In a recent interview, I was asked a simple question: “What’s wrong with the world?”
If you were asked the same question, what would your answer be?
Maybe you’d say it’s the selfishness of identity politics. Perhaps you’d mention that Big Government is overbearing. Or you might stress education, energy or the economy, or things like socialism, communism, racial animus, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and war.
While all these cultural pathologies are obvious, none of them made it to the top of my list. No, I didn’t mention any such ideological carcinogens when asked to comment on our country’s social cancer. Instead, my answer was as simple as the question itself. The one thing that’s wrong with our world in the present moment is that each of us thinks we are a 21st-century Noah Webster. Everyone has decided they are dictionaries unto themselves.
The loss of objectivity and the consequent millions of different answers to the question of what the definition of “is, is” is the poster child of all that ails us.
One of the self-evident realities of human existence is that words mean something. We all know the rules of language have been set. If we are to communicate sanely with one another, a pony can’t be a fish, and a fish can’t be a chicken. The definition of words must be objective, predictable and enduring. Frankly, if this weren’t so, you couldn’t read this paragraph and have any hope of understanding it.
The nature of speaking, reading and writing assumes definitional clarity; otherwise, everyday communication would become as impossible as trying to play football without a field or ball. When it comes to a dictionary, facts matter, not feelings.
You might feel that dogs are quarter horses, but they aren’t. You might feel like your Labrador retriever can lay eggs, but she won’t. You might feel like water is dry, but it’s not. And you might feel like a fire won’t burn you, but it will. These are all examples of a basic truism: Our feelings don’t change the facts of what truly “is.” Definitions matter. Our delusions don’t.
We can blame our country’s cultural collapse on many things, but foremost among them is our disrespect for the meaning of words. Many terms that we use daily muddle more than they clarify. Liberals argue for less liberty rather than more. Love is synonymous with sex, and sex is synonymous with love. Men are women, and women are men. Feminists deny that the female is even a fact. Champions of tolerance are intolerant of those they deem intolerable, and proponents of inclusion now exclude everyone they don’t want to include.
Vice is a virtue, and virtue is vice. Good is evil, evil is good, bitter is sweet, and sweet is bitter. Science is sacrificed on the altar of scientism. Basic biology is denied by those who claim to be pro-science. Pluralism demands that plural pronouns be used for the singular. His now means her, and her means him. Anti-racists proudly teach racism. Judging people by the color of their skin is now better than being colorblind. We have truly reached the point where red is a number, and two plus two equals green.
It all starts with the little things, like the meaning of everyday words. Our culture’s departure from objective definitions — from “a measuring rod outside of those things being measured” (C.S. Lewis) — has blinded us from any hope of seeing reality for what it is. Instead, it has placed us in the matrix, ruled and dominated by whatever our feelings demand on any given day.
If Christ’s parable of building on sand rather than rock tells us anything, it tells us that foundations matter. Definitions make a difference. A stable foundation holds true. Shifting sands crumble. Jesus was very clear: Our lives must be built on the solid rock of enduring definitions, or as G.K. Chesterton once put it, “The point of opening one’s mind, akin to that of opening one’s mouth, is to close it on something solid.”
A culture of shifting sand and fairy-tale definitions will collapse and fail. Words have definitions. Meanings aren’t changed just because you feel like it.
You’re not Webster, and neither am I.
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be.” — the Mad Hatter
• Everett Piper (dreverettpiper.com, @dreverettpiper), a columnist for The Washington Times, is a former university president and radio host.
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