Posted on September 21, 2005
"Reparsing" Abortion, Again
This time, it's "personal"
In his opening statement at the confirmation hearings for Judge John Roberts, Senator Dick Durbin (D, Ill.) said that he would base his vote on whether or not the prospective chief justice would protect "personal freedom." As you have probably guessed by his party affiliation, Durbin was not using that phrase in reference to free expression of religion, property rights, or the right to keep and bear arms. Instead, when a liberal Democrat like him says the words "personal freedom," what he means by them is abortion.
This is the new terminology the Democratic Party has decided upon in its latest repackaging of the issue, in consultation with its linguistics expert, George Lakoff. In his essay, "The Foreign Language of Choice," the Cal-Berkeley professor advises pro-abortion Democrats to stop using the word "choice" as a euphemism for abortion. This is because it is "taken from a consumer vocabulary" and therefore linguistically inferior to the word "life," which is "taken from a moral vocabulary." It's not the advocacy of abortion that's the problem, you see; it's the terminology.
"What is necessary," he writes, "is a redefinition -- what I will call a 'reparsing' -- of the issue." Haven't we sat through this picture before? First it was the term "abortion" (a word Lakoff rejects on account of its negativity) that had to be avoided whenever possible. Its replacement, "choice," served abortion advocates well for years, contrary to Lakoff's critique, because it constructed for them a linguistic buffer zone. No longer did they appear to be supporting the act of abortion, but only "a woman's right to choose" one. Some, like President Jimmy Carter, even claimed to be "personally opposed" to abortion, while supporting this thing called "choice."
Out went the confrontational slogan, "Abortion On Demand Without Apology." In came the far more defensive "Pro-Child, Pro-Choice." Since nobody could be both "pro-child" and "pro-abortion," this must have meant that "choice" is something different from abortion, right? In fact, one of the more effective lines of the "pro-choice" movement has been that nobody is really "pro-abortion" -- not even Planned Parenthood, which owns the largest chain of abortion clinics in the world. No, they only favor of the theoretical concept of "choice" -- not the physical result of its application.
The fundamental flaw in this terminology is that it presents a facade of indifference that is contradicted by the behavior of pro-abortion activists. As long as abortion is legal, a pregnant woman can either choose to have one or not. If you're only in favor of "choice," then neither of these is a more desirable outcome than the other. If this were the case, "pro-choicers" would have no problem with somebody trying to talk women out of abortion. To the contrary, they're so steadfastly in favor of abortion that they get angry when pro-life counselors show women sonograms of their own children.
Lakoff's term, "personal freedom," does nothing to resolve this problem. If a woman has the "personal freedom" to have an abortion, then she has the same "personal freedom" to carry her child to term. If the two outcomes are equal, then abortion clinic counselors should not give any hint of favoring one result over the other.
Eventually, it became transparent that abortion advocates were simply using "choice" as a synonym for abortion, and the same is bound to happen with "personal freedom." Perhaps then, Lakoff will seek to "educate" the public about the "true meaning" of that term, the way NARAL and other abortion advocacy groups have been trying in vain with the word "choice." Or maybe he'll re-reparse the issue, by coming up with yet another buzzword.
Lakoff's partner in reparsing, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, illustrated just why this new approach won't work during a May 22nd Meet the Press appearance that is referenced in Lakoff's essay. In that interview, Dean complained, "We have been forced into the idea of 'We're going to defend abortion.' I don't know anybody who thinks abortion is a good thing. I don't know anybody in either party who is pro-abortion." He proceeded to explain that he'd like to strike the words "abortion" and "choice" from the political lexicon, and added that Democrats "believe in personal freedom and personal responsibility." (Funny that Lakoff omits that second part.)
When host Tim Russert cornered him with congressional Democrats' consistent record of defending abortion under all circumstances, Dean retreated by suggesting an exception to his party's absolutist pro-abortion position. "I'd prefer to see medical practice boards around the country set ethical guidelines for abortion. I don't have a problem with that."
Dean unwittingly set a trap for himself, into which he then jumped with both feet. When Russert pressed him to back up his claim that he's not defending abortion, he produced a hypothetical situation in which some abortions might be prohibited. In doing so, he undercut his "personal freedom" rhetoric. After all, how much personal freedom can you have, if you need to obtain a medical practice board's approval to exercise it?
Not only does Lakoff enthusiastically approve of Dean's clumsy "reparsing," but he makes an even bigger mess of it, by giving the Democrats the kind of advice that makes Dean sound restrained and responsible by comparison. Lakoff actually instructs his party to accuse conservative Republicans of "killing babies" -- a heinous act they supposedly commit by resisting socialist government programs, espousing "anti-environmental policies," and refusing to distribute condoms to schoolchildren.
For a pro-abortion liberal who's supposed to be an expert at manipulating language, that's pretty stupid. For decades now, the use of the accurate but intemperate term "baby-killers" to describe abortionists has been deemed unacceptable in public discourse. Lakoff is now proposing to lift that taboo, just so he can dispense a little sophomoric chat room invective. Do the Democrats really want to take him up on it, and instigate a national debate over which party kills babies?
The main thrust of Lakoff's strategy is to deny the killing of babies, by cloaking it with the terminology of "personal freedom." Not to get technical about this from a linguistic standpoint, but by using the words "killing babies," he is likely to remind people of the killing of babies, which would backfire on his cause. Most people will not react to that phrase by deconstructing reality as Lakoff does, to produce some convoluted scenario in which dastardly Republicans indirectly kill babies by logging. More likely, they'll think of an abortionist actually and directly killing a baby with his own hands.
Moreover, Lakoff's (and his party's) vision of a "progressive" utopia causes a semantic train wreck with his "personal freedom" rhetoric. Where a majority of issues are concerned, the Democrats are only too eager to subordinate personal freedom to whatever they feel is the greater good of society. Clearly, they do not support personal freedom on general principal. They only support the personal freedom to do one particular thing that they're afraid to mention.
Lakoff, Dean and Durbin have adopted the typically self-centered liberal belief that they can change reality just by changing the way they talk about it. They think that all they need to do is call abortion something else, and they can become activists on behalf of that something else without being pro-abortion. This deception can only hold up for so long. Whatever word or slogan they devise, if they consistently use it in place of "abortion," it will come to be understood to mean the same thing. They can call themselves "pro-lollipops" for all the difference it will make. The truth will eventually catch up to them.
Not that it will matter to them. They'll just decide that it's time to reparse again. Rather than facing the facts of the issue, they'll conclude that the term "personal freedom" -- which they think is so brilliant today -- carries some negative connotation, with which they'll have unintentionally sullied their cause. Since none of their euphemisms can withstand the test of time, this cycle of redefinition will perpetuate itself, and it will never produce its desired effect.
... Or will it? The more often the Democrats need to "reparse" their position on abortion, the more they will find themselves in need of Lakoff's seminars and consultations. As long as they insist on trying to fool themselves and others about what they believe, he's got himself a steady gig. In light of that, Lakoff looks a heck of a lot smarter than he seems in his essay. But then, he'd have to be.
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