“Deep Reliance,” or: What’s in an Adjective?

Over the weekend, David French wrote a badly argued piece on a hot-button social issue. In itself, this is unremarkable–having become sadly par for the course in the great golf game we call religious journalism–and I would have little interest in remarking on it. And in fact, I won’t–not really. I want to say just one thing.

Here is a passage from the essay that the author used to blurb the piece:

“Deep reliance.” Though it may sound odd to say so, that phrase is a perfect encapsulation of Frenchist style and substance, two things that have become increasingly indistinguishable in his writing and in that of his milieu more broadly.

“Deep reliance.” “Deep reliance”? Why not just “reliance”? After all, in terms of meaning the adjective “deep” adds precisely nothing. I don’t even know what it could mean, and it’s not for lack of trying. The noun all by itself would have done just as well and, because of a lack of superfluities, it would have done better.

So why this “deep”? Why is it important for Mr. French to say that the group for which he is advocating this week against his presumably unfeeling and morally suspect conservative critics “lives in deep reliance on Obergefell”?

I suggest that the reason is this: though the word “deep” as used here is a semantic nullity, an empty signifier, it nevertheless acts as a vague gesture of sentimentality, marking the author’s proper posture as being of the “right sort” to have a morally superior opinion on the issue at hand. (This is not unique: Mr. French consistently does the same thing with words like “kindness,” “compassion,” and “cruelty.”) So it is directed, first, toward establishing ethos.

Second, it is meant to conjure a horror show of apocalyptic proportions that would result, Mr. French leads us to believe, from the type of legal regime for marriage that has been customary in human societies from time immemorial. It might even undermine “[t]he magic of the American republic“–and what kind of monster would want that? The word plays, then, upon the audience’s pathos.

The one thing the word does not do, however, is to establish or clarify a single point in dispute about the legislation currently before the U.S. Congress. Mr. French’s rhetorical move, that is, has nothing to do with logos. Indeed, through its almost indefinable playing upon the emotions, it undermines and obscures the issues of first-order importance by attempting an affective end-run around them. And for these purposes, the emptiness of the word “deep” is an advantage, not a defect.

Is it overkill to spend this much time on a single adjective in a poorly conceived and executed piece about marriage? Perhaps. There were much greater substantive problems than the one I address here. Still, it is worthwhile to attend to such verbal legerdemain on social issues of high and heated controversy, because it is both pervasive in writing on the topics in question and corrosive of debate about them. In the name of rational moderatism, it helps to enshrine irrational “feels” as a sine qua non and centerpiece of public argument that is in itself somehow dispositive.

This trend should be seen, and named, for what it is; and it should be resisted.

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