Pilate asked him [Jesus], “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38a, NRSV)
Pilate’s response to Jesus, questioning the nature of truth, is a striking sentence. It is a rhetorical question; after posing the question, Pilate leaves Jesus to argue with the Jews over what to do with Jesus. The question appears to be an escape for Pilate. It offers an opportunity to avoid considering the stark, blunt statements of Jesus. In the simple, uncomplicated language characteristic of the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a bold claim using common language that might be used by anyone; Pilate’s response is to obfuscate the issue by questioning the meaning of the words Jesus uses. This is the only way Pilate can weasel his way out of the uncomfortable situation into which Jesus has forced him; if Jesus’ words were understood according to their plain meaning, Pilate would be forced to either accept or reject Jesus and his claims, rather than continue to waffle.
By questioning “what is truth” Pilate engaged in the old game of semantic manipulation. Semantic manipulation might be defined as the process in which a word with a precise meaning gradually grows to signify something broader and/or less specific, and sometimes extends to the point of becoming a word without any concrete meaning at all. C. S. Lewis describes the phenomenon in the preface to his book Mere Christianity, tracing the evolution of the word “gentleman.” It was initially a word with a concrete meaning, referring to a man with property and a coat of arms. It later became a reference to those who possess the qualities of character considered desirable in a gentleman, essentially becoming a synonym for “a well-mannered man.” It thus lost its original meaning, and has become a word with many equivalent expressions. The English language has lost a word that used to have a useful concrete meaning.
In another form of semantic manipulation, George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, criticizes how large words with vague or little-known meanings are used to avoid the impact that the same statement might have had if it was stated in plain language. The use of broad terms and rarefied vocabulary serves to hide otherwise unpalatable statements from the reader or listener. For example, “collateral damage” is a pleasant euphemism for “the deaths of innocent people.”
The phenomenon persists today. To give only one example, work done in the fields of women’s studies and LGBT studies have vastly expanded the meanings of terms like “gender” and “sexuality” so that they can be used to give an explanation of large tracts of human behaviour that do not bear any explicit reference to either biological sex in the first place, or sexual preference and activity in the second. Consider Michel Foucault’s definition of sexuality, for instance:
Foucault did for “sexuality” what feminist critics had done for “gender.” That is, Foucault detached “sexuality” from the physical and biological sciences (just as feminists had detached “gender” from the facts of anatomical sex, of somatic dimorphism) and treated it, instead, as “the set of effects produced in bodies, behaviours and social relations by a certain deployment” of “a complex political technology.” He divorced “sexuality” from “nature” and interpreted it, instead, as a cultural production.
This redefinition of sexual terms using expansive and arcane language lets these terms address very broad subjects without regard for any correspondence with the biological realities of people to whom these broadened sexual terms are applied. For example, the phrase “phallic economy” is used in feminist and LGBT writing to refer to misogyny, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, xenophobia, monotheism, and any number of other things. Generally these things are distasteful to the writer, so that people like Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton who are implicated in American imperialism can be said to be “participants in the phallic economy” despite the fact that Palin and Clinton are women and therefore lack phalluses. The term “phallic economy” is therefore not a useful one either by the standards of Lewis or Orwell. According to Lewis’s argument, the expression is merely another, unnecessary way of expressing whether one likes something or not; by Orwell’s logic, the term is unnecessary jargon to begin with.
It is then obvious that Pilate’s question undermines the meaning and usefulness of the word “truth.” By taking a word with a clear and concrete meaning – truth is that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality – and seeking to shift its meaning elsewhere, Pilate damages a useful word according to the logic of Lewis. By manipulating language in order to avoid the hard impact of a plain statement, Pilate is guilty of abusing language for political ends by Orwell’s argument. The end result is that Pilate’s question is absurd. If Pilate cannot accept the plain meaning of the word “truth”, what does it mean? Perhaps something akin to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”? Is any other option even possible? It seems likely Pilate simply doesn’t want to know.
Christians should be wary of this manipulation of language, as it was one of the steps that led directly to the crucifixion of Jesus. It was an excuse for Pilate to inappropriately reserve judgment, depriving him of the capacity to resist the bloodlust of the crowds that wanted Jesus dead. Semantic manipulation is a too-clever-by-half technique that allows its users to hide from difficult decisions and obscure and soften profoundly unpleasant statements. Pilate’s question stands in sharp contrast with Jesus’ plain, simple speech. Jesus says, very plainly, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63) Pilate twisted words and enabled the execution of the giver of life Himself.
 David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990), 7.