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In his memoir Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky recounts his experience at the hands of the Soviet KGB during his years as a refusenik . A favorite tactic of the KGB was to torture prisoners with the intent of getting them to confess to false charges which could be used to justify their imprisonment. In a gripping account of one particularly brutal torture session, Sharansky describes how he was on the verge of breaking down and giving a false confession, when the memory of those who had come before him and refused to lie about themselves suddenly came to his mind. He remembered how his knowledge of the gritty refusal of others to speak untruths had enabled him, up until that moment, to stand up to his own tormentors. The realization came crashing down upon him that if he broke by giving a false confession, he might be doing great damage to those who came after him by failing to provide for them the same example that others had provided for him. That memory, in that terrible moment, was an ultimate game changer for Sharansky — he never did go on to bear witness to a lie.
It turns out that a commitment to the truth can yield surprising downstream effects.
Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson originally burst upon the world scene because of his own outspoken refusal to conform his language to the requirements of the social justice speech police. “I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for language I detest,” he declared. He was specifically referring to such language as relates to modern innovations in sexual identity.
Derick Dillard, husband of one of the Duggar girls of 19 Kids and Counting fame, discovered that failure to use approved language can actually cost a fellow his job. Dillard was fired from his role on the TLC network’s Counting On reality show because, among other things, he “refused to use feminine pronouns” when discussing a transgender colleague at TLC.
Totalitarian movements throughout history have long understood the criticality of conscripting the general population into participating in a myriad of small fictions, or lies. That’s probably because a powerful tool for controlling entire societies is the moral humiliation of the individual. Over the longer term, such participation in lies can even have the effect of bringing the individual’s actual perception of reality into conformance with the requirements of the state.
Theodore Dalrymple, one of the finest contemporary essayists around, has reflected on the moral aspects of this pressure to conform one’s language:
“When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is…in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed.”
Even the very term “social justice movement” represents, in some ways, a kind of reality distortion field, because there is nothing actually just about the ends being sought by that movement. The movement seeks to subjugate the individual to group identities (an idea that incontrovertibly cost the lives of millions in the 20th century alone) and to eliminate the human right of conscience. If you doubt this, just try being Jack Phillips for a day. Or Brendan Eich. Or James Damore. Or a multitude of others.
Ours is not the first culture to be subjected to this kind of pressure. A great deal of writing and thinking was done during the 20th century which explored the relationship between human flourishing and truth – and specifically within the context of totalitarian societies. Thinkers who lived under regimes that pressured them to “assent to obvious lies”, to use Dalrymple’s words, thought deeply about what integrity means.
Vaclav Havel was, perhaps, one of the leading writers and thinkers along these lines. Havel was a playwright, recipient of the U.S. Presidential medal of freedom, and one of the early prime ministers of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the iron curtain. In his famous essay The Power of the Powerless, Havel wrote of the pressure to conform one’s speech and actions to things one knows to be false. He argued for the importance of “living within the truth,” by which he meant having the courage to speak and act within the context of what one actually believes to be true. “Living within the truth” begins, he said, with something as simple as “calling things by their actual names.”
I try to live, however poorly I might do it, as a follower of Christ. I have been quite surprised by the extent to which the social justice community appears to have given much more thought to the criticality and uses of language than some of the contemporary Christian writers and thinkers I’ve been reading lately. I have been struck by the readiness, on the part of Christian writers and speakers, to adopt the terms and language of the social justice movement.
This surprises me for at least two reasons. First, it seems to be a widespread phenomenon across numerous Christian publications and speakers, but nowhere have I found an explicitly stated thought process by which the decision to embrace such language was made. That doesn’t mean, of course, that no one within the Christian publishing community has elaborated their views. But I’m a fairly avid reader and consumer of Christian publishing, so my own experience is likely to be representative of other readers besides myself. And what I’m finding is that the new language is being slipstreamed into Christian writing with little acknowledgment of even having done it.
The second reason I find this surprising is that Christianity places a uniquely high value on the use and meaning of words, a predisposition it closely shares with Judaism. Jesus himself is described as the logos – the word. The very faith that Christians espouse is described by the apostle Paul as coming to us primarily through the auditory word. Satan certainly understood the mischievous and destructive power of words, as evidenced by beginning his entire landslide of disaster by first calling into question God’s words: “Did God really say…?”
So I find it surprising, I guess, that so many Christian writers and thinkers have so casually adopted the language of sexual identity and social justice.
The use of social justice language in Christian circles ranges from such things as fuzzing the meaning of pronouns when writing of transgendered people, to speaking of gay men as having “husbands”. A surgically or chemically altered man has not become a woman no matter our use of feminine pronouns, but this seems not to have occurred to a surprising number of Christian publishers. A gay man can be said to have a “husband” only by redefining the word “husband” to such an extent that it has been drained of its meaning, ceasing to have any essential correspondence to its original etymology. The legal rights of gays have never been dependent upon the corruption of the language, nor on such a morally ambiguous use of words. There seems to be more behind the current mania to distort the language than an understandable concern for civil rights.
This is not a merely pedantic concern. The danger of adopting the language of sexual identity is that its impact isn’t confined to just smoothing over potentially awkward social exchanges. At one level I want to say “who cares” what pronouns we use. Or “who cares” if we talk about gay “husbands.” But if I think very long about the uses of language, it gives me pause. Over time, such accommodating language may turn out to be a vehicle for subtly altering our own consciousness, acting as a kind of moral anesthetic. I worry that altering language as a way to gloss over the discomfort of our principled differences may ultimately have the effect of smoothing over our differences all right, but at the eventual cost of eliminating our principles entirely.
I can’t help suspecting that the longer-term elimination of a principled conscience is the very motivation for going to the extreme of penalizing dissenting voices like Mr. Dillard and others. Language works in such a way that how we use it inevitably begins to inform our own perception and understanding of reality. We may start out with the knowledge that we’re only humoring the other side, but we’re likely to end up thinking along the very lines we had originally opposed.
I’m nagged by the recurring suspicion that “living within the truth” in the 21st century may really start with something as simple as insisting on the use of pronouns that conform to reality.Published in