Maybe only feminists put bumper stickers on their cars nowadays, I thought, leafing through the box at the bookstore collective in the New England college town where I grew up. That’s true at least of the few cars I see plastered with bumper stickers, once a common sight and now less common than the cars designed as rolling billboards.
Of the two, I much prefer the feminist’s sticker-plastered car. She’s making a statement of conviction. Her convictions aren’t my mine, but she’s joining in a public enterprise. She’s speaking her mind about matters of the common good. The others simply commodify yet another public space.
Flipping through the box, I found one sticker I quite liked: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act — George Orwell.” I don’t think he said it (that “universal” doesn’t sound like him), but it’s a good quote.
It definitely has a great romantic appeal. You’re not just telling the truth, you’re striking against oppression and oppressors. Even those who didn’t grow up in lefty circles as I did like thrusting their fists into the air as a gesture of resistance to evil, and love the idea that they’re doing so simply by speaking truthfully. I’d like to think I’m standing at the barricades when I’m sitting at my desk.
Telling the truth is also pretty damn hard. It’s easy to feel smug when reading the words of the pro-choice crowd, who deny the humanity of the unborn with terms like “product of conception” or evade it with the scientific term “fetus,” or simply avoid talking about the baby at all by speaking loudly and without pausing for breath only about the mother’s alleged rights and needs. They’re so obvious about it, like the child standing before you with jam smeared around his mouth vigorously denying that he’d taken a donut from the box on the counter.
It’s easy to see the linguistic deceptiveness of giant enterprises, which breed euphemisms the way flies breed flies. Almost anyone can spot the military’s use of “enhanced interrogation” to replace the word “torture.” (Even if you believed the techniques used fell short of torture, you would still more honestly call it “rough interrogation” or something like that.) Or its invention of “collateral damage” to mean “civilians we accidentally killed.” We can spot the corporate use of terms like “right-sizing” and “streamlining” to avoid saying “laying off a lot of employees.”
The honest terms bring pictures to mind and as Orwell pointed out in Politics and the English Language, they do not want you to see what they’re doing. You say “laying off,” people see men coming home to tell their wives they’re out of a job. You say “right-sizing,” people don’t. You say “baby,” people picture a baby. You say “fetus,” people don’t. Or didn’t — perhaps the evasion has been used so long people now see the reality it was meant to hide. One can hope.
That kind of thing is easy to see. When we speak, how much do we rationalize, avoid saying, over-state, as our needs and interests require? Do we speak strongly when the subjects are weak or distant or marginal and more carefully or not at all when they’re stronger or closer to us? How much do we employ euphemisms when our desires drive us to do something our consciences recognize as wrong?
In culturally conservative circles, for example, we find it easy to speak firmly against homosexuality and to condemn homosexual people who act on their desires. We have no problem advising those who want to live by the Church’s teaching on the high standards they must maintain. These people can become subjects for culture-warring. They are Them, and they live a good ways away.
In these same circles, how often do we speak in that way about Catholic couples on their second marriages who haven’t gotten an annulment? About couples using contraception? Not, I think, nearly as often as we speak that way about homosexual people.
The sins seem equal in the Catholic understanding and they’re a great deal more common than homosexuality and just as public. The articulation of the Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage is needed a lot more by these people than by homosexual people. But these people are our neighbors and the people to whom we pass the peace at Mass. We work with them on the parish festival and run into them at the Lenten fish fry. We’ve heard their stories and we know how much pain they’ve suffered. We know how they came to be where they are.
In their cases, we speak gently and only when we think we will get a hearing. Many times since I’ve been a Catholic I’ve heard someone who spoke strongly when the subject was theoretical or distant suddenly start speaking with empathy when the subject was someone he knew. The most rigorous legalist finds a “pastoral” reading of the law.
Their kindness becomes them, inconsistent as it may be. Perhaps we ought to speak strongly to the people in irregular marriages, though that kind of confrontation seems properly the clergy’s job. Not everyone in ancient Israel was called to be like Elijah.
In any case, as I say, telling the truth is hard. We all tend to evade it when saying it will cost us or hurt people we care about. Instead of thrusting our fist into the air, we stuff our hands in our pockets and look at the ground.
This sounds like compromise and cowardice, and it may often be, but not always. How to speak and what to say when and to whom is a matter of discernment and discernment requires care for the person, and we care more easily for the people we know. Most of us need to work on caring for those we don’t know, the ones we find easy to condemn and order around.
Knowing well what to say requires not just an intellectual effort but growth in holiness. Our ability to tell the truth depends upon our conformity to the Lord who is the truth and also love. He’s the source of courage and tact. We could rewrite the quote this way: “In a time of original sin, being the truth is a revolutionary act.”
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.