4. A PROCESS FOR EVALUATING SHIFTING WORDS AND MEANINGS

02/02/2023
Concurrently Ep 4 image new title

Kelsey Reed

Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you as you disciple kids and students through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.

Jonathan Boes

Hello!

Kelsey

Together, we want to model conversation and apply tools you can use at home or in the classroom. We would love for you to send in your particular questions to address in future episodes. For now, we’re laying a foundation and sourcing our material from the news stories we’re reading and writing through our work at God’s WORLD News.

Jonathan

As we’re still in early 2023, we’re looking at two stories from the turn of the new year. They might appear unrelated at first, but there’s a common theme here that opens up an important conversation, and I think it will help us bring out some principles we can apply to basically any news story.

The first has to do with journalism itself. Last December, the Associated Press updated its stylebook for journalists. When dealing with the topic of abortion, journalists who follow the AP style guide are no longer supposed to use the terms “pro life” or “pro choice.” Instead, they’re supposed to use the terms “anti abortion” or “abortion rights.”

The second story has to do with Dictionary.com’s 2022 word of the year. The word for 2022 was “woman.” According to Dictionary.com, the website saw searches for this term skyrocket several times throughout the year, as the definition of “woman” was questioned on the public stage.

So we could—and I imagine we will—spend whole episodes just on the topics of pro life issues and on the discussion of gender in today’s culture. But today, we want to drill down on the common theme between these two stories, which is words: what they mean, why they change, and why it’s important to pay attention. So Kelsey, to start with the broadest question: Why do words matter, as we sift through culture and current events with our kids?

Kelsey

Two very challenging realms of subject area boil down into these very condensed terms. We didn’t realize we were going to have to be defining something so simple as “woman.” But why do words matter? They convey meaning. They convey where that word got its meaning, from just this little tiny thing. They give an insight into a much broader worldview, even what ideology is driving the meaning we currently use, or that we’re being told we need to adopt. So words matter, because they are a microcosm of worldview or ideology.

Jonathan

When we encounter a story like journalists being told, “Let’s not use the word ‘pro life’; let’s use the term ‘anti abortion,’” or “Let’s not use the term ‘pro choice’; let’s the use the term ‘abortion rights,’” what drives that sort of change? Why do we see something like the Associated Press stylebook asking journalists to alter the language? We’re still talking about the same thing. But why do you think we’re altering the language?

Kelsey

I think we alter language to accommodate man’s desire. Honestly, I know that is diving super deep into the heart level. But we want what we want. And so we shape the words we use to either justify what we want, or to get what we want, or to even normalize what we want.

I think about how there was a countdown until when President Biden would actually use the word “abortion” in a public sense. Pro abortion activists wanted him to use and normalize the term, instead of using it sparingly, treating it as something that obviously has a lot of meaning. When you are careful about your word usage, it’s because you have imbued it with meaning. They wanted that meaning taken out in order to normalize it, make it almost a non-meaningful thing. The more we use it, the more it’s dada, I’m referring to a modern concept in art. “Dada” is just making something meaningless. “Dada dada dada.” That is a meaningless sound or expression.

Jonathan

There’s a supervillain in the Doom Patrol comics who’s based around that concept of “dada,” and it is quite interesting to see that philosophy play out in that superhero context. But what you’re driving at here fascinates me, because the pro life position has not changed. The pro choice position has not changed. We’re talking about the same thing. But we’re getting at the idea that the terms themselves can carry shades of meaning. When we look at a story like this, you said it’s revealing the desires of people’s hearts. So just taking this as like an example of the way people change and use words— what kind of desire do we see revealed in a change like this?

Kelsey

Again, maybe I’m too generalist a thinker in this regard. But I feel it is not an inaccurate conclusion to say we change our words and meaning in an attempt to become the authority. Again, it’s an authority problem. I can’t help but, in my own thinking and discipleship, trace all of this back to what we see in the narrative of the word. I mean the narrative of scripture. The Lord, when He put us in the garden—when He put man into the garden—He gave instruction to Adam and Eve not to touch. Well, that wasn’t even the instruction. That was Eve.

Jonathan

There, again, the power of words. She just adds a little bit to scripture.

Kelsey

It was Eve who said not to even touch it, not to even touch the fruit. But this, redefining the order of the Lord’s creation, that’s something that happened from the very beginning. We took the defining of His order in creation into our own hands. We thought we could make it better, or that what He said really didn’t have any meaning. I hear the accuser’s voice in that, you know, “Did he really say? What does that even really mean?” And when you ask that question, about how we shift the meaning of things—where does that come from? Again, I drive it back to a heart issue. It’s about whether our heart is in submission to the One who declares that He is the authority and that He is good. “Is He really good? What does ‘good’ even mean?” Think about our young children, and about how they’re testing the waters on our goodness as parents. And we give them those good no’s. “No, you cannot have candy.” I keep returning to candy. “No, you cannot run into the street.”

Jonathan

I could get better at the “no you cannot have candy” thing. When they’re asking for candy and you just want a moment of peace. There’s a place where I could grow.

Kelsey

That’s exactly right. Yeah, candy is a big thing with my seven-year-old, and so it comes to mind readily. And she doesn’t trust that my “no” is for her good, and my display of authority here is making her uncomfortable. That’s all that she feels. So she wants to change my response. She wants to argue with me.

Jonathan

So the meaning makes us uncomfortable, and we want to change that meaning. I love what you said about the relationship between words and authority. I think that’s huge—the power of words to shape the way we even perceive the world.

Again, we’ve tried to get away from the idea of being “culture warriors.” But for the people who are trying to conquer culture, I think language is one of the easiest ways—not easiest, necessarily—but language is one of the most effective ways to change culture. Because the way people talk so quickly becomes the way people think.

My mind goes to another example from fiction: 1984 by George Orwell. Of course, this book has been so co-opted by political positions of all stripes, there are probably audible groans when you bring it up. But there’s some wisdom in this book, and one of the most incredible parts has to do with the idea of “Newspeak.” There’s a quote says:

“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”

So the idea that by narrowing or changing the meaning of a word, or divorcing it from part or all of its meaning, you can actually change the way people think about something, simply because they don’t have the words to express it otherwise. This brings me back to the word of the year being “woman.” I think a lot of the questioning around that word comes from people who want to divorce it from the meaning of that word.

Kelsey

The tragedy reflected in that one word connects me to a greater tragedy. And I love the connection to 1984, of condensing our speech and making our words meaningless.

You know, the beauty of what we were given as sub-creators in creation is that we were given the right to name, the blessing and the command to name. Adam named Eve. It came from him originally, under the Lord’s authority, to name this helper that he was given, to name all the things in creation and to make manifold those words, a myriad of words as extensive as the creation the Lord presented to Adam. I just think of the tragedy of the loss, the condensing, making muddied those things that were distinct, that were descriptive, that allowed the different creatures to stand apart from one another. Can you think of what it meant to like name the orangutan? I don’t know what word Adam used. But we have some lovely, funny, descriptive words, and we have the privilege to create and to shape their distinctiveness from one another. Their differentiation.

Jonathan

You’re touching on something that’s so important. I love that you connected this to sub-creation. So words are connected to meaning. But there’s also a sense in which mankind was given the authority to name things by God. I wonder if it’s almost a question of stewardship then. We know that words are manmade. We believe, as Christians, that truth is real. But the words we use are imperfect and manmade. So I wonder if it’s a question of stewardship, and how do we steward language well, to care for creation and truth as it’s revealed in creation?

Kelsey

That’s a great connection to stewardship—stewardship and culture creation. Once again, going back to the effects of the fall, and even how the fall came about, was this one who wanted glory for himself, stealing the glory of man. He thwarted man’s place in creation, because he wasn’t given the glory of being a vice regent. The purpose of the heavenly beings was to be helpers, guardians. We see it in Psalms, that the angels were made to be servants to humanity. So we see in our accuser, in our enemy, that his plan was to thwart the order of creation. He was not given the glory that man was given. He was not given the glory that God has inherent. And so to thwart the Lord’s purposes in the world and to war against man—I use war language here, because this isn’t a culture war. It is a spiritual war, a spiritual battle, that is from the dawn of creation, where our great enemy wants to thwart our stewardship in the world, even down to our stewardship of words. Again, I’m running things through the redemptive narrative to understand how this story is playing out.

Jonathan

To think of the gift of language—the gift of naming things and speaking meaning to each other—as something good, given to us to be stewarded as part of our identity, given to us by God—that would be something the devil would target and want to steal from us. The idea that we would give that up to him is tragic, that we would do it as a culture or as individuals. But it’s really beautiful to think of it as a gift.

There’s the question of how we steward our own words. But we’re talking about these news stories, looking at the way language is changing. For example, if you’re reading a news story now from journalists who are following this stylebook, and you encounter the term “abortion rights” as opposed to “pro choice,” there are meanings baked into that, just being carried along in that term. So when parents, students, kids, and teachers are grappling with the question of meaning and language and words and how they relate—how words can be used, as you said, a way to usurp authority—just to bring it into the most practical realm, how can we be aware of that as we’re interacting with the world around us? What are some ways we can have our eyes open to that? Or what should we be thinking as we engage with the world, so that we do not just absorb and react to the meanings coming to us through the way words are used?

Kelsey

Before we can engage on that analytical level, I think we really need to fall back into this tool I love, that we’ll unpack more and more through our episodes. It’s one which allows us to camp out in our observations for a long time. So merely observing what we’re seeing in a story—I’m going to go back to what we do when we’re looking at literature—we look at the words being used, we look at the figurative language, we talk about the technique, we talk about the characters. Who makes this character? We’re making observations, steadily and carefully and long, before we even start asking the questions of an analytical nature, of “What did we see in this character? Why did this character act that way?” So before we get to the “why” question, we’re looking at the “How did this author even stack up this story? What are the particulars of the story?”

Jonathan

So we’re talking about the tool of observation. And that’s so important today, because it’s a slow process. It’s a tool that makes us stop, right?

Kelsey

It does. It slows us down. In a world where we’re so busy, that can be really countercultural, but so necessary and vital, life giving. As news reporters here, we have to respond to the news of the day in a timely manner. But we do not have to react to it immediately. We need to be able to report on what’s going on. But when we run to either commentary or analysis, we can really lose meaning. Again, we’re rooting this back in meaning. So a practice that we try to be very careful with, we’ll ask those questions of a story to make sure we have the complete story, so that we’re not telling a partial story. We’re making sure we have all the particulars in place. Those questions that we return to: Who is it about? What exactly happened? Let’s make sure we know all the details of what happened. Where was it? When was it? When we do that with a news story with our kids, we’re slowing down and making sure we have all the facts, before we’re jumping to any kind of response.

Jonathan

So those are some great tools for observing the overall news story, the what, when, where, why, and how. When we’re looking at words and the terms used—when we encounter something like “anti abortion” or “abortion rights”—what observational questions can we ask of words?

Kelsey

I think we need to ask some of those questions that again, I would pull out of Aristotle’s five common topics.

Jonathan

Can you just, for my benefit, explore a little bit—Aristotle’s five common topics. I’m assuming it comes from Aristotle?

Kelsey

It does. He laid a great foundation for philosophy and learning by talking about where we can have these conversations where we make careful observations. So the five topics or locations (because that’s what the word “topic” relates to) for conversation are: definition, comparison, circumstance (which also is known as context), relationship or testimony (which is very important when we think, “Can we be confident that scripture is what it says it is?” and we see testimony, witness), and authority. So when we’re talking about observations, it’s so helpful to use Aristotle’s five common topics. These are areas where we can locate the conversation to make careful observation in each of these areas.

Jonathan

For me it would be beneficial just to take one of these words we’re talking about today and run it through those five topics you just mentioned, just as an example of what it might look like to perform that observation. So if we took the term “abortion rights,” what might we observe, just from our perspective? Other people might observe different things too, but what might we observe if we’re interrogating it with those topics?

Kelsey

So I really want to be careful here, because if we do “abortion” and “rights,” that actually makes it more of a phrase than a word. And that can get complicated quickly. But after we’ve done some of this work through just one word, can I encourage you to do the multiple term at home?

So if we’re just going to camp out in the term “abortion,” we need to have a careful definition of what abortion means. Scientifically, in the medical field, abortion is the process by which a pregnancy is terminated. Abortion stops the natural process whose outcome would be a life. So that’s another way they talk about it, in definition. Abortion stops the natural process of pregnancy—and we might add to it, “whose expected outcome is the birth of a new human creature.”

So that would be the definition of abortion. Again, we spoke of the shifting of meaning just by repeating it a lot, because it’s really hard to change the meaning of the word “abortion.” But through repetition, you might lose its meaningfulness. That’s really the only way you can make a shift for this term that is fraught with meaning.

Jonathan

So that was the first topic, definition.

Kelsey

So then, if we’re thinking about it in context, abortion is not a word we’ve used throughout the course of history, until I believe quite recently. It’s more of a modern usage term. It doesn’t mean that abortions, or the ending of pregnancies, never happened in history. But it is a term that, quite correctly, was not referred to because it was such a horrendous thought—to take the life of a dependent, fragile creature, whose only comfort and protection was the womb of his or her mother.

So in the course of history, if we’re talking about historical context, our context right now—the past 200 years—it has been a term that is much more used. So that gives us our second topic, historical context, also known as circumstance.

Then we might do some comparison. What are some stories we’ve heard in our different news outlets? How do we cover the word “abortion”? I love that we get to talk about why we do what we do at WORLD. We dissent from the usage of “pro abortion” or “pro choice,” because we believe that word is so full of meaning. So by comparison, whereas a news outlet might use “abortion” or “pro choice,” we’re going to use that word in a way that conveys we believe human life has value, and that it starts within the womb. So we’re going to use words that convey life. And we’re going to name abortion as something that is distinct in its context, a method by which a life is taken. So by comparison, or even contrast.

There are two other terms in Aristotle’s five common topics. One of them is called “relationship.” And the question that’s asked with that is, “How does this story relate to the other things going on in the world?” Or “How does this story have a connection to other disciplines?”

We’re talking about news media, where the AP stylebook was changed. So we’re talking about the context of news media. But we made a relationship to the health sciences when we gave it its definition. So we’re seeing the relationship, that we are maybe divorcing meaning from a word within news media outlets that cannot be divorced from that meaning within the medical field. So we see how we would talk about how, for that to have any meaning in the health sciences, we have to define it exactly as we defined it earlier.

We also talk about authority. It’s interesting to me to think about who has the authority to change the AP stylebook. That’s just a question that comes to mind. Not having been trained as a journalist, I’m immediately going, “Who’s the authority that said we could do this? Or that we should?”

Jonathan

I assume somebody in the Associated Press.

Kelsey

Right? And do they have a perspective of being under authority? Who is their authority? Of course, at WORLD we have the perspective of being under authority. So again, we choose our words according to the authority that we claim. It helps us to position our observations within each of those five different locations: definition, circumstance, comparison, relationship or testimony, and authority.

Jonathan

That’s so helpful, to see how we can slow down and observe one word. And then when you take the story we’ve been looking at and combine that word “abortion” with “abortion rights,” how much more is added into that? How many more assumptions are rolled into that? I mean, obviously, it seems quite apparent that the authority behind that change wants abortion to be, in casual reference, perceived as something innately given as a right. We don’t need to camp out there too long, but there are so many disturbing things you could observe about that.

But we don’t want to end on the disturbing. We want to end on an encouragement, because to go back to where we started, there’s this incredible gift of words. And at least where my mind goes is that, even though we live in a day and age where the connection between word and truth is challenged, we know that the connection between word and truth exists in God. And God cannot be defeated.

Kelsey

We know that He is God. We know it is He who made us, that we are His. He has given us all that we need for life, for godliness, for engaging this world as stewards as He intended. We get to redeem in the power of Christ. In His Spirit, we get to redeem all that was given to us. We get to engage the world with care, with delight with joy. It’s ours to run all over. We have the privilege to not only flourish within the world, but to cause others to flourish. And we learn about how we can do that, again through His word, mapped out for us. The limits of our rights—I’m camping out in rights for a minute, because you brought it up and it makes me think, “What is the limit for our rights?” Well, it is the good word, even the commands that were given to us, where we learn what love of God and love of neighbor looks like. Those are the limiters for us in God.

Jonathan

And we can actually use our words to give life, to give dignity. We can actually even change our language to align more with the truth.

I want to speak an example from our work at God’s WORLD News. So my wife Chelsea, she writes for the WORLDkids magazine. She was talking with a friend from school who was reading some of our articles and noticed that we used the word “slave” to refer to African Americans who had been enslaved in the early days of America. This woman, who is black, spoke the idea that to refer to somebody as a “slave” is really to use a word that devalues that person. It’s like, “You are this thing.” Whereas “enslaved person” is a term that actually gives life and dignity to the person you’re talking about. Your identity is not that you are a slave. You are a person made in the image of God, and who was enslaved. So that has actually been our style in God’s WORLD News since then, to not use the word “slave” to refer to people, but to use the term “enslaved person” for somebody who experienced that horrific race-based slavery we saw in America. We’re trying to use our words to actually reflect the truth, that these were people made in the image of God.

Kelsey

Elevating, in our minds, what unfortunately has been lessened at times, or diminished. Elevating persons. Elevating image-bearers. And you know, on the flip side, we don’t use the word “adoption” when we’re talking about animals. Because it also elevates that term and positions it in its context, that adoption is a massive part of what the Lord performed for us. He restored us to a place as sons and daughters, where we could be adopted as sons and daughters with the full rights of sons and daughters. That’s not for pets.

Jonathan

I’m sorry, your pet is not made in the image of God.

Kelsey

Right? We love them. We were made to care for them, to steward them. But what does it look like for our intentionality with our speech to elevate us—which is humbling honestly. The Lord gave us an amazing position. So how do we use it and use it well for His glory?

He is so good. He has amazing intentions for us. We get to learn those incrementally. There’s time. We can slow down and be intentional, unpack these things with our kids. You—parent, teacher, mentor of children and teens—you are uniquely positioned to have that impact on the child in front of you. Only you can see the things that they’re wrestling with and contribute to their growth and their flourishing in the Lord’s world, and to cause them  to be those who go out and can serve His purposes in this world. So we want you to know: He has equipped you for the work.

Show Notes

The Associated Press asks journalists to use the term “abortion rights” and Dictionary.com chooses “woman” as word of the year. In a world that challenges truth, how do we steward the gift of language? Kelsey and Jonathan explore words, worldview, and authority.

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

Further Resources:

  • See this brief blog for an exploration of foundational epistemology (how we know). Because God is knowable, we are also knowable, and so is the world. Therefore our words have meaning.
  • Dive deeper into the concept of worldview and the hallmarks of today’s most common ideologies.
  • To expand your understanding and application of Aristotle’s Five Common Topics, find a systematic explanation here and model here.

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

This episode is sponsored by Frameworks.

For many families, full time Christian education is not feasible. Frameworks offers online Biblical Worldview courses for public high school students, partnering with well-known ministries to create courses on discipleship, creation science, worship, finances, and more!

Explore Frameworks online, Biblical Worldview courses for high school students today at bibleclassesforpublicschools.com.

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