The smoke has just cleared from the online battlefield after articles, comments and insults were fired across enemy lines over the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision.
Five individuals with decades of legal experience spent months reading countless pages of cases and briefs and listening to oral arguments before issuing an opinion more than 50 pages long. We, however, post our opinions as if we have no time for analyzing, contemplating or critical thinking.
When we race to the opinion potluck with such urgency, we get sloppy, really sloppy. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell says that when “certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract, and no one seems able to think in terms of speech that are not hackneyed.” He realized that “prose consisted less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house.”
Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor from Boston College, emphasized that the first step of making an argument is ensuring that the terms are clear. Our greatest philosophers spent significant portions of their arguments clarifying their terms. In Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates extensively debated what “justice” meant. It was essential because rushing to debate whether something is “just” makes no sense without clarifying what being “just” means in the first place.
In response to the Hobby Lobby decision, many have chosen “powerful” phrases over proper words. Elizabeth Wydra, for example, used this phrase in a CNN article: “This ability to impose religious beliefs … on tens of thousands of employees nationwide makes the extension of religious liberty rights to corporations, as opposed to individuals, particularly troubling.”
The “impose religious beliefs” phrase is far from new. It has been regurgitated in arguments over other issues like abortion and same-sex marriage because it appeals to the live-and-let-live principle our culture cherishes. Yet, hardly any writers discuss or even clarify its meaning. It reminds me of Vizzini, a villain from “The Princess Bride,” who yells “inconceivable!” whenever he is surprised or frustrated. Finally, one of his sidekicks tells him: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
What does “imposing religious beliefs” actually mean? To impose is to force. Thus, imposing a religious belief upon another logically means forcing another to accept or abide by a religious belief. In this Hobby Lobby case, where do we see that happening?
An employer believes certain contraceptives are immoral and refuses to pay for them through insurance. Does that force the employees to abstain from using those contraceptives?
Many would say yes — because some employees cannot access contraceptives without employer-provided health coverage. That response assumes that forcing others to live by your beliefs is no different from refusing to financially support their decisions to live by different beliefs.
If we are going to define the term “impose” this broadly, wouldn’t that require us to recognize that the government would be imposing pro-contraceptive views on Hobby Lobby by forcing them to pay for contraceptives?
Many would say no — because the law does not force any of the company members to change their beliefs. This answer retreats back to the strictly literal meaning of “imposing beliefs.” It’s as if a simple phrase from the English language has mutated into a disappearing/reappearing principle, which holds that the government should force an employer to financially support something it’s against in order to ensure that no beliefs are being imposed. Simply put, to stop imposing, we must impose.
This nonsense is precisely why George Orwell despised clichés and hackneyed punch lines. A good argument appeals not to what is popular, but to what is true. Hence, it requires us to use words for what they truly mean. When we take the time to think about what our words truly mean, we might wind up thinking and speaking about the truth.
Kyle Triggs, of Sartell, Minn., is an attorney.