Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Importance of Words

By Drew

Ray at Stella Borealis and Terry at Abbey-Roads2 continue our discussion from last week on civility. We're looking at the great scholar and philosopher Alice von Hildebrand, writing in the recent issue of New Oxford Review (somewhat ironic, since that's hardly a paragon of civility itself, but then I guess you go where the sinners are). At any rate, as these extracts show, von Hildebrand gets straight to the point:

Man's nobility and greatness are expressed by his capacity to use words that enable him to communicate with his neighbors. One of the problems we all face is that, when we discuss deep experiences, we feel that words prove to be pitifully inadequate. We often say, "Words fail me." Hard as we try, what we "feel" is much deeper than our vocabulary. That is why it is typical of linguists to shift from one language to another, because a foreign word can often better convey certain nuances than one's mother tongue. [...]

Great writers have a special talent for gauging the quality of words and intuitively choose those which best express the particular quality they wish to convey. The language used by a well-educated person is widely different from the one used by those whose approach to life is, shall we say, primitive. To put refined and subtle words in the mouth of an uneducated person would sound artificial and ridiculous. On the other hand, we expect people who speak about sacred objects, or deep human experiences, to use words that have a certain perfume, a certain spirituality which is called for in such cases. [...] One of the most striking phenomena of the society in which we live is that many of us have lost the sense of the propriety -- and impropriety -- of words. We live in a democratic age. Whatever the benefits and merits of democracy, it often results in a leveling down, a putting of all things on one and the same level. [...]

I would defend the thesis that the abyss separating man from animals is made manifest in the domains they share: eating, drinking, and especially the intimate sphere. It is precisely in this sphere that the words we use reveal whether or not we approach it with reverence. [...] The difference between man and animals -- far from being reduced to the fact that the former has intelligence and free will, can love, has the power of speech, etc. -- is particularly evident in the sphere we are referring to. It is a domain in which precisely the abyss separating man from animals is particularly apparent. [...]

What I am advocating is not a return to prudery, Jansenism, or Puritanism. It is the recognition that there are things that should make us blush. Woe to those who no longer know how to blush. Let us learn to chastise our vocabulary so that it produces heavenly music.

As those of you who have been with us from the beginning of the discussion know, this topic has been prompted by the carelessness with which words are used nowadays. The discussion continues because it fascinates, because there are so many facets and angles through which it can be viewed. Words mean things, and the words you select and the way you use them tell a great deal about who you are and what you believe. But they also form a common language, and by this I refer to the idea that all the words we speak and write become a shared experience, one that influences and is influenced. Every word injected into that common experience has the potential to affect any one of us, in unexpected ways. Call it a linguistic sort of Butterfly Effect. Look at it in this light, and you see the added responsibility it casts on anyone who uses words. For when you talk about people and treat them like animals long enough, that's precisely what they become.

And in the end it all seems to come back to one central point, that of the inherent dignity of the human and the imprint of the Creator. Deny this and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the debate. When you buy into the idea that religion is a myth, that this is all there is - well, then you've broken down the barriers between man and animal, between the sacred and the profane. What difference does it make? And therefore you've also removed the barriers to behavior - anything goes.

In order to have a functioning, civil society you have to base it on some kind of moral, rational foundation (and contrary to what some of these people might think, there is no inherent conflict between faith and reason, as Pope John Paul II illustrated).

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