Stripping Language of Objective Meaning Is Dragging Us Down the Rabbit Hole

Patrick J. McCloskey | Author & Director of Research and Publications, University of Mary

At a restaurant in Manhattan some years ago, I asked the waitress, apparently on her first lunch shift in that profession, about the soupe du jour. She went to ask the chef and three minutes later returned to say, “The soupe du jour is soup of the day.” Her answer wasn’t helpful but not deliberately inaccurate as what’s on many of today’s mainstream cultural, intellectual and political menus.

America is sliding down the rabbit hole and stepping through the mirror. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, Alice meets Humpty Dumpty who declares, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Whether or not one supports the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it is anything but “affordable.” Most premiums are increasing steeply, government subsidies are growing and the number of health providers is shrinking. This has to produce less health care as health coverage increases.

In 2012, ACA was challenged for the first time before the Supreme Court. The majority of justices invalidated the administration’s argument that the law does not impose a tax, but then turned the rejected contention into the reason for the law to stand. “That carries verbal wizardry too far, deep into the forbidden land of sophists,” wrote the four dissenting justices.

Worse, ACA’s religious freedom exemption, instead of allowing the Little Sisters of the Poor to practice their faith and serve the elderly poor, enables the federal government to crush the order’s ministry because, miraculously, the state rightly determines what Catholic teachings require. Will sanity pre- vail when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on this in the fall?

Part of the problem is that everyone—from plumber to judge—has been conditioned by marketers for decades on the slippery nature of words. How many times can Tide detergent be “New and Improved!”? About 100 times and counting. One would think Tide could cleanse sins by now.

How many bloggers have developed severe allergies to dictionaries and other library resources? Absurd conspiracy theories have become cyber- epidemics. Some commentators claim that Pope Francis is a “Marxist,” for example, because he dares to criticize. Regardless of his economic acumen, he did not suddenly become an atheistic materialist.

In recent years, Humpty Dumpty has gone mainstream. TV “reality” shows proliferate and make “AWA All-Star Wrestling” look authentic. For the most part, today’s pop music, hip-hop culture, art, pulp fiction, movies and other commercial “creative” ventures seek not to inspire but degrade and exploit.

As we slide further from what is good, beautiful and true—from a sustainable, civilized culture—is it more shocking or predictable to learn that Planned “Parenthood” has been blithely selling body parts from aborted babies for profit for at least 15 years, according to an ABC News 20/20 investigation? The organization scavenges from late-term abortions and even live-born infants. After being exposed again in July, the organization’s defense was to claim it facilitates the donation of human “tissue to scientific research that can help lead to medical breakthroughs … with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.” Sounds like the Nuremberg defense. Perhaps Planned Parenthood’s directors mistook Jonathan Swift’s satire, “A Modest Proposal,” for a serious business plan and added takeout menus.

This almost makes Bruce Jenner’s decision to become a woman seem trivial. The end result, pictured provocatively on the cover of Vanity Fair, exhibits an extreme transformation. But after multiple surgical procedures, every cell in Jenner’s body remains 100-percent male. Transexuality is biologically impossible.

“Transgender” is an entirely different matter because “gender” is a grammatical term, which originated in sexuality but, in the postmodern world, has no fixed reference. In French, “cat” is masculine (le chat)—go figure, which illustrates the point. Any- one can change gender now since gender can mean exactly what one wants it to mean. Accordingly, Facebook recognized 58 different gender-identity varieties—until last February when the ultimate arbiter of social reality stated this was not inclusive enough. Now members can fill in the category as they wish. Not only can there be as many different genders as people, each person could select more than one.

This is not a call to revert to highly restrictive gender roles. Differences in human physiology became the basis for separate functions. For eons, men were hunters, warriors and proverbial hewers of wood, while with few ex- ceptions women nursed and reared children, tended the home and prepared meals. One of the West’s greatest accomplishments has been enabling men and women to transcend social straitjackets. Now women become doctors, lawyers, construction workers, and men work as nurses, raise children, let a wife’s career take precedence. But unless the goal is to patent reality, limits must be recognized. Perhaps a rereading of Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis—first published in October 1915—would be sobering.

None of the above is meant to disparage people’s emotions or their right to make choices. Many people feel their sex doesn’t match their emotions and other subjective factors. But as Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a senator, ambassador, presidential advisor and scholar at Harvard University—put it: “Every- one is entitled to his [or her] own opinion, but not his [or her] own facts.”

“Sex-change” surgery was pioneered at Johns Hopkins Medical School but then discontinued in the 1970s since it failed to treat gender dysphoria. “[T]ransgendering is a psychological rather than a biological matter,” Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins, wrote recently. “The treatment should strive to correct the false, problematic nature of the assumption [that one is of the opposite sex and this is a matter of choice] and to resolve the psychosocial conflicts provoking it.”

A 30-year study in Sweden showed that after surgery, transgendered patients commit suicide at 20 times the rate of non-transgender people. Meanwhile in 75 percent of cases without surgical or medical treatment, McHugh noted, transgender feelings spontaneously disappear.

Sex-change surgery is really transrational, an essential component of the new Humpty Dumpty Zeitgeist. We can choose racial identity too, accord- ing to a chapter president of the NAACP who is white but posed as African American. Identity is “new and improved,” too.

Exaggerated meaning also warps truth to the point of causing harm and self-deception. In 2012, after Bette Midler mocked Donald Trump’s idiopathic hairstyle, he took the lowest road available and tweeted: “While Bette Midler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.” Then, in August, after the tense exchange with moderator Megyn Kelly, during the first Republican presidential debate on Fox News Channel, about Trump’s history of calling women “fat pigs,” “dogs” and worse, the Donald retweeted followers’ references to Kelly as a “bimbo” with “porn-star makeup.” Not done with guerrilla wordfare, Trump told NBC during a round of appearances on Sunday TV news programs that “[w]hen I was attacked viciously by those women, of course, it’s very hard for them to attack me on looks, because I’m so good looking.” Not surprisingly, Trump had announced his presi- dential campaign with: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” No doubt Trump will walk across the unfrozen Potomac River on Inauguration Day to be sworn in, but with his hand on an unabridged copy of Trump: The Art of the Deal instead of the Bible.

Recent decisions by the Supreme Court seem equally delusional. On June 25, the majority decided that ACA’s clear, plain language—that federal subsidies can only flow through exchanges established by states—means something else. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “Words no
longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by the State is ‘established by the State.’”

Chief Justice John Roberts invoked the principle of “judicial restraint” to justify substituting what the bill’s authors actually penned for what they now wish it said. Why? Roberts wrote that ACA contains “more than a few examples of inartful drafting.” But “restraint” means leaving the “inartful” untouched by excessive judicial influence.

Similarly, the Supreme Court’s majority decision on same-sex marriage a day later was based on the Humpty Dumpty paradigm. A gay marriage is simply not a marriage, the nature of which predates every nation’s constitution by many millennia. Civil unions would work as a legal solution, but that didn’t satisfy the magical desires of activists.

Much has been made of the alleged discriminatory nature of traditional marriage. But throughout history, gays have always been allowed to marry and many have done so. And as anyone else, they had to marry someone of the opposite sex. This is no more discriminatory than excluding squares from the fraternity (or sorority) of triangles.

Marriage is not merely a traditional institution. If it were, then the defi- nition could be changed whenever society’s elite or the majority decided to do so. Of course that means it can keep morphing to include polygamy and worse—there is no internal logic of limitation in a plastic world, as Roberts noted in his dissent. The legal definition of marriage has not been expanded but obliterated, along with any definition of family or community.

As James Jacobs, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, wrote: “Marriage is based on the biological constitution of the sexes, ordered toward the physical and—more crucially—spiritual complementarity of the spouses, and brought to full fruition in the procreative union of the couple.” Marriage begins with friendship in virtue between the sexes and moves spiritually towards fulfillment and naturally towards children. In Aristotelian terms, the family is the first school of virtue and the necessary basis of society. Destroy this and civilization falls, as it is currently doing. The Supremes exorcised any regard for the interests of children entirely from marriage and instead treat adults as permanent children with no responsibilities other than satisfying their whims.

“Liberty is in the balance,” wrote Scalia in dissent. “Not only are the Court’s opinions untethered to reason and logic, they are also alien to our constitu- tional system of limited and divided government. By redefining the meaning of common words, and redesigning the most basic human institutions, this Court has crossed from the realm of activism into the arena of oligarchy.” The Constitution has become Jabberwocky.

Much responsibility for creating the United States of Alice belongs to higher education. For decades, most universities have based instruction on theories of cultural and moral relativism. In practice, this created political correctness (PC), which psychologist John Ferudi coined as “velvet totalitarianism.” Ferudi grew up in Communist Hungary as the son of Jewish parents who survived WW II labor camps and witnessed the effects of hijacking language and thought for political power.

Now many professors, administrators and students function as thought police on campuses nationwide. The most recent and ridiculous incarnation is called “microaggression,” which dictates that a growing list of what normal people see as innocent phrases are “really” forms of mini-racism, -sexism and so on. Examples include: “the most qualified person should get the job;” “everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough;” and “there is only one race, the human race.” The Onion, a satirical magazine, published an article in April spoofing PC uni-think: “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea: Students, Faculty Invited to Freely Express Single Viewpoint.”

Once the meaning of words becomes arbitrary and subject to elitist control, any manipulation in society becomes possible. In Seattle, “sex education” means that middle-school girls can get IUDs (intrauterine devices) without parental consent but, Dei gratia, soda is verboten.

No wonder a recent sociological study at a major university recommends that society should start accepting people who “identify as real vampires.” They are everywhere, it seems.

“I was asked to say a few kind words about education,” said Fulton J. Sheen (then an archbishop and now Venerable) at a dinner in 1970 to honor the founding of Thomas Aquinas College near Los Angeles. “I recall going into the Grand Central Station one morning for breakfast and I said to the waitress, ‘I want a cup of coffee, a boiled egg, some toast and a few kind words.’ When she brought me coffee, the toast, the egg—and the check, I said, ‘Don’t you have a few kind words?’ She replied, ‘Don’t eat the egg.’”

Fortunately, the word “egg” meant a real egg then. Today, one might heed the waitress’s warning, bite into the toast and keel over in pain with food poisoning. The waitress would come over and say without apology: “This morning, the chef told us that eggs are now made of wheat and cooked in a toaster. It’s only fair.”

“The next powerful force is, of course, sentimentality,” wrote Fydor Dostoyevsky prophetically in The Possessed in 1871. How often now, reasoned positions are countered not by true debate but claims of being “offended,” which terminate discussion and democracy. And the new constitutional right for a minority “to define and express their identity” in same-sex marriage is already becoming a sledgehammer to destroy the rights of the majority to religious liberty, employment, private businesses and faith-based educational and other institutions.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass was also published in 1871 and ends with a question: “Life, what is it but a dream?” Perhaps, but hopefully not delirium.

How to reverse this downward spiral was demonstrated in June after the slaughter of nine worshipers at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina. Relatives of the slain confronted the racist perpetrator and heeded the exact meaning of Christ’s words about forgiveness. He and his Divine Father said a few other things, too, that inspired the transformation of the ancient pagan world into Western Civilization.

In the beginning was the Word, and who but God will have the last word? And who but God can put America back together again?