(a three-minute read)
This is being written in the year 2023. Everyone acknowledges it’s 2023, whether or not they say ‘The Year of Our Lord, 2023’ as they once routinely did. It remains 2023.
Calendar years were once universally labeled ‘BC’ and ‘AD’, meaning Before Christ and Anno Domini (Latin for ‘In the Year of Our Lord’). Some now secularize it, saying ‘CE’ (Common Era) instead of ‘AD’, as if to deny that time is God’s creation and his purview.
Regardless, every calendar you buy still has the year measured from the time of Christ. Jesus remains the linchpin of history, time and all the rest, whether God-haters like it or not. They may choose to measure in metric instead of imperial, as it were, but the starting point and standard of measurement, Christ, cannot be changed.
All of which to say we can change the labels of things but we can’t change their meaning. I can re-save this word document with a new name, even in a new folder, but it won’t change the content.
We live in a world of double-meanings. Linguistic double-talk; deliberately ambiguous or evasive language. We struggle against shape-shifting verbiage that means one thing to you and another to me. Or it means something different now than it did just last year.
We now must avoid deep conversations unless all of us agree on the meanings of our terms before we begin. Otherwise, we argue.
Many invoke doublethink from Orwell’s 1984, (e.g. war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength) to explain the expanding realm of miscommunication in public discourse.
This is misleading and shallow. Doublethink was actually the ability to hold two completely contradictory beliefs at the same time, and to believe they are both true. That may have been the Big Lie of the USSR (and modern China come to think of it), but the first one crumbled and the second one is brittle.
No – doublethink isn’t today’s challenge. Nor is double-talk, which is, simply, gibberish. We’ve moved past that to what I’ll call parallel-talk. That is, the existence of two dissimilar meanings of the same term that are true for two different individuals or groups.
Take a term that used to be politically neutral like ‘liberalism’. It used to mean one thing only: a political philosophy advocating private property, rule of law, free markets, and protection of individual liberties. That’s still what it means to me. I consider myself a liberal. But the definition of liberal has slipped. Because I follow Christ and not so-called progressive convention on social issues, I confuse people when I call myself a liberal.
Instead, I’m labeled a conservative, and am even characterized by some as a bigot and a homophobe, simply because I believe what God said in the Bible.
Hence, the need for definitions before any debate, otherwise we can simply talk past one another.
As a society, we’ve moved from hypocrisy (the normal human condition) to gibberish (the curse of the overly-educated) to double-talk (shifting meanings) to outright confusion (life in the virtual world).
When everyone agreed on terms, our common cultural understanding made reasoned discourse possible. Even those engaged in acrimonious public debate often remained friends after hours. This was and is healthy.
Now, we blow people out of our lives for simply expressing the wrong opinion, wearing a red cap or a blue/yellow button. This is not healthy. It’s poisonous.
Yes, we’ve come full circle, and the language that once served us well has now become our greatest impediment to understanding.
Image by Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels