Let reality shape language. Reality in this sense means what is actually the case, which includes what people actually think, not what they are supposed to think. It means an order in which God provides the very grounding of the real…
On Sunday afternoon, 34 high school students arrived at Wyoming Catholic College for this year’s first session of the PEAK program—a taste of the WCC curriculum, the outdoors, and the pleasures of summertime in Lander. This group will get to participate in Lander’s Fourth of July celebration. For the general spirit of patriotism, including fireworks and rodeo, nowhere else I have been is even vaguely comparable.
In the classroom this week, the students have been thinking about infinity in Mathematics with Dr. Scott Olsson, and, in their Humanities section with my wife, Dr. Virginia Arbery, they have been thinking about America’s founding, Lincoln’s speeches, and Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” her short story about a plump and pleasant, if thoroughly pharisaical, middle-class white woman in small-town Georgia in the early 1960s. In some circles, especially given the solemn demotion earlier this week of Laura Ingalls Wilder, O’Connor’s depiction of a doctor’s waiting room from Ruby Turpin’s judgmental point of view would send timid souls scurrying to their safe spaces.
Ruby assesses everyone around her with implicit superiority. She judges people by the type and quality of their shoes, and she is especially hard on the poor-white family in attendance. When she says to a respectable lady in the room that she and her husband keep pigs, the “white-trash” woman comments that one of the “thangs” she would never do is “scoot down no hog with no hose.” She scorns Ruby for ministering to animals that go around “A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin.” Afterward Ruby thinks how she would rather be black than to be white-trash like them. She imagines a conversation in which she bargains with Jesus, concluding at the end of her dialogue with Him that she will agree to be “herself, but black” rather than trashy and white. Her hypocrisy and prejudice and unclouded self-esteem shine from the page. Her comeuppance in the story is on the way—the respectable lady’s ugly daughter calls her “an old wart hog from Hell”—but what is important is that O’Connor uses the language realistically appropriate to her character’s consciousness. That includes Ruby’s own euphemistic description of the “pig parlor” where she keeps her animals.
For the mandarins of political correctness, artistically imitating prejudices in what others think or say is unacceptably harmful if it is not explicitly criticized or rejected in the work. It is interesting to trace where this perspective comes from. Perhaps it goes all the way back to Socrates’ critique of poetry in Plato’s dialogues, but in the past century or so, with the rise of overt propaganda, it has changed in tone and intent. The American pragmatist Richard Rorty wrote that in order to change social realities, it is only necessary to change the way that we speak about them. The whole program of social “progressives” (a word that should not be repeated without scare quotes) relies upon exactly what Rorty recommended. Orwell described it in the “Newspeak” of 1984. In his appendix on the subject, he wrote, “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of [the desired society], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
That is why attention to language in all its complexity and expressiveness is so important. Orwell saw the intention of contemporary “progressives” perfectly: “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [the desired society]—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”
I might want to argue with Orwell about the implications of the word “heretical” in that sentence, but not with his essential point. Notice, as a crucial example, the fact that “gender” has replaced “sex.” The ubiquity of gender is the perfect example of the Newspeak shift, because the word “sex” makes one vaguely ashamed of physical nature as the basis of one’s identity: these days, it seems almost coarse to admit that one belongs to one sex or another. Gender originally described grammatical categories, but now it has subordinated the reality of actual sexual difference between men and women—that is, nature—to the linguistic category with which one “identifies.” Notice, too, that this exclusion of nature also excludes God and the very possibility of a deep intentionality in being itself.
Only a luxurious and fatuous age has time to focus its central attention on a marginal phenomenon such as “transgenderism,” much less to normalize it and pretend that it is the measure for all sexual identity. The assault on human nature will eventually meet a comeuppance harsher than Ruby Turpin’s. In the meantime, corporations and other institutions accept with polite horror of attack or embarrassment these agenda-driven changes in language that continue to undercut marriage and the family.
The opposition to them is simple: Let reality shape language. Pay attention to writers like O’Connor. Ruby might keep her hogs “cleaner than some children [she’s] seen” (and she is thinking of the little “white-trash” boy), but the very nature of hogs is to be “a-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin.” Hogs are hogs—and she is metaphorically one herself. Reality in this sense means what is actually the case, which includes what people actually think, not what they are supposed to think. It means an order in which God (Who is excluded from the new language—well, unless She fits the agenda) provides the very grounding of the real. Faith in Christ, the Word, gives us the possibility of actual change, as O’Connor knew so well—the reality of faith and hope and charity.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (June 2018).
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