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Pro-Choice: The game of the name

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | July 29, 2014

Oh rats!

They’re at it again. According to an article in the July 29 issue of the New York Times, some leaders of women’s reproductive rights organizations are advocating changing the name from Pro-Choice, as it has been for the past 40 years, to something else – anything else (no possibilities are given).

While it is undoubtedly true that the pro-choice side has been losing ground, I think that the name has very little to do with those problems, and that changing it (to anything else) is unlikely to help and even quite possibly will make matters worse.

“The labels we’ve always used about pro-choice and pro-life – they’re outdated and they don’t mean anything,” says one such leader, Janet Colm. But the fact that each of these labels has been around for a long time says something profound, and changing either of them would make an equally strong, and negative, statement.

The other side is well aware of this. Says Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee: “I find it very encouraging that they find after 40 years they have to do something different because they know it’s not working.” And for sure this is how a change would be read, even though both sides misunderstand the situation: the problems are not with the name, but with the larger and more global rhetoric the pro-choice side has always used.

And it’s not only groups involved in this area that keep not getting it. This is a problem of American liberalism of all kinds. The problem is, I think, simple: liberals do not, deep in our hearts, believe that we are legitimate. We say we do, but we fear that others don’t approve of us, because we’re not, you know, respectable. So every few years someone gets the bright idea that, if only we called ourselves something more persuasive, the world would be persuaded to our cause. So we change the name. And, inevitably, what happens? Nothing – at least, nothing good.

So a few years back it occurred to liberals that their name was their problem, and they morphed into progressives. If that change had any effect at all, it was to give aid and comfort to the opposition, who quite correctly saw it as proof of liberals’ demoralization. Around the same time, women started worrying that their problem was with feminism, and have been casting about for a replacement. But the problem isn’t with the name, it arises out of feminists’ deepest fear, that we are not lovable proper women. So we’re always on the defensive, thereby attaching a big bright KICK ME sign to our posteriors.

Conservatives never go through these agonies. Whether the name sounds good or bad, whether their side is in or out, they don’t worry. They remain “conservatives,” and they don’t change that name, because change is what conservatives don’t do. In the same way, nobody on the pro-life side seems to be advocating a change of name.

Liberals don’t understand something conservatives do about names, versus other kinds of nouns: names, unlike common nouns, have reference but no meaning. Alice knew this, though Humpty Dumpty (who also had good reasons for insecurity) didn’t:

“My name [says Alice] is Alice, but –“
“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”
“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.
“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh. “My name means the shape I am – and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

But that’s the way names work. While it’s true that “choice” and “life” as common nouns have meanings as well as referents, once they are appropriated as names, they lose the former. Even if liberals stopped being “liberal,” according to the dictionary definition of that word, they could still perfectly well go on being “liberals.” And they should.

Almost without exception, when political organizations have attempted to rescue their fortunes by changing their names, the change has had no discernible positive effect. The one exception is the shift, in the late 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement, from “Negro” to “Black,” and about twenty years later, to “African American.” But both arose as forms of reclamation, implicit statements by the Black community that it had a right to name itself, rather than to accept whatever name the majority community wanted to give it.

There was no defensiveness in those decisions. What the namers had instead was passion. And what the left, and especially women on the left, lack is that same passion. Conservatives, including the pro-life forces, are passionate and that passion communicates to the undecided, this idea must be right. It must be worth fighting for. And shilly-shallying around defensively, changing our names, signifies just the opposite, no matter how snappy the new names might be.

Indeed, what the left keeps doing is what pragmaticists refer to as euphemistic substitution: the hope that, by changing a name that has acquired negative connotations to one that is free of them, we launder the concept they describe and render it pure and sinless. But the underlying concept never shifts its negativity, and in a short time, the new “good” word acquires the taint of the old, “bad” one.

That was one of the problems inherent in the euphemistic substitution of “lady” for “woman” long ago. Until the left realizes that its hopes and ideals do not require euphemism, it will retain the same old problems. By not changing names, conservatives suggest, ever so subtly, that they are right and virtuous.

There is something else wrong with worrying about “pro-choice.” Since the adoption of that name there have been complaints that there is something wrong with “choice”: that it is in some way not as good or as strong as “life.” Certainly “life” packs a punch. But “choice” could and should do so too, and would if we used it properly, with rhetorical power. To do that requires a full understanding of the importance of choice in the art and business of being human.

To be sure, to be human we must be alive. But almost equally, to be fully human we must be able to make meaningful choices. We must be sentient, able to perceive the differences in the options available, and we must be free, able to follow our decisions to their conclusion. We must be able, on occasion, to make bad decisions, and repent them, and learn from them.

That is the real evil of slavery: it eliminates the possibility of choice. And that is also one of the real evils of poverty: it severely restricts choice. Racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and their relatives all have as important aspects of their agendas the right of one group to close off freedom of choice to another. Children start out as beings without the cognitive capacity to choose intelligently, and good parenting is about gradually and carefully teaching children how to make the best possible choices. So as kids get older, parents gradually permit them to make more, and more complicated, decisions. Children who are never permitted to do so remain children forever – comforting, but not a way to achieve full humanity. This is the evil of religious fundamentalism.

So choice is at the very root of the human project. I would argue that it is the basis of correctly understanding one of Judeo-Christianity’s most ancient stories, that of the Garden of Eden (which has generally been misinterpreted).

Usually it is told as a narrative of disobedience and its terrible consequences. Adam and Eve are warned not to eat the fruit of one of the trees in the garden. Eve, the woman – naturally stupid and malevolent – disobeys; Adam does the same, to protect Eve. They are expelled from the garden, and thereafter life is hard, for them and all of their descendants, and it serves us right. Follow orders, or you will suffer.

This is a good story for a slave species. But it no longer works for us today.

One thing about the story that puzzled and repelled me was this: how could a benevolent deity place a tree full of tasty fruit in front of those he loved and forbid them to eat that fruit? It made no sense.

As long as they obey God’s dictum, Adam and Eve are not really human. They never make real choices because there are no choices to make: everything is provided for them. In this they are slaves, although they don’t know it because they have never experienced, or even observed, freedom.

Rather than evil, Eve is curious. That is the mark of intelligence and what differentiates humans from the adults of most nonhuman species. She wonders about the forbidden fruit. What if…? How bad could it be? Suppose…?

So she does the test. We could call Eve the first scientist, and certainly the first adult human. Adam doesn’t quite get it, but he goes along with her – whatever.

The expulsion from Eden has to be read, in this version, not as punishment but as liberation and humanization, the right to make choices, the opportunity for self-determination. To have these rights entails pain and confusion, and leaves us with no one but ourselves to blame when we make poor choices.

We hate that, and so we are ambivalent at best about choices and “choice.” But we cannot be human if we cannot choose.

Women cannot be human if they cannot choose, especially in matters relating to their bodies. And that is what pro-“life” is all about.

So let us be proud of being pro-choice, and find the passionate rhetoric that will make it irresistible!