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Wherefore Art (or Art Not) Thou Preventative Medicine?

August 4, 2011

Even though we all tend to treat words as though they have more or less stable definitions, sometimes we’re reminded that they don’t. Sometimes we even try to prevent words from getting all slippery on us; if you’re my tenth grade English teacher, for instance, you’d rattle off a list of topics that you deem too “controversial” for allegedly non-argumentative research papers. At the time, I felt like my burgeoning authorial vision was being stifled, but in hindsight I’ve got to give her some credit for at least subconsciously recognizing something important about language. See, although she couldn’t get any of us interested in Romeo and Juliet just a few years after that 90s teen wet dream of a movie featuring first-rate brooding by then-teen heartthrobs Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio (and a similarly brooding post-grunge soundtrack) she recognized that often-times our words can’t do what they’re supposed to do when they’re intended to just neutrally convey objective information.

This little anecdote from my so-called life (see what I did there?) seems extra appropriate to me now, as reproductive rights and abortion were on her list of verboten topics. And over the past few weeks, reproductive issues have been at the center of a national debate involving the shifty definition of a seemingly neutral word. See, a few weeks ago, the Institute of Medicine recommended that health insurance providers be required to completely cover contraceptives for women in a report regarding the new health care law, and earlier this week, the Obama administration announced that health insurance providers would need to cover all approved contraceptives.

One reason why this is happening right now is that the new health care law stipulates that insurers can’t charge for preventative services. That’s the tricky word right there: preventative. If you’re on one side of this issue, you’re sitting there thinking that of course contraception is preventative because it prevents pregnancy. You’d agree with Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, when she says that these guidelines will “help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need.” But if you’re Catholic or like-minded on this issue, you have a different definition of what preventive means, one that applies strictly to pathology. For instance, Deirdre A. McQuade, spokesperson for the bishops’ Pro-Life Secretariat, is quoted in that Times story I linked to above as saying “pregnancy is not a disease, and fertility is not a pathological condition to be suppressed.”

So, while “preventative” might seem like a perfectly neutral word, one that isn’t ideologically inclined at all, we can look at the argument over these new healthcare guidelines and see ideology at work in the ways in which both sides use the word. For one side, it fits with their ideology to use the word to mean anything that would prevent any medical condition that is unwanted, even ones not usually thought of as “diseases.” For the other side, though, it fits their ideology better to use the word more narrowly to only refer to things related to pathology or illness.

Our ideologies can always do things like this to our language. Even though a significant portion of our legal and legislative language is designed to be as neutral as possible, we often can’t escape the subtle spins the rest of our worldview puts on our language use—and the way our language use can likewise inform the rest of our worldview. We need to look no further than the ongoing debates now, over two centuries later, over what the United States Constitution actually “means.”

So maybe my high school English teacher was on to something. She wanted us to strive write objective reports, not arguments (and I’ll leave it to the compositionists to discuss whether or not there’s a real purpose to “papers” like that), and the more controversial the topic, the harder it is keep your ideology from being reflected in your language, even if you don’t intend for it to be. So the real question isn’t whether or not things (like roses and their relative olfactory properties) are the same if you call them by different words, but the extent to which other things that we think and believe can make us talk about different things when we’re using the same words.

If you want to know more:

  • The relationship between worldview or ideologies and language use is a fundamental tenet of of many disciplines that study language, from rhetoric to linguistic anthropology. It’s based on what’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a notion developed in work by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that proposes that habitual language use can influence the way that we perceive the world around us, and vice versa. While it’s an idea that might be a little Discourse Studies 101 for us languagey types, I feel like the “vice versa” part of that statement is somewhat less obvious but way more interesting.
  • Remember this song? Good, me too. I looked a bit for an actual music video, but it doesn’t look like there is one. Which is a crying shame if you ask me.
  • Also, remember that scene in the beginning of the movie where the Montagues and Capulets have a gunfight in a gas station and then things get all Zoolander-y? I wanted to link to a video of that, too, but I couldn’t find the full clip on YouTube either. So let’s just all take a minute or two to think about how fun it is when gas stations blow up in movies.
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