LegalWorks Apostolate - Counsel for a Culture of Life

The John the Baptist Fallacy Lives

By Matt Naham

"No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn't understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language." - Jacques Derrida

(Interesting that a man whose linguistic doctrines of deconstruction cut at the heart of truth and value in language would have noted this.)

"It doesn't matter, you knew what I meant." A familiar response from one who has misspoken and been informed of the fact. But it does matter. The power of words is astounding; they have the power to convince people of everything or nothing at the same time. In short, words possess the power to convince people of anything. The truth difference lies in one's ability to choose the appropriate words, tie them to a specific context, and impart a certain, clear meaning.

A dear professor of mine - who facetiously reminded us each class that he "never means anything by anything" - once discoursed at length on a topic he called the "John the Baptist Fallacy" by way of a humorous story that goes as follows:

A child in elementary school went out to play at recess. A man working on the grounds approached the child and asked, "what''s your religion kid?" The child replied, "I'm Catholic." The man retorted with a huff, "Hah! Those Catholics?. Don't you know that the Baptists were around before them?" The child replied mystified, "What do you mean?" The man said, "Well it's right there in Scripture, in Matthew's Gospel, John the Baptist."

That child was my professor, and knowing how brilliant that he is, I can imagine how precocious his response might have been. We know, however, that John the Baptist, the historical figure, denotes: cousin of Jesus, born of Elizabeth; he baptized the Lord; he was a martyr, beheaded at the request of Herod's daughter Salome. The worker on the grounds took it to mean: some guy named John who was a Baptist - the protestant sect that was an outgrowth of English Separatism made popular in America by Roger Williams in Rhode Island in 1639.

The John the Baptist Fallacy results in inorganic growth and development of the language; it is a fallacy of equivocation. The more it affects our understandings of particular words the less these words convey what they were supposed to and the more malleable and meaningless they become.

The mix-up in the story is blatant and, although humorous and evidently non-malicious, is an example of something that people do everyday: they go through life without so much as a thought - or a care for that matter - that the words they use to today are not necessarily used the same way they have traditionally been used, which leads to some serious problems when it comes to interpreting important historical documents like, oh I don't know, the Constitution, or performing exegesis on sacred texts like the Bible. As a consequence, the meaning of words written down centuries ago become subject purely to the whims and wiles of the minds of today rather than minds of today well-versed in the minds of yesteryear. Essentially then, the idea of conventions or preferences in language is thrown out the window for the more the words are abused through common parlance and mass media the less and less their original uses seem to matter and the more arbitrary things become.

Take for example the aphorism: "Ignorance is bliss." The word to focus on here is ignorance. If we think about this one-liner we can determine that the use here of the word ignorance is not a negative one. If it were, the oft used adage would communicate something along the lines of "bad is good," which leaves something to be desired. If then the usage of the word here is positive, which it is, then a clear synonym would be naiveté, simplicity, or more bluntly, shielded-from-the-ways-of-the-world. In this day and age, however, ignorance, or the adjective "ignorant," can be heard or read countless times a day. It almost always appears in tandem with the words "bigot" or "bigotry" and is almost always uttered by a person who thinks differently than the person he is speaking to. The more the two words are associated the more they will become synonymous. Now calling someone ignorant functions as a pretty handy fail-safe during arguments because it means roughly the same thing as bigotry, and bigotry connotes hatred in all forms, backwardness, inhumanity, racism, barbarism, and wrong. If you paint people into that corner they will be destined for bigot mural status for the rest of their days. Today, ignorance is always and everywhere negative. Can ignorance be bliss anymore? Isn't that saying bigotry is bliss? Or hatred is bliss? Ignorance may never have a positive connotation again for it has not only been conflated with some of the worst things of all time -it continues to be abused twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. If I read "ignorance is bliss" in the mindset of someone from this day and age, using the word as it is usually used, the phrase means something detestable to me, and that is owed to the John the Baptist Fallacy.

A pertinent issue plagued by the John the Baptist Fallacy, which appears again and again is that of gay marriage. The word to focus on here is marriage. Homosexual lobbyists have sought to sign rights for gay couples to "marry" into law, and they have succeeded. In the history of the world, never had the word marriage meant anything other than one man and one woman. If it had meant something else gay marriage wouldn't be an issue. Homosexual couples have blatantly sought to change that. The argument hinges on equality and love. Because this (wo)man loves this (wo)man, (s)he has the right to "marry" her/ him. But really what is happening is precisely not marriage because that is not what the word has always meant and it is not how it has been understood. The term civil union seems more appropriate, since a uniting is taking place that is precisely a construct of the state. Clearly then, what homosexuals are seeking to accomplish through the term gay marriage instead of civil union is to secure a right, yes, but, more importantly, to secure a perception and a power that comes with the word marriage: the power of equivocation. That perception is that one man and one woman and two men or two women is fundamentally the same thing. That is what equality demands after all. This is a subversive manipulation and rewriting of language to further an agenda?it is the very definition of inorganic development. In a similar way that the positive connotation of the word ignorance has eroded through constant one-sided use so too will the traditional understanding of marriage, and all that accompanies it, erode the more we amend it.

It is ironic that gay rights activists seek equality across the board through the redefinition of the word marriage. Nonetheless, inequality will still exist precisely because of their term of choice, "gay marriage." There's marriage and then there's gay marriage, clearly referring to two distinct things. If they weren't distinct why specify that one is gay? Eventually, however, these activists will get their wish. Before long the specification of gay marriage will disappear. All that will remain is the word marriage.

Words serve a very important function in our lives. They enable us to communicate in ways that lower animals and plants literally cannot dream of. They should therefore be precious to us because they are reminders that we ourselves are precious. But we do them violence on a daily basis when we manipulate them for selfish ends, making them mean what we want instead of recognizing and halting at what they do mean. To water down meaning in language is to create a world where men are unable to communicate well. History has shown that when men fail to communicate well chaos is the order of the day. Truly, to water down the language is to rebuild the Tower of Babel.

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