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The First Rule of Politics: Getting the Names Right

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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
12/4/2012 (6 years ago)
Catholic Online (https://www.catholic.org)

So what should Catholics and all other men and women of good will do?

As Josef Pieper put it in his essay Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, when language is unmoored from truth, from reality, communication is impossible.  There can be no dialogue.  There can only be monologue, only "fine speeches," something at which our pro-abortion and pro-homosexual-"marriage" President, who has unmoored himself from moral truth for the sake of power, seems to have mastered. 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The Chinese sage Confucius taught a perennially true concept called Zheng Ming or Cheng ming.  It is a principle applicable in all reality, whether it be moral, theoretical, or religious.  But, in our day, it is particularly important in politics. 

Confucius insisted that language must be grounded in reality, and that the abuse of language for the purpose of advancing an ideology was the bane of life in common and a sign of bad governance.  In short, Confucius insisted that the common good required that we should call a spade a spade, and then continue to refer to it as a spade.  And (to continue using the gardening tool metaphor) if someone begins to call a spade a shovel, or, even worse, a hoe, then, before one can get back to good gardening, one must begin by rectifying names.  The spade must be called a spade, and not a hoe, or gardening goes awry.

In Book 13, Verse 3 of the Analects of Confucius (Lun yu), we find the concept elegantly put during the course of a dialogue between the disciple Tsze-lu and Confucius:

Tsze-lű said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"

The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names [Zhčng míng]."

"So! indeed!" said Tsze-lű.  "You are wide of the mark!  Why must there be such rectification?"

The Master said, "How uncultivated you are, Yű!  A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.  If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.  If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.  When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish.  When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded.  When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.  Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately.  What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."

Confucius was insistent that language needed to be used correctly, and that if language was abused by those in power, it spelled disaster in morals, in the arts of governance, and in justice.  Ultimately, the failure to use language correctly resulted in intellectual, moral, and political confusion.

This principle is not solely an Eastern concept.  It is a human concept.

We find it quite central in Plato's and Aristotle's struggle against the Sophists.  The Sophists violated the principle of the Zheng Ming.  Protagoras was, of course, one of the chief offenders.  It was Protagoras's and his fellow sophists' refusal to abide by the truth, and instead to "make the weaker reason appear stronger," as Aristotle put it in his Rhetoric (1402a223-5), which merited their condemnation. 

As an aside, there seems to be a relationship between sophistry and disbelief in God.  Protagoras, it might be remembered, believed that man, and not God, was the measure of all things.  Those who believe in God, on the other hand, seem to have a greater respect of language and a greater concern for its fixity: after all, they believe in dogma, which is truth expressed in human language, and so language is naturally tied to truth.  It seems to bear out that if man is considered to be the measure of all things, then there is no measure of things, since the measurer and the measured are the same.  In such instances, language becomes a tool for the powerful, and so is subject to fluctuation at the whim and advantage of the ruler.

The Zheng Ming principle is quite settled in Scripture as well.  Words are important to sacred writ; after all, St. John's Gospel famously begins with: "In the beginning was the Word."  The Word, which is Truth, is preeminent.  "If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed."  (John 8:31)  God's language is always true, and needs no rectification.

But humans are called to conform to the never-changing Word.  St. Paul demands from the Galatians and Colossians that they avoid sophistry and shun those who use sophistry.  (Gal. 3:1; Col. 2:4).  St. Paul admonishes that deacons should not be "double-tongued," which of course all sophists are.  (1 Tim. 3:8)  The Lord, of course, admonished us that our "Yes" should be "Yes," and our "No" should be "No," therefore avoiding any ambiguity or equivocation in our speech. (Matt. 5:37)

With the loss of its moral moorings and its embrace of moral relativism, our society and so also our political environment have rejected the principle of "rectification of names."  In fact, the opposite seems to have come about, a "de-rectification" of names is de rigueur

Dishonest use of words is endemic in our political debate.  We live in an age of political euphemisms (words that make things seem better than they are) and dysphemisms (words that make things seem worse than they are), of "political correctness," and of "double speak."  From a political standpoint it is not only disconcerting, it is foreboding.

As Josef Pieper wrote in his essay Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power:

"The degradation, too, of man through man, alarmingly evident in the acts of physical violence committed by all tyrannies (concentration camps, torture), has its beginning, certainly much less alarmingly, at the almost imperceptible moment when the word loses its dignity.  The dignity of the word, to be sure, consists in this: through the word is accomplished what no other means can accomplish, namely, communication based on reality."

Do not think we have not gotten to the point of tyranny.  To some extent, tyranny is in the eye of the beholder.  According to the cries of the millions of children murdered in their mother's womb each year (don't think God or those with well-formed consciences don't hear it), tyranny reigns in this country.  Naturally, this crime against humanity is shrouded in political euphemisms, and we can even see that phenomenon that Steven Pinker called the "euphemism treadmill."

The "baby" in utero was first depersonalized to its medical term, "fetus" (which means "child" in Latin), and then "product of conception" or even "blob of tissue."  By the use of such euphemisms, the truth is covered up.

Advocates of "child slaughter," of course, would resist such a frank name, and so they called themselves "abortion rights" or "women rights" advocates (conveniently neglecting the victim), or even the more attenuated "pro choice" advocates.  With each euphemism reality is further disguised.

We see it in other areas as well.  Sodomy, which is an unnatural act and used to be a criminal offense, was softened to homosexuality, and then to gay, or, even more innocuously, someone with an alternative sexual orientation.  Each of these euphemisms is further and further away from reality.

Murder of the sick was changed to "euthanasia" (Greek for "good-death"), then to "mercy-killing," and now "death with dignity."  With each link in the euphemistic chain reality becomes more clouded.

Sometimes it works the other way.

Catholic bishops, who this election year took a particularly courageous stand against abortion and homosexual marriage, used to be referred to as "Most Reverend," or "Very Reverend," but now, in a rather quick de-rectification of names, they have been called "bigots" by such groups as the Rainbow Sash Movement (National LGBT Catholics).  I have also seen them called "pedophile pimps."  One can trust that such a dyphemisms will soon make it into the mainstream, if they are not there already.

We must unmask such pretensions of the de-rectifiers.  Truth demands it, for if we do not resist the trend to call things not as they are, but as we might wish to perceive them, then truth perishes.

As Josef Pieper put it in his essay, when language is unmoored from truth, from reality, communication is impossible.  There can be no dialogue.  There can only be monologue, only "fine speeches," something at which our pro-abortion and pro-homosexual-"marriage" President, who has unmoored himself from moral truth for the sake of power, seems to have mastered. 

So what should Catholics and all other men and women of good will do? 

Why, follow the advice Confucius gave to Tsze-lű to his question, "What will consider the first thing to be done?" 

"What is necessary is to rectify names." 

Zheng Ming.

-----

Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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