Tag Archives: language

Believe it or not

I should have written this ages ago, and now Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has done gone and beaten me to it.

I’m gonna let you read what Amanda wrote in a minute, but first I want to say a thing or three myself.

It’s just this. It annoys the crap outta me when people say stupid shit like “I don’t believe in homosexuality” or “I don’t believe in evolution” or “I don’t believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe in abortion,” as if any of those things are like the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus or dragons.

I wanna grab ’em by the collar and get right up in their faces and say, “You don’t believe in homosexuality? Surprise! I’m a big ole queer!” Homosexuality, evolution, climate change, abortion — they’re all facts. You just can’t say you don’t “believe in” them like they’re fairy tales or something.

You can say you don’t accept them, as Amanda notes, but to say you don’t “believe in” them? There’s another word for that.


Here’s Amanda. I’ll be back after you’ve read her.

I’m usually not one to argue semantics anymore — in fact, I really have come around to hating nit-picking semantic quarrels that people get into that end up distracting from the real issues.  Not that I think semantics are always irrelevant!  Misleading terms like “pro-life” can and do alter the battle dramatically, and should be replaced with more accurate terms like “anti-choice.”  When the wrong term can lead to genuine misunderstanding, I think it’s important to say something.  Which is why I want to nit pick this one little thing that Bill Wolff said on “Rachel Maddow” in an otherwise excellent and informative segment:

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The one little thing is the word “believe,” as in “people who ‘believe’ in global warming.”  I would like, if at all possible, to declare a moratorium on using the word “believe” to describe what people do in relationship to scientifically sound theories backed up by oodles of evidence.  I’d prefer the word “accept,” which more accurately conveys what’s going on.  Something is true, full stop.  If it’s true, then people either accept it or deny it.  But they don’t “believe” in it, which is a word we tend to use more to describe people’s relationships to untrue or at least unprovable things, or to values.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

*My beloved grandmother is dead. When I get the news, my shoulders fold and I start crying.  Am I accepting her death or believing in her death?

*I’m debating with someone on whether or not abortion should be legal. Do I accept orbelieve that abortion should be legal?

*Someone giving me directions says to turn left at the light and then the location is on my right.  Do I accept these directions, or do I believe them?

*Do small children accept Santa Claus or believe in Santa Claus?

I could go on all day, but you get the idea.  “Believe” spikes the sentence to suggest the thing that is believed or not believed is really up for debate by reality-based people.  Global warming is not, nor is the theory of evolution — these things are simply true.  Since they’re true, you either accept the science or you deny it.  Deny is the word we use when someone refuses to agree with the facts.  So, say my boyfriend dumps me and I refuse to accept that it’s over.  I am in denial.  Global warming denialists are just that, in denial.

It’s true that there are many cases where “accept” and “believe” are interchangable.  I’m not denying that  (See what I did there?).  But I think in a situation like the one we’re dealing with now, where huge percentages of the public simply refuse to accept reality, then we can’t afford to use ambiguous language that allows for people to think their denial is more justifiable than it really is.  For laymen like myself and most Americans, the distance between global warming theory and fact is so thin as to be irrelevant; it’s basically a fact.  We either accept or deny reality.  And we should use language that reflects this.

Apologies, Amanda, for running the whole post, but this here’s important.

Now, I happen to disagree with Amanda on the second example she lists — but only because she changed the wording. She asks if she “accepts” that abortion should be legal or “believes” it. Of course, she “believes” it. But the word isn’t used like that. Abortion opponents frequently say “I don’t believe in abortion.” Fine. Don’t have an actual, existing medical procedure that you think doesn’t exist. Not a problem. But I happen to know that abortions do exist, and they will happen whether they’re legal or not — and women will suffer far more if they’re not. So keep your fantasy world out of my real world and stop insisting that government codifies your hallucination.

Same thing with homosexuality. You don’t believe in something that clearly does exist, so terrific. Don’t be queer. Just keep having that little fantasy in the privacy of your own home and not in the halls of Congress.

Evolution, climate change? Just because you have some weird distrust of science — or a skewed idea of what the word “theory” means in scientific circles — doesn’t mean the rest of us do too. We do not have to change text books for your superstitions and backwards “beliefs.”

I happen to believe that human beings can overcome the bullshit and fully become the humane beings we are meant to be. But I accept that it isn’t gonna happen by Congressional edict.

So I’m totally with Amanda on a moratorium on “believe in.” Say what you really mean — that you deny scientific research and that you’re an intolerant, unaccepting throwback to some distant time when the average person was not given access to education and diversity, back when keeping the populace in the dark was as important to your feudal masters as it is now to your future feudal overlords.

When you were, in a word, barbaric.

Sadly, that’s something I have to learn to accept.