Archive for June, 2012

We’ve all heard funny oxymorons, like  “twelve-ounce pound cake” and “law-abiding illegal,” and some oxymorons come to be accepted as standard, such as “working vacation” or “plastic glasses.” Others have become so much a part of our culture and beliefs that their meaning is never questioned, such as “devout atheist” or “evolutionary fact.”  What would a “serendipitous plan” look  like?

I heard someone once characterize Americans as people who could comfortably hold contradictory thoughts. If that is true, then stories such as Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm should not be very entertaining. Recent developments in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the so-called “Arab Spring,” – possibly an oxymoron in itself – have proven that some of us are indeed capable of holding to contradictory beliefs, namely the notion that any change is ultimately for the good, and anything with the word “democracy” associated with it is positive. We somehow characterize what happened in Gaza when the people had a democratic vote as quirky or some anomaly. Can anyone say “Hamas”?

So, when people attempt to redefine ideas like “fairness,” we tend to accept their right to do so. In just a few short years, fairness has gone from being the notion that it is fair for someone to have the same opportunities or equal justice, to the belief that the wealthy have somehow cheated the system or oppressed the poor. The outcome of this is that people will demand the government to make society fair.

When the meaning of words becomes an intellectual property right, and meaning is in the eye of the beholder, based on the private interpretation of the speaker, then there is confusion among parties as to what something means. This confusion results in arguments and a breakdown of communication, and ultimately the party with the most power wins out, leaving meaning successfully reconstructed, however short- or long-lived.

Mother Theresa famously said, “War begins at home.” If we look on a grander scale, the US Civil War was basically a war on meaning. The meaning of words, yes, but more widely,  the meaning of institutions.

To the North, Slavery meant oppression. To the South, it meant prosperity. To one side of the conflict, it meant intransigience; to the other side, it meant tradition. To one side it meant union; to the other side, states’ rights.  We all know that the stronger side won out, not by argument but by force.

The real danger in redefining meaning is that, along with words and institutions, people can be redefined. In Cher Bono’s song “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” she was basically using three words to define a race, not three behaviors or even types of people. The Roma are commonly called Gypsies and they are stereotyped as being vagabonds and thieves.

Who, fifty years ago, could have envisioned an era where evangelicals in America would be called right-wing extremists on primetime television and that such a statement could elicit uproarious applause. Ever heard of Rosie O’Donnell? Today, evangelicals are standing up to attacks on the meaning of marriage and they are being called “haters.” The meaning of criticizing proponents of homosexual marriage has changed from “phobia” to “hate” in less than a year. Funny, I thought criticizing was part of free speech. Anyway, with this kind of evolution of meaning, it would not be surprising to see people who hold to traditional moral values labeled as bad citizens who are holding up progressive culture. It is not a far walk from “bad citizen” to “threat to society,” and a much closer walk to “criminal.”

Yes, people who hold to traditional moral and Biblical values could indeed soon be seen as criminals. Criminals because they will be seen as those who hate a minority in society, who speak out against something which government has not only codified and protected, but sanctioned.  Free speech will have become hate speech, and government will be compelled to stop it in order to keep the peace and to promote what is seen as a good law.

It will look innocuous at first: fines for pulling your kids out of school to prevent them from hearing bullying propaganda; fines for advertising traditional marriage and family seminars at businesses. American Christians are pretty soft now, so government fines aimed at stopping such hate speech should be sufficient to stop any dissent. There are already instances where pastors have been reported to media outlets for speaking out in their own pulpits. These stories regularly appear on national news.

Sadly, once meaning of long-held traditions and institutions has been redefined, it will be open season on all types of freedoms. Loss of religious freedom is the death knell for other civil freedoms. Freedom as a word will endure, but what it will mean we do not know.

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