At a family gathering early in the last election season I was asked by a practicing Catholic who reflexively votes Democratic whether, if Donald Trump had gotten the Republican nomination, I would vote for him in the general election. When I said yes, both she and her husband were flabbergasted. In unison they asked why. I said, “Because the Democrats want to support and pay for abortion, the killing of children in utero, and the Republicans are opposed.” Several seconds of silence ensued, until someone said, “How about those Mets?”
I could have given a less shocking answer: “What about Trump’s opponent? Is she really better than Trump?” Then I could have trotted out Hillary Clinton’s long record of lying, destroying documents, rewarding Clinton Foundation donors with State Department access, etc., etc. That might have produced some spirited exchanges—but not stunned silence.
I can cite any number of examples of this silence from my own experience. Here is another one. I once persuaded a pastor to allow a woman who runs a crisis pregnancy center to speak at all the Sunday Masses for a few minutes. After the 8 o’clock Mass the pastor came to me greatly agitated. He said, “She used the word ‘abortion’ seven times!” I had to bargain with him over the number of times she could use the a-word at the next two Masses. He got me down to two.
Why is this? Why should people choke on the word “abortion”?
Abortion supporters have good reason to shun the word. They support a procedure that violently kills a tiny human being before its birth. Knowing this, they use various dodges to hide it, most commonly euphemisms like “termination,” “reproductive choice,” and “women’s health.” They used to say that abortion was a tragic necessity and should be “rare,” but more recently they have taken to depicting it as a perfectly normal procedure undertaken by modern women for their convenience. At the 2016 Democratic Convention the head of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) announced that she had had an abortion years earlier for no other reason than that “it was the wrong time” for having a child.
But abortion resists normalization. The ghastliness of the procedure was evidenced in the 2015 undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood officials sipping wine and munching salad while discussing the sale of fetal body parts. Even Hillary Clinton confessed that the videos were “disturbing,” and Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards apologized for their “tone.” The videos’ producers are now threatened with imprisonment but their work remains on YouTube.
But all this still doesn’t explain why so many presumed opponents of abortion shrink from the word. Why did I have to bargain with a priest over how many times it could be used from the pulpit? Why did I almost ruin a nice dinner party of practicing Catholics by citing the real reason I was voting for Trump?
I have racked my brain with this. Here is the best I can come up with: Despite, and in some measure because of, the various “rights” movements of the last half-century, we are now living in a country with extremely rigid cultural borders. Conservatives often accuse liberals of living in a “bubble,” but the reality is that conservatives are in the same place. And it isn’t a bubble. Bubbles are generally small, but this has enormous reach. Bubbles are also fragile, but this has a hard shell.
In 2009, horror-story writer Stephen King published Under the Dome, a novel about a town suddenly trapped beneath an invisible dome, a force-field created by cruel visitors from outer space. It’s not a great book but it provides a useful allegory for our predicament. Maybe we’re all living under a gigantic dome. It’s invisible—people hardly know it’s there unless they bump into it—but it encases us, keeps us in line, reminding us constantly of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
At its heart are the language rules. I’ve mentioned some of the abortion euphemisms, “pregnancy termination” and the like, but “abortion” is really a subset under a larger category of “words that wound,” some of them in fields far removed from abortion. When Christopher Caldwell, an editor at the Weekly Standard, was researching for an article he was writing on opioid addiction, several health professionals sent him “lists of the proper terminology to use” when discussing the subject.
We are not supposed to say “drug abuse”; use “substance use disorder” instead. To say that an addict’s urine sample is “clean” is to use “words that wound”; better to say he had a “negative drug test.” . . . Bizarrely, “attempted suicide” is deemed unacceptable; we need to call it an “unsuccessful suicide.” . . . This habit of euphemism and propaganda is not merely widespread. It is official.
Note that the approved words, far from helping us understand, actually obscure meaning. Their purpose is political—to take off the sharp edges of words so that no one suffers “wounds.” Political speech of this kind is found everywhere today in the social sciences, most commonly in the field of race relations. We all know what happened to political scientist Charles Murray, who co-authored a book 23 years ago that discussed (among other topics) racial differences on I.Q. tests.
Usually, though, it doesn’t have to come to that. We all know the limits; we’ve internalized them. It’s become a matter of decorum, of proper manners. We can use the word “fuck” in polite society now, but a warning light will blink the moment we start talking about “race” and “I.Q.” in the same sentence. For the same reason, we hesitate to use the word “abortion” in public, or to describe the procedure in any detail. We all live under the dome: We all observe the proprieties, and we all know what happens to those who don’t.
Who is doing this to us? In Stephen King’s book, the dome was the work of sadistic space aliens, but our dome was built by humans. Which ones? You could argue that the language regulations come from academia, the popularizers from Hollywood and the news media, and the enforcers from progressive-minded lawmakers and prosecutors. But the larger truth is that we ourselves keep the dome in existence. We do it by keeping quiet, keeping our heads down for fear of being shamed.
In Stephen King’s book the Martians (or whatever) were persuaded by the heroine to lift the suffocating structure, finally letting the townspeople breathe freely. Last November, Donald J. Trump tried a more dramatic approach, swinging a giant wrecking ball into the damn thing. It didn’t shatter, but he put a visible crack in it. It is now being hastily repaired and Trump is being targeted for removal. We don’t know how that will end, but in the meantime some outside air is starting to seep through the crack. It feels good.