The Hidden Agenda of Choice: The Abuse of Language in Politics

 

Charles "Chuck" Colson

 
  11/3/2000
 

During the past several weeks of this campaign, the expression "anti-choice" has been used repeatedly in commentaries, political ads, and talk shows. For instance, The New York Times recently used the expression in an editorial, and Planned Parenthood often uses it in their literature.

This use of the word "anti-choice" is an illustration of the political mischief caused by the misuse of language. If you think about the expression "anti- choice" for a moment, it’s clear that it is nonsense. It is used to obscure rather than illuminate the truth.

First of all, what does it mean to be "anti-choice"? Are we supposed to believe that a candidate is against someone making choices? Of course not. Everyone makes hundreds of choices every day. Some of them are insignificant, like whether to have eggs or cereal for breakfast. Others involve choosing between right and wrong, such as whether or not to tell the truth. No one running for office opposes this kind of human freedom.

And not only is calling someone "anti-choice" nonsense, it’s hypocritical. The very same people who are clamoring for the protection of "choice"— so called—are working overtime to restrict other people’s choices. They want to restrict smoking; they argue for laws against talking on cell phones while driving; and they lobby for more restrictions on gun ownership.

So, if the expression "anti-choice" is nonsensical and hypocritical, why continue to use it? The answer is to divert our attention from what is being chosen. "Choice," you see, is a morally empty concept. The morality of a choice lies in what we choose. No one wants to say he’s "pro-abortion," so he simply says he’s "pro-choice."

Likewise, calling people "anti-abortion" focuses our attention on the reality of abortion, so it’s better to call them "anti-choice."

This use of words like "choice" and "anti-choice" is a smokescreen, a twisting and warping of perfectly good words to make a political point. A similar process was involved when the word "gay" became a code word for a particular sexual lifestyle. Co- opting a term with generally positive connotations made it easy on those on the other side to label people who hold a biblical view of homosexuality as bigots.

Someone who understood this process well was George Orwell, author of the famous book, 1984. In his essay, "Politics and the English Language," Orwell said "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink." Well said.

Well, nowadays, instead of long words, the insincere turn to euphemisms and obscure phrases. But the effect is the same as in Orwell’s day:

Corrupt language leads to corrupt thought.

So, as we look at the candidates in the upcoming elections, Christians need to help clear away the linguistic fog that obscures what’s really at issue. More than anyone else, we understand the power of words and the need to treat them with respect. After all, it was not without reason that our Lord was called "the Word."

So, when you hear the word "choice" in public debate these days, remember that nobody is objecting to choice—but rather to what is being chosen. And remember that with the freedom to choose comes the responsibility to choose justly. That’s a distinction you ought to point out to your neighbors.