This is a repost of an article originally published in March at another site that has since gone away. —Kent Pitman
Language is a complex beast. A single word, or a sequence of words taken together as a phrase or sentence, may mean one thing now and quite another thing later, or may mean one thing to you and still another to me.
It’s is a messy thing up close, barely withstanding scrutiny at times. It’s amazing that we not only use but rely upon such a clumsy contrivance.
And yet language is all that stands between any of us and profound loneliness. Sometimes it drives us. Sometimes we drive it. Yet it’s all we have to connect us with each other, to remember our past, and to discuss our possible futures.
I say a thing and it means something to me. You may hear it differently than I said it. Your words are not my words. I describe a piece of music as “pretty” or “sad” or “touching” and that sets an expectation for you, but you later hear it and say “wait, it’s not that at all.” I haven’t lied to you. We each come to know words according to our experiences and needs, and the result can be quite different.
Of course, we can rush to the dictionary for arbitration, but the dictionary can’t be said to know. A dictionary isn’t a source of truth, just a statistical record of commonly observed usages. It doesn’t drive language. Language drives the dictionary.
I may put a thought into words, and you may surprise me by hearing an intepretation I never intended. You may even prefer to hold me to that interpretation. Language can ensnare us. Sometimes it reveals hidden truths. Sometimes it just makes a mess of simple thoughts for reasons no more profound than its unsophisticated form. To borrow the parlance of Star Trek out context, language is itself “stone knives and bearskins.”
Language supports ambiguity. Ambiguity itself is ambiguous, so let me be clear about the three kinds of ambiguity I know of: I may use ambiguity to talk about something I don’t fully understand, speaking in blurry terms about things I know only in a blurry way. Or I may understand things quite precisely but not want to reveal what I do and do not understand, so I might choose to speak in ways that hide my knowledge. Or I may be speaking plainly and precisely about something in the world that is itself ambiguous.
We are admonished not to let others put words into our mouths, but really the greater threat is not to let others put meaning into our words. Words are windows into our intent, but when ambiguity arises, the benefit of reasonable doubt must go to the one uttering the words, not the one hearing them.
This creates a special burden in politics. A politician is elected who has promised to do well for our country. What does that mean? Surely the same promise, made by a different person, might imply something different. We cannot simply rush to the dictionary and expect to find from the meaning of the words what the politician will do.
Two woman become pregnant. One has struggled for a long time to get to this point, wishing more than anything for children, but now she has a miscarriage. The other never had any intent to have children and gets an abortion. Two fetuses, neither to ever be born. Must that imply my emotions for each are the same? May I be happy for one and sad for the other? May I say one has lost a child while not the other?
It’s again a question of language. If one fetus is a child, must the other be? I say no. Language is messier than that. You may think a chicken egg is just a chicken, but if your server in a restaurant brings you fried eggs instead of fried chicken, you’ll quickly reconsider and insist it was your intent that should dominate, not someone’s self-serving desire to construe your words differently than you intended.
Then when does life begin? When does an egg, or a fetus, become a person? I think the magic occurs when a pregnant woman freely chooses it. I think life must be chosen. Forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy against her will is nothing less than slavery. I don’t always hear it articulated this way, but I think this is what it is to be pro-choice. The decision to bear a child ought to be a personal choice, not a fate forced by governments, dictionaries, or bullies.
So I take my cue from the woman’s choice. It seems reasonable and appropriate to celebrate from the moment a woman excitedly announces she has chosen to be pregnant, and to mourn if she loses that child. But it seems equally reasonable not to mourn if a woman elects an abortion because she doesn’t want kids—or doesn’t want them yet. Perhaps the choice is painful for her, perhaps not—I look to her for guidance. Even good decisions can be difficult ones. It’s her life, and her right to decide whether and when she will have a child. I celebrate and support that freedom to choose.
This use of language may seem messy, but it’s not hypocritical. It’s just the nature of language. Some situations are just complicated—like the earlier matter of the fried chicken versus the fried eggs. Does wanting fried chicken make you somehow a hypocrite? I think not. The situation is what it is, and language bends to accommodate.
Evangelical conservatives like to claim the right to define words like “moral” and “values” and “life,” as if these words had clear definitions that were theirs to determine in a “one size fits all” way. We must resist that. Language is not the property of any individual or group, nor is there any particular meaning of a word that will be universally applicable in all circumstances.
Language must not be dumbed down into a rigid tool of oppression, but instead must remain flexible so that we are empowered to express ourselves, each in our own way. Through language, we don’t just define life, but we define our lives. We don’t just talk about how to conceive a child, but how to conceive the world.
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