Parents through the ages have often decried the mangling of their mother tongue by subsequent generations. Language is fluid after all, particularly English, and our youth constantly add their own revisions to carve a divergent path from their elders. But, the focus of our disdain for the ongoing destruction of our linguistic heritage should really be corporations and their hordes of marketeers and lawyers. Take the once simple and meaningful word “natural”. You’ll see its oxymoronic application each time you stroll along the aisle at your grocery store: one hundred percent natural fruit roll-ups; all natural chicken rings; completely natural corn-dogs; totally naturally flavored cheese puffs. The word — natural — has become meaningless.
It isn’t every day that the definition of a common English word that is ubiquitous in common parlance is challenged in federal court, but that is precisely what has happened with the word “natural.” During the past few years, some 200 class-action suits have been filed against food manufacturers, charging them with misuse of the adjective in marketing such edible oxymorons as “natural” Cheetos Puffs, “all-natural” Sun Chips, “all-natural” Naked Juice, “100 percent all-natural” Tyson chicken nuggets and so forth. The plaintiffs argue that many of these products contain ingredients — high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colorings, chemical preservatives and genetically modified organisms — that the typical consumer wouldn’t think of as “natural.”
Judges hearing these cases — many of them in the Northern District of California — have sought a standard definition of the adjective that they could cite to adjudicate these claims, only to discover that no such thing exists.
Something in the human mind, or heart, seems to need a word of praise for all that humanity hasn’t contaminated, and for us that word now is “natural.” Such an ideal can be put to all sorts of rhetorical uses. Among the antivaccination crowd, for example, it’s not uncommon to read about the superiority of something called “natural immunity,” brought about by exposure to the pathogen in question rather than to the deactivated (and therefore harmless) version of it made by humans in laboratories. “When you inject a vaccine into the body,” reads a post on an antivaxxer website, Campaign for Truth in Medicine, “you’re actually performing an unnatural act.” This, of course, is the very same term once used to decry homosexuality and, more recently, same-sex marriage, which the Family Research Council has taken to comparing unfavorably to what it calls “natural marriage.”
So what are we really talking about when we talk about natural? It depends; the adjective is impressively slippery, its use steeped in dubious assumptions that are easy to overlook. Perhaps the most incoherent of these is the notion that nature consists of everything in the world except us and all that we have done or made. In our heart of hearts, it seems, we are all creationists.
In the case of “natural immunity,” the modifier implies the absence of human intervention, allowing for a process to unfold as it would if we did nothing, as in “letting nature take its course.” In fact, most of medicine sets itself against nature’s course, which is precisely what we like about it — at least when it’s saving us from dying, an eventuality that is perhaps more natural than it is desirable.
Yet sometimes medicine’s interventions are unwelcome or go overboard, and nature’s way of doing things can serve as a useful corrective. This seems to be especially true at the beginning and end of life, where we’ve seen a backlash against humanity’s technological ingenuity that has given us both “natural childbirth” and, more recently, “natural death.”
This last phrase, which I expect will soon be on many doctors’ lips, indicates the enduring power of the adjective to improve just about anything you attach it to, from cereal bars all the way on up to dying. It seems that getting end-of-life patients and their families to endorse “do not resuscitate” orders has been challenging. To many ears, “D.N.R.” sounds a little too much like throwing Grandpa under the bus. But according to a paper in The Journal of Medical Ethics, when the orders are reworded to say “allow natural death,” patients and family members and even medical professionals are much more likely to give their consent to what amounts to exactly the same protocols.
The word means something a little different when applied to human behavior rather than biology (let alone snack foods). When marriage or certain sexual practices are described as “natural,” the word is being strategically deployed as a synonym for “normal” or “traditional,” neither of which carries nearly as much rhetorical weight. “Normal” is by now too obviously soaked in moral bigotry; by comparison, “natural” seems to float high above human squabbling, offering a kind of secular version of what used to be called divine law. Of course, that’s exactly the role that “natural law” played for America’s founding fathers, who invoked nature rather than God as the granter of rights and the arbiter of right and wrong.
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