The Importance of Language in Changing the Culture

pro-life-word-cloudFor forty-one years Human Life International has been engaged in building a Culture of Life through education and activism. Though we have been blessed with success in many of our efforts, we have also faced numerous difficulties. One of these difficulties is one we share with all who defend life, faith and family: As cultural values in the U.S. and elsewhere have decayed, the language used to express and defend those values has become foreign to many whom we are trying to reach.

This is evident when attempting a conversation about the dignity of the human person, traditional marriage, homosexuality, contraception and life issues with anyone who disagrees with the pro-life position. The foundational principles of Natural Law and basic Judeo-Christian teaching that have guided centuries of civilizations are no longer points of demarcation for understanding the human person and his relationship towards his neighbor, or his Creator. Instead, these once-common and uniting principles are now widely rejected. Today, people are more prone to start from emotion, popular sentiment or politically correctness, rejecting the idea of objective truth.

We are no longer starting on the same page or speaking the same language. We are living in a modern Babel, and we should not be surprised that we are more divided.

Consider how our society’s storytellers — our entertainers, politicians and media — have changed our language about divorce, contraception, cohabitation and abortion.  What was once clearly understood to be harmful and detrimental to family life, children and to society is now marketed as good.

If I want you to change your mind about a certain subject, then I will consistently feed you what I want you to hear, read, see and experience. The obvious reason for ads on television and radio, for example, is to convince the listener to buy their product. The more one hears about the product the better chance the marketer has in convincing the listener to buy the product. The marketers of the Culture of Death didn’t accomplish their goals overnight. They had a strategic plan to gradually move minds and hearts to their perspective — they sold a story to the world, convinced hundreds of millions to ignore certain basic truths, and now have people “freely” choosing to do terribly destructive things for themselves and for society.

Blessed John Paul II talked about the need for a new grammar that would serve as a starting point for dialogue and engagement about human life and human existence. His terms “Culture of Life” and “Culture of Death” were just two of his own notable contributions to how people understand what they see.

If our desire is to shift hearts and minds away from the language of the Culture of Death then we must articulate a story, a narrative, in language that upholds the value the dignity of the human person in a new and intelligible way. We must make this language our starting point in every way we approach life and family issues.

But we will have to be consistent. It’s so easy to be drawn into the current language and narrative, one in which my pleasure is the highest good, even a “right,” where others have the obligation to make sure my right to pleasure is secured. And where other claims to rights fall beneath mine.

How do we reason with one who, knowingly or not, accepts this corrupt notion of rights and happiness? We will rarely be able to truly reason with such a person, but when asked a question we must answer from the point of love and truth, from the position of true respect for human dignity and rights — positions which value our identity as made in the image of our Creator. We must respond to the issues of the day and intelligibly answer the questions; however, we need to ultimately shift from a posture of constant defensiveness and take a more “offensive,” or positive, stance.

As Pope Francis has put so beautifully, and in perfect harmony with his predecessors, Christianity is in no way primarily a list of prohibitions, it is a love story. To see life as a gift — a wonderful gift from the One who loves us more than we could possibly love another — is a story in need of constant telling and retelling. There are as many ways of telling this story as there are Christians, but we must get better at telling this story, first in how we live our lives, and second, in a compelling narrative.

The narrative of the Culture of Death is certainly dominant now, but it is utterly dark, empty and dissatisfying. When its adherents realize this, let them turn to see a Christian who is in love, who lives accordingly, and who is ready to share this love with them.

This article is courtesy of HLI World Watch.

Father Shenan Boquet is the president of Human Life International, the world’s largest international pro-life organization.