Last year, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg published a book called Talking Right, the main argument of which was, essentially, that Republicans have seized control of the language. He discusses, among many other points, the fact that the word “values” has become a catchall used by conservatives to mean “morals.”
When Democrats try to push their own so-called “values” agenda, the term doesn’t have the same force. Why? Because liberals tend to use the word when referring to progressive domestic issues, like universal health care, and minimum-wage hikes, and equal opportunity employment. Economics are important to everyone, but a large segment of the American electorate likes to believe that they’ll always choose morals over money. They don’t, of course, but they do in the voting booth. The right-wing owns “values.”
I thought about Nunberg’s book tonight while I was having dinner with a few old friends, all Roman Catholics. My buddies are pretty well resigned to the idea that I’m never going to find their Jesus; they’ve long since given up trying to get me to “think about it.” Likewise, I’ve thrown in the towel on asking them to offer me even the smallest proofs to support their superstitions. Basically, we discuss beer, cigars, and — if available — scantily-clad waitresses. (Digression: I asked our server, only half-kiddingly, “Do you object to being exploited?” and received the mouth-shutting reply, “I ain’ bein’ exploded, Hon. I jes’ dress this way ‘cause it’s parta my job.”)
Anyway, the most religiously zealous of my pals — I’ll call him Russell, because that’s his name — invariably finds some way to steer the conversation to the subject of abortion. He usually starts by asking, “Hey, atheist. I’m still pro-life. Are you still pro-abortion?”
“Well,” I say, “I wouldn’t put it exactly like that.”
“OK. Pro-choice.” He sings that “oy” vowel for a good five seconds, as if he were auditioning for a part in Fiddler on the Roof, before coming to rest on the sibilant. “Are you still pro-choi.....ce?”
Usually this question baits me into a long diatribe about women’s rights, and legislators’ usurpation of bodies that don’t belong to them. But suddenly tonight it hit me. How lame “pro-choice” — our side’s chosen term — sounds next to “pro-life.” And never mind that those people aren’t really pro-life, either on abortion rights or on so many other issues. They define themselves that way, and we, those of us who think they’re wrong about a woman’s right to choose, have to deal with that.
“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t put it exactly in those words, either. Let’s say that I’m anti-forced-maternity.”
Our server, overhearing the last snippet of conversation as she wriggled toward our table with a pitcher of suds and a few platters of wings, said, “Hey, that don’ sound good, forced maternity. Who makes you do that?”
“Tell her, Russell,” I said to my friend.
But he didn’t.