Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Like Lives, Words Matter (And — in non-Racial Contexts — Some More than Others)

In our local newspaper, The Ventura County Star for 18 September 2018, there was what turned out to be a nice letter to the editor calling for people to help other people, with the title (possibly requested by the letter-writer) and final line "All Life Matters."

There's a problem with that line other than its subtext if applied to the US politics of race.

A snarky but important comment goes, "Don't say 'All life is sacred' while eating a hamburger," to which I add "Or a carrot." The great mass of life on Earth, the dominant forms of life through the history of life on this planet have been microbial: what are currently called archaea and bacteria; and if bacterial life is sacred, in the time I worked in microbiology labs, I was a mass murderer.

I don't feel guilty about the billions of bacteria I killed; I do feel some guilt about the rats, dogs, and other mammals I killed, and that is one of the reasons I don't eat mammal meat.

Even if you're a scrupulous practitioner of Jainism or a rigorous Vegan, your immune system kills other organisms, and most of us squash cockroaches, spray mosquitoes, spritz disinfectants, gargle mouth wash that "kills bacteria on contact," and eat organisms more closely related to us than insects and bugs, and/or, with octopuses, arguably of high intelligence (squid I guess I can eat).

When people say "life is sacred" they usually mean to say "human life is sacred," and they really do need to go to the trouble to add the two syllables of "human" or prepare to argue for a definition of "life" that excludes so much that is clearly alive. And they might do better to make that, "Human life is sacred, and all life should be respected, even when we kill." (Peoples who ask an animal’s forgiveness before killing, or recite a blessing implying that even culturally permitted or valued killing is in some way problematic and needs sanction — may be on to something.)

Words matter, and some more than others. To use some key words and say that "There’s a death in every abortion" is correct. There’s also a death with every hamburger you prepare or carrot pulled from the ground and eaten. The question is what’s being killed and from there its or his or her ethical status and from there the status of that organism under the law. "Abortion is murder," always and necessarily, if, but only if, we’re dealing with human beings from the zygote (fertilized egg) through the stages of a developing embryo to a fetus and then on to a human being with "the breath of life." Personally, I have trouble seeing a single-cell organism as human or even a ball of human cells; potentially human, yes, and a human individual — with "monozygotic siblings" (so-called identical twins and triplets and all) as a limiting case on individual, but not a contradiction. ("Identical" twins aren’t literally identical.)

It may turn out that on abortion and related issues we American would do best to remain vague and contradictory and muddle through with muddled reasoning. Maybe. That hasn’t worked too well so far, though at least we haven’t gotten resorted to heavy weaponry yet. We might try clarity. 

Words matter, and some matter a great deal: "human being"/"person under the law," life are among those that matter a lot. In America, we fought a Civil War to recognize that Black people are fully human and as much as anyone full citizens under the law.

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