There are many lines from the 1987 film “The Princess Bride” that are memorable, given that the characters are so well-crafted and portrayed.
It is not uncommon in my family for someone to blurt out the famous trope, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father — prepare to die!” delivered by Mandy Patinkin, who is on a mission to avenge his dad.
But it’s another line that’s been coming to mind with less playfulness than intended. Vizzini, a Sicilian criminal hired to foil a marriage, repeatedly misuses the word “inconceivable” while reacting to various scenarios. Patinkin’s character eventually comments, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Using language precisely is important, since language conveys reality. Using a word incorrectly or changing its meaning not only risks creating confusion but can obscure the truth. While there are a number of words in common parlance that are used incorrectly or imprecisely today, I find “extremist” to be one of the most problematic.
Properly understood, an extremist is an outlier, someone who deviates so far outside what is normative or typical that they lose credibility, and in certain cases, cease belonging to a group.
For example, after 9/11, many were careful to make a clear distinction between the terrorists who committed the attacks and peaceful Muslims who greatly outnumber them. The key was to describe the former as “extremist” in their interpretation of the Quran.
Similarly, when the Westboro Baptist Church first made headlines, many Christian churches were quick to designate them as fringe. Catholics and Protestants alike clarified that Christian teachings on sexual morality presuppose God’s love for each of his children.
These seem to be appropriate characterizations of extreme beliefs, those which lack both truth and charity. But any given weekday’s headlines or television pundits’ monologues characterize opposing beliefs as “extreme ideologies.”
It seems like more and more of what was previously considered left or right of center is now characterized as fringe. Any belief or decision with which someone might disagree might be labeled as dangerous.
The most recent example of this was President Joe Biden’s characterization of the Supreme Court as “extremist” and “out of control,” in the wake of their decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. It came as no surprise that the president would find their decision disappointing, given his campaign commitments and the executive orders he’s issued.
But was the decision extremist? Even Akhil Reed Amar, the Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale University who describes himself as liberal and pro-choice, said that he could not find the right to abortion in the Constitution, and that returning the issue to individual states or to Congress was the prudent course for our democracy.
I don’t mean to pick on the president. But I do think his language is symptomatic of a larger problem at hand. The more we talk about one another as fringe, the less likely we are to try to understand one another or debate ideas on their merits. Even more so, the less likely we are to treat one another with respect — or when necessary, with mercy.
If we continue to view one another as occupying intellectual and spiritual spaces at the edges of what’s acceptable, we’ll feel justified in pushing our perceived enemies over the line and into the abyss.
There’s a pervasive feeling of unease in American life, of distrust in institutions and hopelessness about the future. We’d all do well to use words carefully and with precision in these times. After all, it’s what comes out of us that defiles — not so much those we wish to castigate but ourselves.
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Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.