By Donald McConnell, JD
Meaning is a key to a successful legal system. Words have to have practical, predictable, and communicable significance. Of course, since the fall of mankind, there has always been some arguable ambiguity to words. But while that ambiguity has enabled lawyers to make arguments in favor of their clients for millennia, it is only fairly recently that it seems to have grown to such proportions as to threaten the effectiveness of the legal system altogether.
Postmodern philosophy has popularized the notion that the meaning of words is plastic; meaning is a matter of will and power rather than a given. Because postmodernists believe there is nothing but social pressure behind the meaning of words, cross cultural communication is really impossible: within each culture meaning is imposed by the powerful in a never ending cycle of oppression and violence. According to postmodernist philosophy the solution to past oppression is the new oppression of the former oppressors by the formerly oppressed. Impose meaning or have it imposed on you. Nobody seems to question if this is really the proper way to live, since under the postmodernist worldview no alternative is available.
We all laugh at Bill Clinton’s famous remark “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” The problem is that he meant the remark seriously. But people don’t just use postmodern ambiguity to escape responsibility; they also use it to shift meaning, disguise intentions, gain political support, and foreclose opposition.
For example, the abortion lobby has long made sure that people speak of unborn babies as “fetuses”—ironically, this is just Latin for “baby”—in order to shift meaning and gain political support.
Another example is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s deliberate strategy of labeling groups who oppose the leftist agenda as “hate groups.” Alliance Defending Freedom, a mainstream champion of religious liberty, has not only been falsely labeled a “hate group” but has lost access to Amazon Smile charitable funding as a direct result of the false label. But in the postmodernist’s worldview, labels don’t have to be true to their plain meaning, they just have to accomplish what you want.
Misuse of language is by no means limited to private organizations. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Of course this was meant to stop discrimination against women. In practice, it first required high schools to stop spending their whole sports budget on boy’s football while having no athletic programs for young women. Then the Obama administration decided to redefine the word “sex” in Title IX to mean a person’s “felt” or “chosen” gender orientation, rather than defining the term based on the anatomy and genetic identity of a human male or female. Suddenly schools were expected to let young men dominate women’s sports and use women’s locker rooms so long as they felt like women. The Trump administration has reversed much of this pressure, but thousands of the postmodernists who run our schools are still insisting on the Obama era definitions, thereby destroying the true purpose of Title IX and allowing discrimination against real women in the name of “progress.”
Some time ago, radical leftists cunningly created the phrase “social justice.” By this they do not mean the achievement of real justice at a social level—which would be great. Sadly, for many originators of the phrase, social justice is really a term of art for promoting an agenda of injustice and discrimination. But who can openly claim to be against something called “social justice” without all kinds of explanation and qualification? Such opposition sounds like you must be a racist or in favor of oppression. But by “social justice” the inner circle really means postmodern table turning: they will now oppress the alleged oppressors.
Revenge, however, is not a Christian response to oppression. As believers in Jesus Christ we accept that we will be persecuted by non-believers. But nothing gives us the right to enable the persecution of others, let alone for us to become one of the oppressors. It is our job to use God’s objective standards to end oppression and lift up the oppressed—not to perpetuate the cycle of vengeful table turning.
The postmodernist sees objective standards as a form of oppression—that is a big problem. Among the “oppressive” elements postmodernists want to do away with are the impartiality of justice, the rule of law, the idea of rights that come from God, the idea that humans are created in the image of God, and even the Gospel itself. Such an argument is self-defeating. Without objective standards there is no way to identify “justice” or, “oppression” unless you just mean justice is whatever favors you, and oppression is whatever opposes you. Yet isn’t that just the sort of thing we all know to be truly oppressive? But Postmodernists don’t care. They want what they want. Postmodernists, like the “superman” invented by the 19th century philosopher of raw power—Nietzsche—seek to exercise their own will to power. Nietzsche called humans who acknowledge no moral restraints and force others to do their bidding “supermen.” The Nazi’s and the German leadership of the first world war saw themselves as such supermen—seizing their destiny to rule over Europe and in time, the world.
We used to be able to agree, in most of the world, that the way of the Nietzschean ”superman” was wrong. We fought two world wars to suppress the disciples of Nietzsche. But now, Nietzschean “supermen” and “superwomen” seem to be running our universities and K-12 public schools. It is time to rally all ordinary Americans—those of us who accept objective standards and try to live by them – who care about real freedom and justice to become the defenders of freedom on the battleground of words.