Language, which is vital to humankind, can take us down many paths some of which lead to self-delusion. I learned this lesson in a philosophy class years ago in college. The professor opened the session with a simple question. “Who can define the word chair for me?”
Eager to excel, I spoke first. “A chair is something to sit on.”
The professor’s eyes narrowed to shards of glass when he heard me. “So, if you sit on a wall, it becomes a chair?”
Several more minutes into the exchange– my classmates’ expressions bright with glee as the professor tied my arguments into knots–I gained a respect for language. The lesson is one I later imparted to my students. I like to think many of them remember the day when I returned their first essays to them, each page dripping with red ink as if paper could bleed.
As a writer, I rejoice in the richness of words but am ever mindful of their capacity to mislead. Take buckle, for example. Does it describe an effort to secure an object? Or does it mean the item has collapsed?
Diplomacy thrives on language ambiguity. Representatives at the recent G-20 summit came away from their gathering wreathed in smiles. They had drafted a document about the war in Ukraine to which Russia and the West could agree. Success came at a price, however. Vacuous wording had rendered the text as meaningless as a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi.
Similarly, language plays a critical role in the abortion debate, starting with definitions. Is a fertilized ovum an egg or a child? Are anti-abortion states hostile to women or are they places of sanctuary for the unborn? (“Comstocked.” Soshanna Ehrlich, MS, Fall, 2023, pg. 28.)
Rather than wrangle over meaning, some anti-abortionists have recently shifted ground. The focus is no longer on eggs but on morality. Several states have chosen to enforce the Comstock law, a prohibition passed in 1873 and still on the nation’s books. (Ibid, pg. 30.) The legislation doesn’t speak to abortion, but it does ban the shipment or receipt of any abortion-related equipment, which would affect Mifepristone, a drug commonly used to end pregnancies. (Ibid, pg. 31)
This shift in strategy includes a shift in language which is manipulative. People may differ on abortion rights, but few are willing to cheer for obscenity. Never mind that morality laws fall heaviest upon women. Hester Prynne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, wears the scarlet letter A for adultery instead of the Reverend who is the illegitimate child’s father. That same bias exists today. Says one outraged moralist, if women want reproductive control over their bodies, they can refrain from having sex. (Ibid, pg. 29.)
Polonius, the king’s advisor in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is a man skilled at dissembling with words. Even so, his advice to his son is exemplary. To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou cannot play false with any man. Delivered for laughs, the line is among literature’s most scathing examples of hypocrisy.
His spirit lives today in Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene who makes repeated demands of her colleagues for etiquette and respect. Her insistence curdles the mind for it comes from a woman who shouted liar during Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address. It comes from a woman who would have us believe treason is an act of patriotism.
Whether we use words to serve truth or to deceive is a matter of personal decision. Should we choose the latter, hiding our intentions in verbal trickery, we will not escape the consequence of that choice. In our innermost minds, the deception will haunt us because it will serve as a mirror to reflect our true natures.