Once upon a time it was assumed that words reflected reality. At least, it was assumed that some words did, such as “man” and “woman.” That assumption in turn rested upon the notion that the world had a particular structure and shape. In our present age, both of these ideas are proving unpopular. Technology now shapes our minds to imagine the world as just so much cosmic playdough upon which we can impose whatever reality we choose, and words are consequently seen not as reflections of reality but as the substance of reality. Nominalism has won and politics has thus become preoccupied with language.
The effects in the West become more obvious almost every day. In Scotland, police are now treating as women men who rape women and then claim trans identity. Once more, J. K. Rowling stands seemingly alone among the cultural elite in calling out this misogynistic nonsense. The linguistic shift has apparently persuaded cultural powerbrokers that the distinction between men and women is socially constructed nonsense, but it does not seem to have altered the basic sexual perversion of male rapists.
Then there is the case of Lia Thomas, the man competing as a woman on the University of Pennsylvania swimming team. He is, of course, shattering various women’s records in the sport and leaving many of the women against whom he is competing (along with some of his teammates) demoralized. Of course, you will look in vain for any critical treatment of this situation in the mainstream media. Again, the linguistic shift has apparently persuaded the NCAA that there is no real difference between men and women, but it has not altered Thomas’s physical abilities.
This nominalism is not restricted to the realm of gender politics. It also dehumanizes in a more general sense. Last week, CNN was one of a number of news outlets that expressed delight at a medical illustration showing a black baby in a mother’s womb. This revealed, so the writer claimed, the need for diversity in medical illustrations. Of course, CNN did not use the term “baby,” preferring to describe the picture as a “fetus.” In so doing, the news giant achieved the remarkable feat of revealing both the priorities and the self-contradictions of our current political culture.
To most people looking at the picture, more obvious and important than the race of the baby depicted is the baby’s evident humanity. The child looks like a child, has all of the DNA necessary to become an adult, and is utterly dependent upon his mother. That’s what a human being is, isn’t it? As even Peter Singer has argued, the baby’s position relative to the birth canal makes no difference in this regard.
And yet the CNN article uses the language of “fetus” to describe the picture, excluding the child in the womb from consideration as a human person. He has a race but no personhood. The picture’s significance is exhausted by its function within the broader constructed identities of contemporary Western politics. Actual identity as a real human being is linguistically erased.
This is nonsensical. The article is concerned with the lack of illustrations of black people in medical textbooks, an arguably legitimate concern. But in calling the child in the picture a fetus, the writer is refusing to acknowledge a black person as a human being. Furthermore, in denying personhood she surely renders color irrelevant. Racial categories are socially, and not biologically, constructed. Without personhood, the fetus is really of no more interest or significance than any other internal part of the woman’s body — blood, liver, lungs, etc. But what nature claims — that personhood is real and race is constructed — the language of CNN denies. Here, as with rape victims and athletes, the imperatives of identity politics are more important than reality.
One thing that all of these acts of linguistic hubris have in common, beyond their defiance of reality, is the harm — the obvious harm — they do to the innocent and the vulnerable. Women rape victims are now told that their experience of being assaulted by a male is incorrect. We can only hope that those women who persist in the face of this vile stupidity do not end up being charged with hate crimes. Women athletes have a long, hard road ahead. And the horror of abortion, which particularly hurts the black community, is unlikely to come to an end even if Roe is overturned.
These examples also point us to the real problem in Western society at the moment. Our political polarization and the violence (linguistic and sometimes physical) of our public discourse are symptoms of our problem, not the cause thereof. The cause is the triumph of a view of reality, fueled, as Michael Hanby has noted, by a crazy anthropology and powerful technology. In this context, reality is but an annoyance to be overcome by linguistic tricks enabled by technological prowess. And the weak and the innocent pay the mortgage on all this.
All of the evidence points to the futility of this way of thinking, from the dehumanizing treatment of others that the indulgence of the trans community is bringing in its wake to the mountain of dead bodies caused by abortions. Reality will win in the end; but I suspect it will only be at the cost of terrible human carnage.
Originally published at First Things.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern Self, The Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.