Monday, July 03, 2017

Language and the problem of discourse

1) These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded

They’re not ‘value-neutral’.

When words like ‘patriarchal’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-inequality’ are used, they don’t merely describe a state of affairs: they also evaluate it.


What’s more, when you introduce ideologically loaded jargon, the evaluation is already assumed – it’s smuggled in, as it were, underneath our worldview radar. For example, what secular ideology means by ‘oppression’, is often different to what the Bible means by ‘oppression’. It is of concern that when this language is used, we rarely see any corresponding discussion of particular Biblical passages, arguing whether such evaluations are true to the Bible. (And when these Scriptural discussions do happen, they tend to be secondary rather than primary.) Importing this type of jargon into our discussions with each other means that, if we’re not careful, we can uncritically swallow the non-Biblical worldview.

[Akos Balogh and Dani Treweek, "Christian Discusson and Feminism: Here's What We're Getting Wrong," TGC Australia Blog (30th June 2017), here]

"When did you stop beating your wife?" For an ordinary couple, there is no right answer to that question, because the husband did not even begin to beat his wife in the first place. Questions like these are loaded questions, complete with many assumptions that attempt to sway the direction of discourse, in that particular case, into a presumption of guilt of wife-beating on the part of the one questioned.

Likewise, terms and phrases are not necessary value-neutral. Utilizing terms such as "patriarchal," "privilege" and all other "social justice" terms are likewise not value-neutral. These terms have assumptions built into them that will direct the framing of discourse concerning these topics, even for those who might disagree with them. Utilizing these terms predisposes the users towards the theories in which these terms originate, and thus it should not be too surprising for example that people who utilize the terms "social justice" and "racial inequality" tend to veer left and socialist, while those who use the terms "welfare" and "charity" tend to veer right. None of these terms are value-neutral: "social justice" has the connotation that one is righting a social wrong in pursuing it (which should also be or become illegal), while "charity" has the connotation that what one is doing is done out of love and grace and the recipient totally does not deserve the charitable action, not even if coming from the State. As is clearly seen in this example, although these terms are used to refer to approximately the same thing (from the center), adopting either of these terms clearly slant the manner of discourse concerning the subject matter.

It is therefore very important not just to believe in truth, but also to know how to believe in truth. That is also why, while doctrine is propositional, it cannot be reduced to propositions only. It is why we have to watch over the manner of our discourse, and refuse to utilize loaded words from the world without scrutinizing these terms according to the Scriptures.

Just to take one more example, the word "privilege" when applied to social situations has the connotation that the difference between those who have "privilege" and those who do not have "privilege" is a matter of social injustice that must be corrected by the use of the law. It doesn't matter even if one were to attempt to take the term out of the context of Critical Race Theory, for as long as it is used to refer to the same sociological phenomenon, it retains that connotation. The only way it could lose that connotation is to take the position that "privilege" is natural and to be celebrated, something no social justice warrior on the left would ever conceive of, and a position that defeats the entire choice of adopting the word "privilege" in the first place!

On the theological front, language is even more important, if that were possible. The classic case of the need for theological precision is the Nicene distinction between "same essence" (ὁμοουσιαν) and "like essence" (ὁμοιουσιαν), where the difference between orthodoxy and heresy is the presence or absence of a single iota. But beyond the need for precision is establishing the language of discourse about how we are to talk about God and about Christ. Without the final framework of the meaning of "essence" (οὐσια), "hypostasis" (ὑποστασις), and "person" (πρωσοπον), thus establishing a proper manner of discourse concerning the doctrine of God and of Christ, Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy would be unable to be established.

Our manner of discourse can never be a value-neutral thing. This is not to suggest absolute postmodern relativism concerning words and their meaning, but rather to have a more chastened realism concerning the nature of language. As we deal with social, philosophical, theological and even scientific discourse, we should realize the value-imbued meaning of various words, and then decide whether these are suitable words to be used in the context of Christian discourse.

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