“Prochoice,” not “Pro-abortion” and “Pro-life,” not “Anti-abortion”

As the American election heats up with the naming of Senator Harris as Mr. Biden’s running mate, we will help each other by following the wise counsel of Master Kung (whom we Westerners know as “Confucius”). The first task of philosophy, he said, is to “rectify the names”–which is to say, call things by their proper terms.

In particular, “pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion” need to be dropped from our political vocabulary.

No one but a bloodthirsty maniac is “pro-abortion.” But lots of otherwise decent people are…pro-choice.

Indeed, in Senator Harris’s telling examination of judicial nominee Brian Buescher, she chides him for belonging to the Knights of Columbus because that organization, in her characterization of it, “opposed a woman’s right to choose.”

Notice that she doesn’t say “a woman’s right to choose what to do with the fetus within her.” She stops at the much more general phrasing, as do so many prochoicers: “a woman’s right to choose.”

Well, let’s take her at her word. This terminology is telling because it cuts to the heart of the matter of abortion for those who are prochoice: they are proCHOICE. They are committed to the autonomy of the individual in general and particularly on a woman’s governance of her (own) body. They are against anyone else telling her what she must do with her body. Those are the typical terms in which this side frames its view, and it is both discourteous and simply incorrect to re-name this view “pro-abortion.”

There is a lot more to say about all this, of course, not least the questionable idea of personal autonomy. (The law currently tells me lots of things I must or must not do with my body, from when my body is driving a car to when my body wants to smack you.) But at least let’s get the terms straight.

That’s why we anti-abortion types prefer the term “pro-life.” If abortion didn’t kill someone, it would be what prochoice people very much prefer to call it: a surgical procedure, a mere matter of healthcare. But because we think it does indeed terminate a human life, we’re against abortion because we are pro-life…and particularly the life of the most vulnerable person in the situation, which is not the mom–compassionate as we must be for so many moms considering abortion–but the baby.

Okay? Prochoice. Prolife. They aren’t just spin: they accurately get at the crucial difference in this argument.

Let’s all watch our language, then, particularly if we have any serious hope of communicating usefully with those who disagree with us…

Postmodernity, Critical (Race) Theory, Cultural Marxism, and You: Part 2

Are you a Cultural Marxist? Are they? How would you know?

The first column in this series defined postmodernity, a form of society in which, I suggested, we all now currently reside.

I am not claiming that all of us all the time think as postmodernists. Engineers and physicians, at least on the job, think as heirs of the (modern) Enlightenment, while historians and social scientists think in terms of (modern) historical consciousness. Instead, I have argued that postmodernity is now common, even typical, in our society.

In the current controversies over “cancel culture,” “BLM,” “critical race theory,” and the like, the philosophical school known as “Critical Theory” bobs up frequently. Critical Theory is sometimes depicted as an early form of postmodernism that gives rise to these other cultural developments.

But it mostly isn’t.

Critical Theory refers to a group of twentieth-century German philosophers known as the Frankfurt School. The most famous among them are Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas—the last of whom is still productive in his 90s.

The “critical” in Critical Theory echoes Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “”Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Theses on Feuerbach, 1845). Critical Theory has combined philosophy and the social sciences so as to expose the true workings of modern life and to formulate a way toward a better future than the paths offered by communism, fascism, or democracy wedded to runaway capitalism.

Critical Theorists thus have been successors to Marx in both their quest to unmask what’s really going on in society and in their intent to offer a better alternative. Unlike Marx, however, they have not focused mostly on economic matters, but submitted everything to their X-rays, from art to politics to religion. They also don’t see the way forward as inevitable class warfare, as Marxists do, but as a long process of democratic negotation.

“Cultural Marxism” has been suggested as a term to describe and to dismiss this kind of thinking. Indeed, the term is mostly used by people who don’t understand it very well as a stick with which to beat opponents to their political and cultural left. We’re better off not using it at all, since it is at least as wrong as it is right.

Everywhere the Critical Theorists have looked, people with power were exploiting people without it, often dressing up that exploitation in Big Stories of “the common good,” or “the good of the nation,” or “the good of humankind.” In this sense, the Critical Theorists have been allies of the postmodernists as both groups see in all ideologies mere legitimations of unjust relationships.

Critical Theory is not, however, postmodern. Again like Marx, it is modern in its confidence that truth can be found, if laboriously rather than easily read off the surface. (“Things aren’t what they appear” could be a slogan for both Marx and Critical Theory.) And Critical Theory has also sought the one right way to live the Good Life, rather than despairing, as postmoderns do, of ever knowing for certain anything important. In short, Critical Theory is antiskeptical, while the postmodern outlook is deeply skeptical.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]

Postmodernity, Critical (Race) Theory, Cultural Marxism, and You: Part 1

When I was a student in the 1970s and 1980s, postmodernity and Critical Theory were still cool. Soon, however, they became conventional—at least in the academy. But now?  Now they’re significant to everybody, because they’re everywhere.

A column this short cannot possibly do academic justice to such interesting and paradoxical phenomena. But since pundits from Jordan Peterson to Tim Keller are offering their takes on these complex matters, readers of this column might yet profit from a short glossary of terms. Over the next three weeks I’ll define postmodernity, critical theory and cultural Marxism, and critical race theory. And in the fourth week of this little series, I’ll offer a few reflections on what these cultural currents mean for the typical reader.

The “post-“ in “postmodernity” means simply “what comes after the modern.” What comes after the modern, it turns out, is both much more of the same (hence the term hypermodernity) and something completely different (hence the term postmodernity).

So what is the “modern” after which comes postmodernity?

The modern experience—the culture experienced by the West since the seventeenth century or so and now by much of the rest of the world—is characterized by two major qualities: fragmentation and doubt.

Sociologists speak of differentiation, the process by which various social sectors and roles become progressively distinct and separate from each other in modernity. Family life, education, health care, politics, recreation, religion—all become separate spheres with their own values, their own objectives, and usually even their own buildings, uniforms, and jargons.

A modern person gets out of bed in his pyjamas on a Monday morning and quickly changes into different clothes to exercise at the nearby gym. After a workout, breakfast, and a shower, he changes his appearance again and goes to a different place to work. After work, he likely changes his look once more to go out with friends for drinks and dinner. And then he changes clothes again to participate in a Bible study, or attend a support group, or assist a local charity. Once home, he changes once more (notice the way we easily use the word “changes”) to be with his domestic partner(s).

[For the rest, please click HERE.]