Naming things

I was listing to NPR's Fresh Air the other morning in a podcast speaking with Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose organization was accused of "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" recently by the Vatican. [You can listen to the interview here. ]

As I listened to Sister Farrell's thoughtful and pained response, I was struck about how easily (and in my opinion wrongly) women are labeled "radical feminists".  The Conference of Women Religious was in trouble because they believe that women have something of value to offer to the male leadership of the Church.  Not for wanting to overthrow the Church, or for wanting to defy the teachings of the male leadership, but just because they focus on Church teachings different than the ones the Bishops do.  I respect that a person's faith is very personal, and can be very deeply held.  I don't believe, however, that this justifies a 1984 Double-Speak type of label for those that disagree with you.  The Catholic Church's hierarchy is the very definition of a patriarchy.  Pointing out that women have valid experiences and voices to share is only radical when it is in contrast to an all-male leadership that believes they can learn nothing from someone simply because they aren't male. 

The language we use to describe things sets the parameters for the discussion that follows. Depending on the language used, one side of the argument can be greatly advantaged compared to another.  An example of this is in litigation over patents.  Patents give their owners a monopoly over the novel method or process they cover.  The description of what the patent covers is in its claims. During litigation over patents, one of most important parts of the trial is the claim construction portion.  This part spells out what the different terms of the patent claim mean, and can make a huge difference for one side or the other.  The defendant in litigation may try to have the terms defined in very broad or narrow terms to help their own case.  If the terms are defined very narrowly, it may be easier to avoid being found to infringe.  If the terms are defined very broadly, it may be easier to find prior art that would invalidate the patent.

This happens outside of the courtroom all the time.  Nuns gently looking to add their voices to the all-male Catholic Church leadership are labeled "radical feminists".  The very wealthy are called "job creators" to justify lowering their tax-rate.  Instead of being called anti-abortion or anti-reporductive rights, people call themselves "pro-life".  It's not a fight over "gay marriage" it's now about "marriage equality" because who wants to say that they're anti-equality?!  The words matter, and if you can win how you frame the argument, it's going to be much easier to win the argument itself.

This brings me back to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the label "radical feminists".  If we accept this label as the terms for the argument, then the other side has already won.  If you believe that we have an obligation to make the world a better, more fair, and more just place (which I do) then it's important to pay attention to the language that we and others use.  I believe that radical patriarchy exists, that to change it we need to name it, and that it often carries the words "radical feminism" on its lips.