Correcting Corrective Diction
Humans are inherently fascinated with the sinuous texture of wordplay.
You see? Already you’re hooked. The sentence above plays with your idea of language, makes it something tangible, silkily weighted, pliable as wet clay. You’ve absorbed this without even thinking about it. I’ve steered the way you consider something simply through phrasing.
Indeed, the idea that diction steers our opinions is a timeless one. We respond to word choice at a deep, subliminal level. Certainly these tactics run rampant within political diction and propaganda, which exploits the way we think about world events or policy campaigns; consider the “final solution” in Nazi Germany, the “Iron Curtain” during the “Cold War,” the “war on terror” in our own lifetimes. This is more elegantly articulated in David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which calls our attention to other strategies, such as referring to “spending”as “investing” within a political platform (the former discourages constituents by suggesting frivolity, while the latter implies practicality and the possibility of returns; 2011). The examples I could offer here are endless. But the fact is that manipulative diction now permeates all fields – including, ominously, the field of genetic science.
As I watched the 2001 Nova special “Cracking the Code of Life” – and as I continue to browse more contemporary discussions of genetic modification – I find myself struck by the pervasiveness of what I’m going to call corrective diction. People refer to tiny “mistakes” in genes which translate to human modification. These “errors” can be traced down to a single letter difference in the DNA transcript. The narrator in the Nova special continuously refers to it as the moment in which things went “wrong.”
Fortunately, the wave of the future is here. Progress in genetic realms of research may allow us to “fix” these glitches, to “heal” the sick and to “correct” diseases. True, ethical and moral issues are often aired, and yet even within these discussions, proponents and opponents alike default to corrective diction.
Essentially, this tendency makes it sound like people beyond the margins of a socially-defined “normal” body are problems that beg a solution. The stigma inherent in such diction is breathtaking, yet few speak of it in any other way. Pay attention to word choices in the next genetic-research-related article you read, and you’ll see what I mean.
Please note that I’m not opposed to the benefits that genetic research may reap. Like everyone else, I want to ameliorate human suffering. By all means, let us cure cancer, prolong life, and end pain, if those technologies are available to us. I just find it odd that the ways in which we speak of disability and disease ignores any and all elements which may not be bad. Questions of identity, for example (one of my peers on this blog wrote an excellent piece on that very topic, which you can find here). Additionally, we have individuals like Stephen Hawking and Helen Keller whose great, extraordinary achievements are completely independent of what this diction would label “hindrances.” Yet scientific language continues to make sweeping generalizations about “mistakes,” which is, well… sort of disrespectful, actually.
I’ll leave you with an anecdote that might just contradict your notion of whether genetic developments are inherently “corrective” in nature.
In the 19th century, a young man from the Netherlands sought treatment for epilepsy, mania, depression and several other disorders. He was treated with digitalis and also took refuge in absinthe, both of which are theorized to increase visual sensitivity to yellow pigmentation. Additionally, he was a painter, and some believe that he was strongly affected by the toxicity of lead in his materials, which can blur and expand light in vision. At any rate, the juncture of these diseases and treatments was a memorable one.
– Julia Ray