Amongst the many profound utterances of that great writer, George Orwell, one of the most insightful was a phrase he used in his wonderful novel 1984. Picking up on the habit that revolutionaries have of rewriting history to suit their own ends, and astutely recognising that they do this knowing that way the past is presented to the current generation is the key to shaping the future of that society, Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future.” Well said!
There are, however, a good many other ways of controlling a society and its future, and high up on the list is language. We might well riff off of Orwell’s great phrase and say truthfully that “Who controls the language controls the culture.” One of the major reasons that Christians are doing so badly at the moment, at least in the West, is that they have allowed unbelievers to become custodians of the language.
As I seem to recall Doug Wilson pointing out, Christians are meant to be people of words, because they are the people of the Word. The Word himself spoke the world into existence, and it is he who ultimately defines and controls our world. Yet he delegates the task of stewarding the earth to us, which implies that we ought to be custodians over the language. Thus one of the first tasks facing Adam was that of giving names to things.
Without proper stewardship over language, we cannot exercise proper stewardship over the culture. Another way of saying this is “Lose the language and you lose the culture.” This manifests itself in many ways. For example, how many Christian novelists are there out there? Some, but a drop in the ocean compared to the multitude of non-Christian writers. How many Christian newspapers and journalists are there out there? Again, not very much.
But the problem is not just confined to the obvious things like writers and the media, although of course these things have a massive impact on the culture. The fact is that the culture is in the hands of groups of powerful unbelievers, and they control the meaning of words themselves and thus define the world for us.
My favourite example of this is a word that vies for the number one spot on my list of ghastly, cringey, phoney words. That word is “Ms.” I admit it, I am Msphobic, but before anyone objects, let me point out that my loathing is towards the word and its connotation, rather than toward the people who use this title.
In my piece last week on Anthony Weiner, one commentator rightly pointed out that Mr Weiner’s wife is not called Mrs Weiner, as I had stated, but rather Ms Huma Mahmood Abedin. This was an oversight on my part, but on reflection I am really rather pleased with the oversight. Ms Abedin is married to Mr Weiner, therefore this makes her Mrs Weiner, does it not (although in her case I have to say I sympathise somewhat with her reluctance to bear the name Weiner)?
The word Ms has so seeped into our language and into our culture that people now often use the word automatically to describe a woman, regardless of her marital status. Unless a woman makes a deliberate point of using the word Miss or Mrs to describe herself, she will undoubtedly find herself given the default title “Ms”.
Many people, including Christians, misunderstand (that’s misunderstand, not msunderstand) the nature of this type of change. To many, Ms is a harmless, neutral world which provides a convenient way of giving a title to a woman whose marital status is unknown. But quite apart from the fact that the world somehow managed to cope with this “problem” before the word Ms came along, the word is far from neutral.
There is some evidence that it was first used in the 17th century as an abbreviation for the word Mistress, but that it lost out to the words Miss and Mrs, which became common currency from then on.1 It then wasn’t until the 20th century that the word was revived and became popular, but this time it was for blatantly feminist reasons. The radical feminist, Sheila Michaels, who later became a member of a group known as “The Feminists—A Political Organization to Annihilate Sex Roles”, was apparently seeking a title for “a woman who did not belong to a man.”2 In 1971, during a radio interview, she suggested using the word and the story has it that one of Gloria Steinham’s friends heard the interview and suggested it to her friend as the title for her new magazine.3 So “Ms magazine” was born and the word soon gained common currency.
Now if Sheila, Gloria and the likes of Huma Mahmood Abedin or Mrs Weiner wish to declare their lack of dependence on men, then that’s their lookout and there is not much we can do about it. The real problem though is that they have managed to extend this to all women, which was no doubt their aim when they first started to give the word common currency. So my wife sometimes gets letters through the post addressed to someone called Ms Slane, who doesn’t actually reside at our address and may not even exist as far as I know, which suggests that either the real Mrs Slane is unmarried and totally independent of a man, or if she happens to be married, she is utterly independent from the irrelevant sap that calls himself her husband. Way to go, married-but-still-totally-independent girl!
Not only have conservatives and Christians misunderstood specific changes like this, but on a more general level they have failed to grasp the nature of what is called political correctness. Political correctness has often been treated as a bit of a fun thing by conservative types – something those quacky leftists out there believe in. But though some of the specifics may sound amusing – referring to manholes as personholes for instance – the project itself is far from funny and the laugh has not been on the quacky leftists, as the conservatives assumed, but on the “slow-on-the-uptake” conservatives.
Political correctness is a cover for the brazen attempt to seize control of the language and by extension the culture. Take the word “equality”, for example. Before the second half of the 20th century, most people would have understood this word to mean equality before the law and it would have been associated with words such as justice and the rule of law. Now the word has been hijacked and is used not only to legitimise acts that were once universally disapproved of, but to mark those out who dissent from this view as heretics in the new cultural order. Its association is no longer with justice and the rule of law, but with tolerance, which is a clever way of demonising the dissidents as being both intolerant and anti-equality.
Language is a powerful thing and the form it takes should never be underestimated. Those who control the language are able to make certain thoughts unsayable and unthinkable. For example, the word homophobia – a ridiculous, idiotic and in most cases utterly unfounded playground taunt – has gained such a stranglehold on modern life that it has effectively stamped out all discussion in the public square.
Something is not quite right here. It is Christians that are the inheritors of the earth (Matthew 5:5), and it is Christians to whom all things have been given (1 Corinthians 3:21 & 22). And one of the biggest things we have been given is language. Yet we have lost control of it, and so have lost out on the stewardship of the earth which we are meant to exercise.
What do we do about it? Here are a few brief thoughts to get you going:
• Think about words and terms you hear, especially new words or words that seem to have changed meaning. Don’t just blithely assume that what you are told is what really is.
• Challenge the use of words like Ms. Ensure that your wife always makes it clear that she is Mrs so that she doesn’t suffer the indignity of being described using the mongrel word Ms. Also, if possible when writing to a woman whose marital status you are unsure about, use the words Miss/Mrs. You can be sure that whoever you are writing to will be either unmarried (Miss) or married (Mrs) and so unless she is a radical feminist, she is unlikely to be offended. This might all seem a tad pedantic, but I can assure you that the feminists didn’t think it pedantic when they introduced the word Ms four decades ago. They knew the power of words and the revolution that such redefinitions could spark.
• Challenge the definition of words like equality and homophobia. If you get into a discussion about equality, tell the person, “Sure I believe in equality. Equality before the law – as defined by God – that is, and not the phoney equality that the modern world has brought in to legitimise anything and everything.” As for homophobia, I wrote some stuff about the meaning – or lack of it – here, which you might find useful.
• If you have a gift for words, then write. Write books. Write novels. Write letters to newspapers. Write a blogsite. Write, write, write.
Let’s begin to exercise stewardship over language once more, and let’s begin the long, hard road to reclaiming both language and culture once again, for Christ’s sake.