Analects of Confucius, Book XIII
But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
“Weasel words,” as that expression is usually understood, are words that are deliberately used in a vague or ambiguous way so as to allow the speaker to avoid saying what he really thinks. The phrase is inspired by the way a weasel can suck out the contents of an egg in a manner that leaves the shell largely intact. A weasel word is like a hollowed-out egg, one that seems on the surface to have content but which is in fact empty.
In Hayek’s Exhibit A is the adjective “social,” as used in phrases like “social justice.” Naturally, the word “justice” is unobjectionable, and the word “social” by itself tends to connote the agreeable idea of attention to others and their needs. But the phrase “social justice” is, in the mouths of left-wingers, often used as a fig leaf for ideas and programs that are by no means innocuous. Hayek was writing at a time before the obnoxious “Social Justice Warrior” phenomenon, but it vividly illustrates his point, SJW “cancel culture” being the very opposite of either just or social. Yet many people fall for it, because the label “social justice” sounds like the sort of thing that must be OK., F. A. Hayek discusses how weasel words are often put to ideological purposes, in a way that can not only hide the true implications of the speaker’s views but even make them seem the opposite of what they really are, given the normal meanings of the terms he abuses.
In other words, the use of a weasel word doesn’t always merely involve evacuating it of its original meaning. Sometimes it also involves inserting into the hollowed out shell a new and opposite meaning. But the positive connotations associated with the original meaning facilitate the listener’s acquiescing to the sleight of hand.
Weasel words have become an ecclesiastical lingua franca in Catholic circles in recent decades. Words like “pastoral,” “dialogue,” “accompaniment,” and “discernment” would be examples. They are, first of all, both vague and touchy-feely in a way that says little but generates pleasant associations, and thus are calculated to cause no offense – indeed, to reassure.
They are, that is to say, soft words. The comedian George Carlin had some choice remarks about , and even the that so many people prefer to give their children these days. (Non-soft language warning for those who click on those links.) Carlin opines that “soft names make soft people.” Whatever one thinks of that thesis, soft words certainly make for soft minds, minds that cannot think clearly and logically and cannot abide firm judgments and plain speaking. The great churchmen of the past used hard words like “sin,” “penance,” “conversion,” “damnation,” “heresy,” “orthodoxy”– the language of scripture, of the Fathers, of the saints. Too many modern churchmen talk like kindergarten teachers.
But it’s worse than just being bland and inoffensive. For the effect of these words is not merely to be silent about orthodoxy. In some cases they are used in a way that implies the opposite of orthodoxy. Consider one common use the word “pastoral.” On the one hand, its original connotations are entirely positive. It conjures up images of Christ as the Good Shepherd, or of a kindly priest gently advising a penitent or comforting someone in grief. A pastor is someone who guides us to safety. Hence the listener is halfway ready to accept anything to which the “pastoral” label is affixed.
Yet it is often affixed to actions and policies that involve the precise opposite of leading the faithful to safety. Consider, for example, the way some churchmen have commented on Pope Francis’s recently reported remarks about same-sex civil unions, or on his apparent approval of giving Holy Communion to some couples living in adultery – both of which seem at odds with Catholic doctrine. Some churchmen have tried to reassure Catholics that the pope was not in fact contradicting doctrine, but merely being “pastoral.”
But in a Catholic context, being truly “pastoral” would entail encouraging and helping the faithful (however gently) to live more perfectly in accordance with Church doctrine. And the problem with the pope’s remarks is that they give the appearance of excusing or even facilitating not living in accordance with it. Suppose a literal shepherd saw one of his sheep wandering over to where the wolves are and refrained from stopping it, or even gave it a little reassuring wink to indicate that all was well. To characterize such action as “pastoral” would, to say the least, be a very odd use of the term.
In short, the word “pastoral” has become a weasel word in the sense Hayek warned of – the original meaning has been hollowed out, and a nearly opposite meaning has been insinuated in its place, while the kindly associations the word generates have lulled many into accepting this shift.
Or consider “discernment.” A “discerning” person is someone who can make sound judgments in complex circumstances, who finds clarity in what is murky. Naturally, no one can object to that. But in defending the policy of allowing those living in adultery to receive Holy Communion, some have not only emptied the term of any clear meaning but even insinuated an opposite meaning – of finding murkiness where there has always been clarity. The Church has always taught that a validly married couple can never divorce and remarry, that adulterous sexual acts are always gravely immoral, that those with no intention of refraining from them cannot receive absolution or take Holy Communion, and so on. Some churchmen have been tying themselves in logical knots trying to find ways to justify exceptions to these clear and binding principles – all in the name of “discernment.”
Then there is “dialogue.” The term connotes free and frank discussion with the aim of mutual understanding. Once again, no one can object to that. But in practice, “dialogue” in Catholic contexts is rarely frank and leads to obfuscation rather than understanding. For example, a truly frank discussion between Christians and adherents of other religions, or between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, would very quickly reveal that while they all have important things in common, there are also very deep and irreconcilable differences. As a matter of basic logic, they simply cannot all be right about the matters that set them apart. Hence, if you are a Catholic, you cannot avoid the judgment that the distinctive positions of non-Catholics are simply in error.
This is, of course, why in practice “dialogue” never leads anywhere. A truly honest dialogue would soon result in the parties saying to one another: “Sorry, but you’re wrong, and you need to convert,” or at least “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.” But neither of these is touchy-feely enough for your standard dialoguer. So the “dialogue” is never actually free, much less frank or likely to result in understanding. Anything that might result in clear, firm, and final judgments of incompatibility is kept off the table.
Of the weasel words referred to, “accompaniment” is the most vacuous. Like other Catholic weasel words, it sounds good. It connotes togetherness, or keeping someone from being lonely on a journey. But a journey where? Vague as they are, “pastoral,” “discernment,” and “dialogue” all connote some end state, at least in a very general way – safety in the first case, clarity in the second, mutual understanding in the third. “Accompaniment” lacks even that. Being vaguely agreeable in its connotations but extremely unspecific in its implications, talk of “accompaniment” is, by itself, even less likely to raise suspicions than the other words.
In practice, though, those we’re told to “accompany” always seem to be intent on going in a direction opposite to the one Catholic moral teaching commands. And that can only lead to one place. It is bad enough when a pastor refrains from warning those headed for ruin. But a pastor who recommends “accompanying” them is like the shepherd who sends other sheep off in the same direction as the one wandering toward the wolves.