What’s in a word?
Language changes. What was a common expression in 1960 or 1860 might mean something completely different in 2021. Our ways of using words and the words themselves change… partly because the world changes! After all, who could have imagined something like a “television” in 1900? We didn’t even have radios then! The following is an attempt to look at 2021 language and help us think a bit.
Quadroons, octaroons, mulattos. In the Jim Crow South, these were terms used to describe classes of people. Mulattos were half black and half white, quadroons a quarter black and ¾ white, and octaroons were an eighth black and 7/8 white. None of them could use the white toilets or sit in the white sections of restaurants or buses, etc. etc.. What did those words say about a person? Almost nothing. They were reductive titles… taking a whole person and reducing that person to some arbitrary measure about maybe genetic makeup, or maybe skin color.
We get ourselves into trouble when we think reductively about people. We flatten out the whole person and see only one aspect of that person. In his great book on Beauty, John Mark Miravalle writes about the most beautiful thing created, the human figure. We are, after all, made in the image and likeness of God. It stands to reason that the most beautiful created thing is the human body.
What about nudity, then? He notes that in the doctor’s office, we take off our clothes. We don’t really like being exposed like this. (Most of us, anyway!) In great artwork, nudes have figured prominently. While this is true, we have a very strong moral obligation to be careful and respectful of our physical persons. Modesty is closely related to the virtue of temperance and self-control, and it affects the way we act and think about ourselves, and the way we relate to other people. Nobody wants to be reduced by being naked.
What about nudity in a concentration camp? Or on a slave block? Or pornography? There is clearly a commonality among these things. In a concentration camp people are treated as less than whole human beings. In chattel slavery, it’s the same thing. And in pornography. It has to do with reductive thinking. In some circumstances nudity is acceptable. In others, it demeans the person. Whenever you take a part of a person and leave off the rest of the person, you are using reductive thinking.
What about our 2021 Western thinking about human sexuality? You might be labelling yourself LGBTQ. Or someone might have put one of those labels on you. Whatever else it is, it’s a label. No label is adequate to describe a whole human being. For Catholics, labels are not true to the human condition because they try to do something they cannot possibly do. That is, a label attempts to summarize and present the whole of who a person is. It’s impossible. A person might as well be described as an octaroon, or whatever other label someone might make up. The fact that these labels are in use right now doesn’t make them meaningful or true. Think of all the other labels we have used to separate ourselves one from another. Think of the ethnic slurs, or the ugly nicknames we’ve given to immigrant groups, or to the handicapped or mentally challenged.
All of these tags are inadequate to the human condition. What’s true is that every person is created in the image and likeness of God. We are all immortals. We barely understand ourselves now, and what we will become has yet to be revealed! What does St. Paul say, “”No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)
In the time between now and when we see our Lord face to face, let us be generous to one another. Let us avoid putting the people around us into boxes that really say very little about the human condition but can really separate us from each other.