Ken Connor
Words matter. Truth counts. Or do they in the postmodern age in which we live?

Recently The Washington Post reported a story about Obama advisor, Zeke Emmanuel, brother of Rahm Emmanuel. Dr. Emmanuel, a bioethicist and devoted “foodie”, is an atheist who catches a lot of grief from his friends because of his devotion to the dietary laws set forth in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Emannuel responds that Judaism and atheism are completely compatible.

Really? I thought Judaism taught that Yaweh, the God of Israel, was central to the Jewish religion and that He was the one who promulgated the dietary laws that Dr. Emmanuel seeks to follow so assiduously? How did the good doctor manage to skip over Genesis, Exodous, Numbers, and the rest of Leviticus and Deuteronomy only to focus on the content of the laws that shape his culinary customs?

Do words no longer matter? Can one fairly call a pie a “cherry pie” if it doesn’t have any cherries in it? Does truth no longer count?

Abraham Lincoln thought that words mattered and that truth counted for something. Responding to a disputant in an argument, he is reported to have asked his opponent, “ How many legs would a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” Answering his own riddle, he stated that the answer was four, “…because calling a leg a tail doesn’t make it a leg.”

Any pollster will tell you that the answer to a question depends on how you frame the question and how you define its terms. That explains, in large part, why we are having such difficulty in public discourse in our society today—we have widely diverging views of what is true, so we can't agree on which words to use in describing the truth or even the meaning of the words that are used. A fetus is a “person” and it is, therefore, wrong to kill it—or it is merely a “collection of cells,” and it is perfectly okay to abort it. Protagonists in the abortion debate are talking about the same thing—an unborn baby—but they are using very different words to describe it. Even though the labels applied to her don’t alter her essential nature, the words used to describe the child result in diametrically different views of how she can be treated.

The same thing goes for the word “marriage.” Does that word have objective propositional meaning? Does it mean the “union of one man and one woman” or can we use it to also describe “the union of any two people who love each other?” The definition we use for “marriage” affects our view of the types of union the state should recognize.

Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.