Watching our language


By Frank Wessling

We learned last month that the marriage of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver was breaking up. We don’t know all of what led to that sad point, but the final straw was apparently his confession to her that he had fathered a child with one of their household servants 14 years ago.

News media and bloggers immediately lit up with the tag “love child.” Every parent with a child old enough to notice this kind of thing should have immediately started a conversation.

What does that phrase mean? Is adultery required for a “love child?”

Or premarital conception?


Are the three children of Mr. and Mrs. Schwarzenegger not love children?

Are you a love child?

This might be good material for at least one high school religion class next year on distinguishing love from lust.

We’ve come a long way from the days when a child born outside marriage was tagged as illegitimate and a bastard. Those terms reflected a harsh moral universe that punished the child for the sins of the parents. Now the culture is so sensitive to any moral discomfort that it avoids all language reflecting a hard-edged judgment.

No one is crippled any more, or retarded or insane. All are covered under the one vague label, “handicapped.” And we no longer tolerate the old slang that divided us into ethnic and racial tribes.

Much of this change is good. If we are more compassionate, more aware and sensitive to the needs of our neighbor, we move in this direction. We do it also as we get a better sense of how to live in a pluralistic world.

But to be human is to make judgments about what is good and what is not; about degrees of good and evil; about what is acceptable and not acceptable for us and among us. Our ability to see reality clearly enough to make these judgments can be hurt by too much soft language that blurs and hides important moral distinctions.

The words we use are important. We need to be careful especially about fine-sounding words in the mouth of people who want something from us.

Adolph Hitler led Germans of the 1930s to feel justified by a turn inward for the building of an Us versus Them world. National Socialism was the feel-good label on his political movement. He used it to identify with the country’s communitarian traditions. Too late, the German people and the rest of the world together discovered the deadly selfishness, greed and hatred hiding behind Hitler’s use of that innocuous label.

The case closer to home everywhere is that classic of the boy telling the girl “I love you” as he works to satisfy a testosterone-driven passion. He has feelings for the girl, of course, but they are primarily from an immature libido stuck at the level of his groin. His heart and head are only along for the ride.

Whether this is what happened with Arnold Schwarzenegger or not, we don’t need to dignify his behavior with a special term for the child. That child must carry the burden of being unusual in some way but should be helped as much as possible to be known simply as his child.

If labels are needed in order to keep us thinking straight, we can remember the adulterous father. He’s an adult, expected to know what he’s doing and take the consequences. Naming him that way is simple, true and fair.

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