Calling things by their correct names is an aspect of self-control

From a comment by Bruce Charlton on this post (emphasis added):

Somebody who was married once told me that he was always ready to ‘commit adultery’ (he did not use those words) if ever the opportunity presented itself (plus of course he sought such situations), and that not to do this would be crazy.

From William James’s Principles of Psychology:

[I]n describing the ‘reasonable type’ of decision, it was said that it usually came when the right conception of the case was found. Where, however, the right conception is an anti-impulsive one, the whole intellectual ingenuity of the man usually goes to work to crowd it out of sight, and to find names for the emergency, by the help of which the dispositions of the moment may sound sanctified, and sloth or passion may reign unchecked. How many excuses does the drunkard find when each new temptation comes! It is a new brand of liquor which the interests of intellectual culture in such matters oblige him to test; moreover it is poured out and it is sin to waste it; or others are drinking and it would be churlishness to refuse; or it is but to enable him to sleep, or just to get through this job of work; or it isn’t drinking, it is because he feels so cold; or it is Christmas-day; or it is a means of stimulating him to make a more powerful resolution in favor of abstinence than any he has hitherto made; or it is just this once, and once doesn’t count, etc., etc., ad libitum – it is, in fact, anything you like except being a drunkard. That is the conception that will not stay before the poor soul’s attention. But if he once gets able to pick out that way of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving the various opportunities which occur, if through thick and thin he holds to it that this is being a drunkard and is nothing else, he is not likely to remain one long. The effort by which he succeeds in keeping the right name unwaveringly present to his mind proves to be his saving moral act.

Of course no one speaks of “being a drunkard” now, nor of “committing adultery.” Drunkards have been superseded by “alcoholics” (a medical term), and no one would be so gauche as to commit adultery when it is so much more civilized to simply have an “affair” or an “indiscretion.” (See documentation here and here.) Examples of such euphemistic treatment of vice and sin (two words which are themselves on the way out) could easily be multiplied.

We may think we are doing the drunkard and the adulterer a favor by finding gentler, less judgmental terms for their vices, when in fact the opposite may be true. Without confession — that is, admitting that a sin is a sin and refusing to call it anything else or make excuses for it — repentance is nearly impossible. Modern “sensitive” language makes it harder to think the thoughts which lead to reform. In shying away from judging others, we make it harder to judge ourselves.

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Filed under Ethics, Language, Psychology

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