Recently, I posted on Twitter that we should protect parents and children by opposing a new policy allowing students to pick their bathroom without informing the parents of this change. Obviously, it got some reaction. I had expected that. What was surprising to me was how much the transsexual lobby would only debate with a stacked deck.
For example, at one point I said “SRS” which is an abbreviation for a “sex reassignment surgery” and I was told this was incorrect and out of date: the only way that educated and intelligent people talk about now was “gender reaffirmation surgery.” Yet Wikipedia lists SRS as the preferred name and lists four alternates – gender reassignment surgery, genital reconstruction surgery, sex realignment surgery, or, colloquially, a sex change – notably excluding what they insisted was the only intelligent term. I pointed to Wikipedia and to the testimony I had read of someone who had the surgery in the past 18 months and called it SRS. Eventually, due to this linguistic stacking of the deck, going in circles and insults leveled against me, I gave up debating this person. I have realized many times before that twitter is not the best place for debating, being mostly soundbites. Debate made me think of something else, something more insidious than I got with Protestants who wanted to debate whether the Eucharist was Biblical, the way language can frame an argument to make the conclusion inevitable.
Framing the debate using language isn’t new: just see how both sides of the abortion debate call themselves something positive: pro-life and pro-choice. Then we both tried to paint the opposite side against something: anti-life or anti-choice. Nobody wants to be known by being against something that seems so fundamental like life or choice or being afraid of something like the invented terms of “homophobia” or “transphobia.”
What should we do? Should we end any debate if anyone disagrees even slightly with our vocabulary? Should we debate with those who insist on a radical vocabulary? Should we debate over vocabulary or just over issues? I don’t think there’s a universal rule but I want to present three principles we can apply.
One: We Can Never Accept Vocabulary but We Can Accept Imperfect Vocabulary
If someone insists on gender reaffirmation surgery over one of the medical terms, all involving the concept of change, they intend to assume from the get go that physical genitalia have no part in defining someone’s sex or gender since changing them does not change or realign their gender but simply affirms what is already 100% their gender. This is false as anyone could say they identify as any “gender” and get this dangerous and morally questionable procedure.
If on the other hand we debate someone who supports abortion and they want to call themselves “pro-choice,” we can debate on principles and not insist their vocabulary is wrong – it is a little misleading but not outright false because they are supporting a certain choice, even if that choice is killing your baby.
In certain debates, it might be worthwhile to argue even against misleading but not false vocabulary. In the DSM-5 (2013), “gender identity disorder” was changed to “gender dysphoria” which changed the focus from how someone identifies to the disquietude they have from that identification. Dale O’Leary has argued that we should not accept this new definition, even though this change is only misleading not false.
To know if something is false, to know if it goes against our faith, and to know if it is acceptable vocabulary, we need to examine both the denotation and connotation of every term. Denotation refers to the abstract definition of the term while connotation refers to various implied things from that particular term. For example, stomach, gastric glands, and gut all pretty much mean that thing in the middle of the body to digest our food but stomach seems normal, gastric glands seem to involve a technical medical idea, and gut is outright visceral.
Connotation of terms is used all the time in moral debates: a pro-choice individual would almost never use the term “unborn baby” as “baby” implies both humanness and a need for protection; fetus is a medical term; and they may even try to use “tissue” or “blob of cells” because these invoke no moral responsibility for what is done with the baby. We can accept using the term “fetus” but defining an unborn baby down to the level of “a blob of tissue” even though technically correct – even I am a blob of tissue in some way – has such a strong connotation away from the truth that we can’t accept the terminology.
I will assume that Catholic mortals already accepted by readers here as I haven’t the space to debate them today.
Two: Terms Stick Once They Are Accepted and Then Affect Thought Patterns
Going back to Dale O’Leary’s objection to “gender dysphoria,” I see some importance about arguing it right now because the term is new. (Nonetheless, I’m not sure “GD” is such a bad name to be worth the fight.) Whenever a new medical procedure or medicine is created, the creators generally want the most favorable name attached to their creation as then it will become more widespread. Did you know over $1,000,000,000 of sildenafil was sold last year? Probably not. Nonetheless, when I explain that sildenafil is the generic name for Viagra, it’s no longer surprising. Companies spend millions getting the right names for drugs and patentable medical procedures as it’s big money.
Thus, when a new in moral drug or medical procedure comes about, we will tend to have our back against the wall. But this is the most important moment to debate about terms. If a certain term is accepted for a certain reality, it is hard to change it.
We also have to be aware that names affect how we think about something. The connotations of terms slowly over time affect their denotation. If all of a sudden, everyone stopped using “liposuction” and called it “fatso overhaul” it seems a lot less attractive while if we replace the term with “tummy beautification” it seems a lot more attractive; “fatso overhaul” would slowly come to mean a procedure done on the lazy and obese while “tummy beautification” would slowly come to mean something akin to lipstick for your stomach.
If we want thinking on morals to move in the right direction, we need to fight as soon as a new idea comes out for the right term or at least an acceptable one.
Three: Terms Need to Be Done in a Way the Audience Understands Them
Sometimes, we have a great term that makes sense to someone who studied university-level Catholic moral theology but we have to ask ourselves if the terms make sense the general population of Catholics who make it to mass most Sundays.
Certain terms are very medical and really require a background in medicine to understand what is going on. For example, I bet most readers can’t explain what intrafallopian transfer or vaginoplasty are but they are both modern medical procedures people have debated the morals of. (For those who care, both are moral under certain circumstances but also often done immorally; the former is a form of overcoming fertility problems and the latter is constructing or repairing genitalia.) Medical terminology has the benefit of creating a clarity and specificity that more general and less technical terms don’t have. When the procedure is rare or unusual, the medical terminology clearly specifies it without creating confusion and is generally easily accepted by both sides, plus, on rare procedures, clarity often trumps marketability in naming the procedure.
The odd thing is, like the story began with, those pushing immorality will try and change an already medically accepted term in order to imply their site is right from the beginning. We must reject these attempts. We should also push for more accurate medical names on immoral or questionable procedures so they are at least neutral and explanatory.
Sometimes, our Catholic terminology doesn’t keep up with the changing vocabulary of society and we might want to adjust so audience understands it. For example, “quickening” means when a woman first feels the movements of her unborn baby. Even though it might logically be a helpful term in the abortion debate to refer to limits on abortion, I don’t remember one case where I’ve seen it used in the abortion debate in recent years. Why? “Quickening” seems archaic, and the dictionary indicates it as such. Thus, today we talk about X weeks, heartbeat, fingerprints, and related things to suggest times to restrict abortion as the audience understand that better.
We need to understand the audience when we choose terms so we choose terms that they understand as we do, not terms that are beyond them. A good portion of us struggled with this when teaching the birds and the bees to kids or CCD students, trying to figure out when is a good time to use certain terms.
One example of Catholic vocabulary that isn’t well understood outside super-Catholic circles is NFP. While “natural family planning” describes the whole life ethic we want to instill in Catholic couples, the medical term for avoiding sexual intercourse at certain points during the month is “fertility awareness.” Although I understand the “natural” in NFP clearly, I wonder if it’s clear to a young Catholic couple what is so much more natural about peeing on a digital monitor each morning to see if they can have relations (ClearBlue Ovulation test) over popping a pill each morning so you can have relations any day. I personally think that “fertility awareness” more clearly describes the practical part of avoiding relations part of the month clearer than “NFP” to young couples and is more attractive. “NFP” accurately describes the whole life ethic of not being selfish about children better but does not seem to describe the monthly abstinence as clearly. I also think that distinguishing “NFP” and “fertility awareness” clearly points out that the former is a whole life perspective and not simply avoiding relations a few days a month.
Whenever we debate moral issues, we need terminology. We cannot accept terminology that stacks the deck against us because it is false or misleading. We can accept neutral or medical terminology, even if we might prefer another more morally accurate term. We have to be aware how terms stick and affect people’s thinking. Finally, terms need to be for the audience, not just for ourselves as trained moral theologians. Hopefully these three rules help you next time you get in a discussion about a moral issue.
If you don’t believe language matters, remember what United said when a DC-10 crashed at O’Hare a few years ago, it was an “involuntary conversion of assets” which sounds much more benign than “plane crash.”