In 1945, George Orwell, who was born on this day in 1903, wrote a long essay called Politics and the English Language in which he warned of a growing modern tendency to use English vocabulary to specifically political ends—avoiding evocative language to disguise defenses of immoral practices, using long-winded and needlessly abstract words and phrases to lend poorly-considered ideas an air of being well-considered, and using jargon that can only be understood within the context of a particular ideology to shut down avenues of thought leading out of that ideology. “Political speech and writing,” says Orwell about the state of play in the mid-1940s, “are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
As with much else about Orwell, despite his own left-wing convictions his fundamental point here has obvious applications to today’s political right, with its worries about politically correct language and about the spread of academic humanities jargon in non-academic settings. However, the trends that Orwell described in 1945 are by no means limited to habits of speech on the political left today. They show up in a variety of political and religious settings; indeed, certain examples are current in today’s Catholic Church. I will be focusing on an example of the first of Orwell’s list of types of political language: namely, terminology used to refer to people most of whom see it as so obviously euphemistic that they consider it insulting.
This example is the debate over whether to use words like “gay” and “lesbian” or phrases like “same-sex attracted” or “person with same-sex attraction” in referring to people whose sexual or relational preference is for members of their own sex. The argument for the “gay” terminology is that it is what most people use, it is what most of the people to whom the term refers prefer to be called, and and (although this is not usually the focus of the argument) Pope Francis has used it at least once in an informal setting, in the perennially controversial “who am I to judge?” remark from early in his pontificate. (The gay community itself took note of this usage as a positive overture at the time) The argument for the “same-sex attracted” terminology is that, by describing themselves as gay or as lesbians, people are integrating their sexual preferences into their personal identity and self-concept in an excessively reified way and are thus prioritizing these sexual preferences above their identities as children and creations of God (or even “identifying with their temptations”). I’ve had conversations in which the criticism is even extended to using the word “homosexual” adjectivally, as the Ratzinger CDF tended to.
One problem with the argument about “identifying with one’s temptations” is that adjectives like “gay” are not normally taken to refer to core ontological qualities of the nouns that they are modifying (in the phrase “blue cheese,” the cheese’s blueness is an attribute of it among others rather than a facet of its fundamental cheese-ness), nor are other nouns like “lesbian” for specific types of people (such as “lawyer,” “flirt” as a noun, or “American” as a noun) taken to limit those people’s identities to what those nouns describe. A greater problem, however, is the mere fact of the resistance to “same-sex attracted” terminology among most of the people to whom it refers. Insisting on technical wording on this issue even in informal situations leads to a state of affairs in which the people these terms refer to are made to feel that they are elevating an aspect of their experience that others tell them is inessential above their relationship with God by referring to it using everyday language. The impression given is, for many gay/same-sex attracted Catholics, one of a lack of trust and a presumption of being treated as an enemy, often by people in a position of spiritual authority. This is evangelistically counterproductive and, inasmuch as the LGBT community constitutes a “peripheral” subculture that has partial overlap with but also substantial bad blood with Catholic culture, often also culturally insensitive or chauvinistic. (I touched on the peripheries that exist under the umbrella of Western Catholicism in my first Where Peter Is essay here; newly-minted Archbishop of Washington Wilton Gregory, then Archbishop of Atlanta, specified the LGBT community as an example of such a periphery last year.)
To be clear, I don’t think that the use of the clunkier, less everyday phrase in this case is necessarily meant to “defend the indefensible.” I am sure that many of the people who insist on using the “same-sex attracted” terminology—some of whom, it must be said, are among those it refers to themselves—genuinely feel that it implies a sounder theology than the alternative. Nevertheless, the fact that this terminology has flourished to such an extent that prominent cardinals write forewords to books called things like Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay and some people find those who do call themselves gay automatically worthy of suspicion, to me indicates far too much attention being paid to this particular nicety. Too often this attention comes at the expense of actually understanding gay people’s spiritual needs (which are as many and as various as are the spiritual needs of heterosexuals). If the terminology you’re “allowed” to use to describe yourself and your experiences is set in stone by conservative prelates beforehand, then it’s easy to feel that perceived lack of trust.
By way of a less politically incendiary example, many disabled people feel the same way about being adjured by well-meaning non-disabled people to use “person-first” language like “person who is deaf” or “person with autism” when we would rather just use “deaf” or “autistic” as adjectives. The “person-first” language comes across connotatively as far more insulting than what the words actually mean because it carries a subtext of having been imposed on people’s self-perceptions from outside. This is not an issue specific to the Church, but I think that it provides a useful parallel example of a term that, while not a slur, is received as an insult by many of its referents. Much like “same-sex attracted” language, that distaste for “person-first language” among disabled people is not universal; even so, it is widespread enough that defaulting to using it is seen in disabled circles as something of a faux pas.
Orwell presents a series of flexible rules of thumb in Politics and the English Language that includes items like “never use a long word where a short one will do” and “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent” that phrases like “person with same-sex attraction” clearly violate. Of course, nobody thinks of Orwell as a completely unchallenged authority on English usages and when it comes to human language all rules have their exceptions; even so, I think that Orwell was wise to suggest that the default of English usage should not be to circumlocutions, technical terms, and euphemisms. I would add that if somebody would prefer to use everyday language or the language of the wider culture to describe their own experiences, then even if we do not share that preference we have a duty of charity to that person to assume that they have sound reasons for feeling that way and to not suspect them of dishonesty or desire to undermine our or their own faith.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.