This week is National Words Matter Week, which is designed to be a, “call to action to remind ourselves that our words and how we communicate with others truly matter.” While there probably aren’t any festivities planned to celebrate, it still grabbed my attention. Recently, the Associated Press issued new guidelines stating that pregnancy resource centers should now be referred to as “anti-abortion centers.” This got me thinking about just how much word choice affects the end message.
I think we can all agree that words can have a neutral, positive, or negative connation. For example, the word “dog” merely represents a species of animal, while a “mutt” is generally a dog that is not desirable and a “puppy” is almost universally considered one of the cutest things on earth.
This type of strategic word choice is beneficial for creating emotions. For example, if I was telling the story of how I was bitten by a dog, I might call it a mutt to dissuade you from sympathizing with the dog. On the other hand, if I was telling you the story of a dog that I wanted to adopt, I would be more inclined to refer to it as puppy.
Word choice plays a powerful role in communication, especially when it comes to creating vivid mental pictures and strong emotional reactions. Unfortunately, while word choice is a tool for effective communication, it can also be used in what is known as “dehumanization.” Author Brene Brown explains that we have an inherent inhibition that prevents us from harming another human being. However, if we can convince ourselves that someone is not a human or is inherently inferior, then it helps to justify harming them. As Brown writes, “Dehumanizing always starts with language.”
We’ve seen this countless times throughout history. Some early European settlers saw the Native Americans as uncivilized, almost animal-like creatures, frequently calling them “savages.” Across a large stretch of history, African American men were referred to by some as “boy,” “uncle,” or “old man” rather than their names. In Nazi Germany, Jews were often called Untermenschen, or subhumans. These are just a few examples of how humanity has redefined people so that they can help justify mistreating them.
While the instances mentioned above are almost universally recognized as unjust, indecent, and tragic acts of the past, we still see dehumanization today. Brown writes that, “Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.” We see this in politics, we see it within churches, and we see it almost any time two sides are pitted against each other.
What does all of this have to do with a baby? Unborn children are one of the most targeted groups to be dehumanized. People have gone to extreme lengths to try to prove that unborn babies are not humans, but only in select situations. The Wikipedia page on abortion doesn’t use the word “baby” once, whereas the page on pregnancy uses it quite frequently. Across “pro-choice” platforms they always use the word “fetus,” unless the baby is considered “wanted.” We don’t have the same emotional connection with a fetus, so it becomes easier to justify killing it.
If we pay attention to the “pro-choice” propaganda we see the trifecta of dehumanization strategies: language, enemy image, and pictures. The baby is now a “fetus,” which they are apparently claiming is not a human. The fetus is presented as the enemy – the barrier that would prevent the mother from going to college, the danger to the mother’s health, or the financial expense that she can’t afford. And now we are starting to see images that attempt to deny an unborn child’s humanity, such as white blobs in a petri dish that were allegedly a baby at six weeks gestation.
There’s a difference between an unborn baby and a fetus. While the terms can be used interchangeably, it is a lot harder for us to stomach killing a “baby” versus a “fetus.” It is the humanity of these babies created in the image of God that is the basis of the pro-life argument, and it is their humanity that makes abortion such a tragedy.
In conclusion, your words matter. Word choice carries so much cultural meaning and emotional connotation, and it is critical that we use our words with intention. Whether acknowledging the humanity of the unborn or supporting pregnancy resource centers by refusing to call them “anti-abortion centers,” it shapes how we see the world ourselves, and it helps to shape how those around us see the world.
“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” — Mother Teresa
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.”
POVs are point of view articles from NC Family Staff and contributors.