Thursday, September 18, 2014

Orwell today

"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." - George Orwell, 1984

Such were the slogans which adorned the outside walls of the aptly named Ministry of Truth in the famous dystopian novel. To a large extent, we live in Orwell's world. True, there is not yet a boot stomping on the human face, forever. But when the peace prize winning President is off bombing another country the citizens cannot find on a map; when we pride ourselves on how free we are, as we dutifully submit to a groping at an airport; when the news ignores all complexity to hammer home a grossly simplified version of events: it's hard not to think of 1984.

Orwell feared that truth would be hidden by false narratives. Because speaking truthfully--and even thinking truthfully--was forbidden, man would be compelled to endure falsehood. Worse, he would depend on it, and, therefore, love it. In our society, no single organization possesses a monopoly on information, so it is always possible to seek out alternatives, usually on the Internet. Still, the mass media consistently upholds various Narratives, rendering slight the influence of alternative sources.

To take but one example, consider the topic of abortion. Ostensibly, the media presents two sides: the feminist left, which insists that women have the right to reproductive choice; on the other, the right, motivated by religious principles, which insists that abortion is murder and therefore should not be allowed.

Let's try to tease apart some of the terms used in the abortion debate between the pro-choice and the pro-life parties. Pro-choice is a neologism, though perhaps not quite an Orwellian one. The problem with the term is its ambiguity; choice implies an end chosen, but this end goes unmentioned. The pro-lifers are also pro-choice; they think the woman should have the right to choose whether the child is kept by his mother, or given up for adoption. Pro-choicers add another option, namely, abortion, but they refrain from using this term too readily because they do not wish to draw too much attention to their actual program. Choice is always good; abortion is on more dubious ground.

The pro-choicers would also insist that this is because they wish to emphasize that they want women to be given a choice as to the fate of their children. But so, too, do the pro-lifers. The distinction is not concerning choice per se but its accepted range. The debate concerns whether abortion ought to be legal in at least some circumstances. And that is the end of it. The media's Narrative only serves to obscure the matter.

I learned another neologism while listening to pro-life speaker Abby Johnson yesterday at a fundraiser for the Guiding Star Project. Some years ago, Abby ran one of Planned Parenthood's abortion clinics. She shared her story with us yesterday, but as it is explained in her book, Unplanned, I'll not recount it here.

Anyway, Abby told us that at her clinic, they referred to fetuses as products of conception. Pro-choicers usually use the term fetus, which is technically correct. But a fetus is an unborn human baby, so while the term conceals the connection, it remains hidden only insofar as we remain ignorant of the dictionary definition.

The term products of conception, however, is starkly Orwellian in the manner in which it seeks to hide the truth. The term is coldly clinical, like describing a tumor as a product of cancer, or a breast as a mammalian outgrowth. There are times when such terminology can be helpful; if it sheds light on an aspect of the item in question, a more precise term is often called for. But in this case, the verbosity only serves to obscure—as intended.

The following is left as an exercise for the reader: why would those who provide abortions wish to be less than truthful about the nature of the service they are providing?  

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