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Human Dignity and the Abuse of Language

April 26, 2024


The declaration on human dignity Dignitas Infinita, published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), reiterated what Pope Francis and his predecessors have taught: that every single human being possesses an inalienable dignity that comes from being made in the image and likeness of God, from being purchased “not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19), from being made for eternal life with God. The document presents a non-exhaustive list of violations of human dignity that includes many of the usual suspects: poverty, war, abortion, and euthanasia. It also includes some that have acquired greater relevance in recent years, such as gender ideology and surrogacy. There is one that caught my attention by its not being explicitly stated as a violation of human dignity and yet by being brought up over and over throughout the document: the abuse of language. And when I say that the abuse of language is a violation of human dignity, I do not mean that it is guilty by association in being used to support or justify other “real” violations of human dignity. I mean to say that to abuse language is, in and of itself, a violation of human dignity. I would go so far as to claim that it is the violation that precedes all others.

To understand this apparently extreme claim, we must turn to Josef Pieper’s short but profoundly insightful essay “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power.” Pieper’s essay is a reflection on Plato’s ongoing confrontation with the Sophists, which we find in several of his Dialogues. What Plato opposes in the Sophists is their corrupting language, something they do, not by using language poorly—as the uneducated masses might—but the opposite: through linguistic nuance by which they can push “verbal constructions to crafty limits.” In Pieper’s mind, word and language “form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such”; they “make existential interaction happen.” Thus, the corruption of the word is a corruption of human existence itself. But what does “corrupting” language mean?

For Pieper, language has a two-fold purpose: to identify something that is real, and to identify it as such to someone. These two purposes, though distinct, are inseparable, and what they tell us is that language and the word exist so that we may live in communion with others in the truth. Because it has two dimensions, it can be abused and corrupted with respect to either of them. Pieper identifies two avenues of corruption: corruption of the relationship to reality, and corruption of communication. Perhaps the most common form of abuse of language (one we have all experienced and committed) is lying. Pieper’s understanding of what takes place when we lie will help us discern why abusing language is an attack on the dignity of others. He writes: “A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the other’s share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality.” But why should this be such a serious offense as to constitute a violation of human dignity? Pieper sums up Plato’s view in three statements that should make clear the gravity of what is at stake:

The first statement: to perceive, as much as possible, all things as they really are and to live and act according to this truth, in this consists the good of man, in this consists a meaningful human existence.

The second statement: all men are nurtured, first and foremost, by the truth. . . . Everybody who yearns to live as a true human being depends on this nourishment. Even society as such is sustained by the truth publicly proclaimed and upheld.

The third statement: the natural habitat of truth is found in interpersonal communication. Truth lives in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation—it resides, therefore, in language, in the word. Consequently, the well-ordered human existence, including especially its social dimension, is essentially based on the well-ordered language employed.

In denying others a participation in reality, in truth, we are denying them the possibility of living a flourishing and meaningful life, and we are denying them what is their due for the simple fact of their being human. We can thus see that all other violations of human dignity are in fact based on lies, that they are all, at root, abuses of language.

Linguistic trickery can obfuscate reality, but it cannot transform it. It can sow confusion about what is real, but it cannot change what is real.

Let us read Dignitas Infinita in light of what has been said so far. It begins by insisting on the ontological character of human dignity. That is, human dignity is something real, not merely conventional or subjective or something granted by the state or any man-made institution. The truth of the matter is that all human beings possess this dignity “grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter” (DI, 1). And here we run into a first instance of the corruption of language that Dignitas Infinita tries to address: the very words “human dignity” are often misused to represent things other than the reality for which they ought to stand. Starting in section 7, the document seeks to reject false interpretations of the term; it seeks to clarify and distinguish the different senses in which it can be used (both correctly and incorrectly), returning always to the ontological ground on which it stands, to its reality independent of our likes and dislikes. 

Dignitas Infinita does not shy away from stating that some uses of the term “dignity” are outright lies. But outright lying is not the only form of abuse of language, for there are other more subtle (but not any less abusive) ways of doing so. One that Pieper brings to the fore is flattery. By flattery he means far more than what the common use of the term suggests:

Flattery here does not mean saying what the other likes to hear, telling him something nice, something to tickle his vanity. . . . Rather, what I say to him is designed to get something from him! This underlying design makes the message a flattery, even in the popular meaning of the word. The other, whom I try to influence with what he likes to hear, ceases to be my partner; he is no longer a fellow subject. Rather, he has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled. . . . I concentrate on his weaknesses and on those areas that may appeal to him—all in order to manipulate him, to use him for my purposes. 

Flattery, for Pieper, is little more than vile manipulation, exploiting the weaknesses of others for an ulterior motive. Flattery often makes use of euphemism, a verbal sleight of hand to make certain ideas more palatable and less offensive, to hide their inhumanity. Dignitas Infinita points out a common instance of this manipulative tactic: “Especially in the case of abortion, there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as ‘interruption of pregnancy,’ which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion” (DI 47). Flattery, in Pieper’s sense, has always been a favorite of the pro-abortion lobby. By its crafty abuse of language, it seeks to manipulate public opinion by relying on words and language that sound appealing, such as “women’s rights,” “right to choose,” “reproductive health,” all while hiding the ugly reality of what it is defending: “procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth” (DI 47).

We all want to have our rights respected, so to couch something in the language of rights is to manipulate us into acceptance.

When flattery is used on a massive scale, as part of public discourse, Pieper calls it propaganda. Dignitas Infinita points out that in the name of a misunderstood human dignity, there has been a proliferation of “rights” that are not in fact rights at all. This proliferation of false rights is only possible through the use of propaganda. To speak of a “right” in our day and age aims at giving something a legitimacy that it might not possess. We all want to have our rights respected, so to couch something in the language of rights is to manipulate us into acceptance. There is an added dimension to propaganda that Pieper points out. Behind it, there is always a veiled threat:

The most perfect propaganda achieves just this: that the menace is not apparent but well concealed. Still, it must remain visible; it must remain recognizable. At the same time, those for whom the menace is intended must nevertheless be led and eased into believing (and that is the true art!) that by acquiescing to the intimidation, they really do the reasonable thing, perhaps even what they would have wanted to do anyway.

To reject something labeled a “right” is to oppress the claimant of said right. All oppressors, we are told, should be overthrown. To reject a claim to a “right” is to be “on the wrong side of history.” This element of threat is yet another facet of the abuse of language’s violation of human dignity: whereas language and the word are meant to call us into a dialogue through which we can come together in truth and freedom, the corruption of these must necessarily rely on deception and coercion; it must force us into submission.

All this linguistic trickery can obfuscate reality, but it cannot transform it. It can sow confusion about what is real, but it cannot change what is real. Reality itself was spoken into being: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:1-3). This is why Dignitas Infinita can maintain that human dignity is also discoverable by human reason, why it is ontological: it is a feature of existing reality. To abuse the word is to do violence to reality itself. And that violence has an ancient pedigree: all attacks and denials of human dignity throughout history can be traced back to a primordial abuse of language, they stem from the lie whispered into our first parents’ ear: “Eat it and you will be like gods.” With this lie, the ancient serpent tricked us into believing that God had denied us our dignity, that his dignity and ours were somehow opposed, that the greater glory of God demanded the lesser glory of man. Because of this, the very idea of human dignity often was, and often continues to be, distorted, shrouded in darkness. And where human dignity is darkened, death and destruction follow. But because God is Truth, he himself set out to revert this lie through the medium of the Word itself: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) so that “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79). God’s Word is the light that shines in the darkness that obscures our dignity, and the darkness has not (and cannot) overcome it.