Fighting Logicide

It's time for a BreakPoint pop quiz. First question: What's the meaning of the word is? Second question: What does the word alone mean? Well, most of us thought we knew what these words meant. After all, we use them every day. But the president's now much publicized recently taped testimony has caused a lot of people to question the common meaning of words. It's an indication that one dangerous effect of the Lewinsky scandal is not the everyday use of vulgar words, as bad as that is, but the vulgar misuse of everyday words. In his testimony before the grand jury, the president was asked about the truthfulness of the statement, "There is no sex of any kind," which his lawyer Bob Bennett gave in the Paula Jones deposition. But the president answered: "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is." There was no sexual activity at the time the statement was made, Clinton said, so his words "there is no sex" is a true statement. This semantic nitpicking didn't stop there. When asked if he'd been alone with Miss Lewinsky, the president said it depends on what is meant by the word alone. Alone in the room? Alone in the suite of rooms? Alone in the White House? Who's to say what alone means? And then there's the president's tortured definition of sex. Through his obfuscation, the president has made the definition of simple words confusing and complicated. As Anne Carlson of Time magazine said, Clinton was slicing the baloney so thin you could see through it. Now a lot of people think Clinton's strategy is comical, but it's no joke. We really should be more outraged than amused, not only at Clinton but also at what his behavior represents. The president's semantic wiggling embodies one of the most insidious effects of postmodernism: the deconstruction of language. Our postmodern culture denies that words have any meaning apart from their specific cultural context. Remove them from that context and they can mean anything to anyone. President Clinton is not only cynically trading on this trend; he's also contributing to it: the kind of trend that leads people to say the Bible doesn't mean what it says, or the Constitution doesn't mean what the founders said. But when we destroy the meaning of words as simple as is or alone, we threaten our very ability to communicate with one another. With no agreed-upon definition, everybody speaks his own language and only you can know what you really mean. Just think what this does to democracy and civil society. Without an agreed-upon language, there can be no understanding of the common values that tie us together. Our ability to maintain civil discourse, in forming shared values, is put in peril. And there's something else at stake. In John 1:1, Jesus is called the logos, the Word, meaning the plan of creation. The Word is absolute. It embraces the truth of creation and it's understandable and communicated to us through Jesus and in God's Scripture. So, anything that debases language makes communion with God more difficult. That's why Christians must be at the forefront of this battle against what C. S. Lewis so pointedly called logicide. And we need to help our neighbors understand that the president's artful dodges aren't just about politics or getting away with something. They are the apotheoses of deconstruction, which, carried to its logical extreme, undermines the ability to maintain a responsible society. No wonder Jesus said, let your "yea" be "yea" and your "nay" be "nay."


Chuck Colson



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