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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Taking Pride in V-Word “Unrepentant Bigotry”



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I am on a rather lonely campaign to make the V-word–”vegetable”–as unacceptable as the N-word in describing human beings. I call it an “unrepentant bigotry.”

Why? Like the N-word, the V-word dehumanizes the human beings against whom it is wielded toward the end of lowering their perceived moral value, thereby allowing them to be treated as somehow less than human.  

Just like the N-word justified Jim Crow and slavery, the V-word makes respectable actions that would otherwise be deemed profound wrongs, as I have repeatedly reported. Examples: 

- We take away the food and water from such people causing them to die slowly over 10-14 days. Do that to an ISIS leader and it would be correctly deemed a human rights atrocity.

- Bioethicists and organ transplant professionals advocate killing profoundly disabled people for their organs.

- Some even urge that our unconscious or minimally conscious brothers and sisters be used in medical experimentation, perhaps in place of animals.

I bring this up again because of a rather astonishing reaction in the Huffington Post to my blog entry here, “Joan Rivers Will Never be a Carrot.” James Peron claims that my arguing in favor of respectful language to describe those with profound cognitive disabilities–coupled with my Discovery Institute affiliation–means that I don’t really care about such people, but rather, that I am engaged in some kind of “creationist” plot to impose religion on society. (The DI is not a religious or creationist think tank, but never mind.)

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds, but a few points must be made. First, Peron writes as if I take marching orders from my DI overlords. From, “Controlling Language Controls the Euthanasia Debate:”

Discovery Institute even goes as far as calling it “the v word.” I presume they think people in vegetative states find the term offensive.

I want to make it clear: “The Discovery Institute” did not write this: I did, for this blog. It was later reposted at a DI site as some of my work is with my permission, with a note stating where it first appeared.

I am a senior fellow at the DI. That is a no strings attached affiliation. My work is supported by the wonderful folk in Seattle, but not controlled by them. In other words, I am not an employee.

Next, Peron states the obvious:

Discovery Institute may not realize “persistent vegetative state” and “permanent vegetative state” are terms used by physicians, not insults thrown around carelessly.

Duh, really? In fact, I believe that PVS is the only diagnosis that contains a pejorative. 

But even if one disagrees with that point, to say, “Charlie is IN a PVS,” is not the same thing as saying,”Charlie IS a vegetable.”

The former describes a medical condition. The latter denigrates the human being in the same way and for the same purposes as the N-word.  

Thus, we say someone has cancer. We don’t say he is a tumor! 

Moreover, the V-word is not exclusively used to describe people who are persistently unconscious. (Peron may be ignorant of the fact that about half of PVS diagnoses prove to be incorrect.)​ It is also used to denigrate those who are aware, sometimes less commonly, those with developmental disabilities, occasionally even, those with serious physical disabilities.

Then, as so commonly happens among two-dimensional thinkers who attack my work from the Left, Peron proceeds to prove my point:

The term “vegetative state” has to go, because the Religious Right fears it will cause people to consider whether people in that condition, who have lost cognitive abilities, are still human in any meaningful sense of the word…

They don’t think any of us should have the right to end our life, or have it ended for us, when we reach the stage where meaningful life is impossible.

Isn’t that exactly what I was saying? The point of the V-word is to dehumanize. But one can advocate legalizing euthanasia without throwing around pejoratives at those deemed killable. 

Peron repeatedly tries to reduce this discussion to religion. But disability rights groups like Not Dead Yet–decidedly on the secular Left–also strongly object to using the V-word to describe those who are profoundly cognitively disabled. And disability rights activists were on the front lines trying to save Terri Schiavo from a long, cruel dehydration death. So much for the theocracy.

In conclusion, consider this: We use far more respectful language about dead people than we do those with severe cognitive disabilities. Those who have died are called the “late John Smith” as a way of continuing the decedent’s (another respectful term) connection to us and respecting the human lives they once led.  

Sure, there are disrespectful slang terms for the dead, like “stiff.” But you would never see a news report refer to the dead person as “the stiff,” nor would an expert use the term in media quotes.

Peron also claims that those who are unconscious aren’t offended by the V-word. (How would he know?) But I can tell you, I hear from family members of such people all the time, and they are offended to hear their loved one called a V-wordAnd hurt.

The point of the V-word is to exclude. My purpose is to help improve our language toward the end that we understand that such people are not “them.” They are still “us.”



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