Friday, April 2, 2010

The Language of Neutrality

Believe it or not, today’s philosophical Friday entry isn't intended to provoke controversy. Although abortion is a highly controversial subject, my blog today focuses specifically on the language of the debate, and in particular, the question of whether words are ever truly neutral. As much as we try, I don’t think we can ever keep our language totally objective. What do you think?

Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) changed its policy for reporting on the abortion debate. In the past, NPR used the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” to indicate the two sides of the issue. But in changing its policy, the radio news outlet is attempting to “[ensure] the words we speak and write are as clear, consistent and neutral as possible,” per the NPR staff memo issued on the subject and available in its entirety online in the NPR Ombudsman’s blog entry dated March 4, 2010.

(NPR memo linked here at:

The new terms to be used are “abortion rights supporter/advocate” and “abortion rights opponent” or a suitably similar wording.

Now, many people would argue that pro-choice and pro-life are highly charged emotional terms—although at least one journalist argues, I think quite successfully, that the terms have lost much of that charge through years of blatant overuse. (See Jeff Bercovici’s March 25, 2010 article “NPR Retires ‘Pro-Life’ and ‘Pro-Choice’ in Futile Attempt at Neutrality” at the Daily Finance website.

(Link provided here:

I tend to agree with Bercovici’s take. But even if you don’t, I think you can agree that at least both terms carry a charge. Pro-life emphasizes the right to life that everyone feels they have, even if we don’t talk about it. When’s the last time you heard about a murder victim who announced to their killer that they were relieved to have their life taken away, because they didn't feel entitled to have that life? Never. We hold trials for murder in this country precisely because we believe each person has a right to the life they have, and that no one has a right to take that life away. Fair enough. I’m pro-my-life, that’s for sure.

And pro-choice… Well, who doesn’t want a choice? We live in the land of the free, after all. Freedom isn’t freedom if we don’t at least acknowledge everyone’s right to choose. Of course, some people choose foolishly, to the harm of others, which is why we have laws in this country. But we’ve abolished slavery because we believe people should live free. We try to bring freedom to other countries. We try not to inhibit the choices of others, as long as those choices hurt no one. Fair enough. I’m pro-my-choices, too.

In sum: life and choice are both important enough to me that the emotional charge in one term cancels the other out. Like positive and negative ions. Leaving things neutral, in a sense.

I don’t think that cancellation occurs in the new terms being used by NPR (and other AP outlets). Why? Simple. Supporters are good people; they encourage and support things. Advocates are good people; they speak on behalf of others. I like having supporters and advocates. They make me look great.

Opponents on the other hand, well, I’m not crazy about them. They oppose me. I don’t like opposition, because it inhibits and hinders me. That’s what opposition is supposed to do—hinder and not help. Opponents are disagreeable folks, always disagreeing with me. How annoying.

And then there is the word rights. We love our rights in this country. We have a Bill of Rights—a whole long list of what we are entitled to, things that belong to us. We want our rights. We invoke our rights. We have Miranda rights. We like our rights, don’t we? We fought our War of Independence because we didn’t like being taxed without representation, a violation of our rights to be represented fairly by our government. Who could possibly have the nerve to oppose certain rights and still call themselves Americans?

Ah, that’s the problem. Whether you are in favor of abortion or opposed to it, the truth is that the term abortion rights opponent carries a great negative connotation, without any chance to carry a positive connotation. The term abortion rights supporter/advocate has a significant positive connotation, and lacks a negative connotation. So in truth, the new terms are actually more biased than the old, emotional terms.

Ironic, isn’t it? In an effort to find neutrality in language, NPR and the AP have only succeeded in championing a more subtle, yet more serious bias. And they’ve also succeeded in proving what I believe is the truth undergirding all communication:

Language is never neutral, because it carries our opinions. So it’s incumbent on us to do our best to listen to other people and acknowledge any truth in their view of things—because none of us ever has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In our humanness, we’re too limited for that. Let’s admit it, and stop pretending to a neutrality that we don’t have.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

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