious of chemists.


  2. “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” — Confucius’ Rectification of Names.


  3. Enbrethiliel,

    Mysterious words indeed. They cut straight to the heart of the matter, an especially timely meditation during this Octave of the Nativity. Thank you.


  4. I can’t help thinking of this passage from “Through the Looking Glass”:

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

    My question: who will be our master? The one who decides what our words mean. Nothing more and nothing less.


  5. Happy new year. Of course you’re right that the notion that the people can define marriage (or the sexes, calling that gender instead) is wrong. That said as long as the do-no-harm principle of libertarianism is followed, people have the right to be wrong, or the same freedom that protects them protects us. (Or in the virtually impossible scenario that America’s Christian right took over, in a couple of years we’d be persecuted as heretics, bread-, saint- and image-worshipping idolaters.) But don’t worry; I don’t want civil unions either partly because it violates our freedom – forces us in fact to redefine marriage – and for the reason you give. Get the state out of it and leave it to religions and couples. As most of mankind is sexually normal and wants to reproduce, life will go on and the homosexual natural minority can live in peace, treated charitably by Christians.


  6. Just last night I was visiting a friend, and in reference to some object on his wall he said that it was given to him by one of his relatives and his “wife-in-law”. My wife, questioned, and he answered “well the law says they are married, even though they aren’t.”

    Now this was a situation that did not involve the issues of prop 8, but the no fault divorce laws. I have to say that I was impressed by his linguistic resourcefulness, that acknowledged the brokeness of our society, yet did not call the non-wife a true wife.


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