What’s in a name (a post-9/11-anniversary reflection)

 

Words
Words (Photo credit: sirwiseowl)

What’s in a name?

The word “liberal” is derived from the same root as the word “liberty.”

The word “conservative” comes from the same root as the word “conservation.”

“Democrat,” of course, is derived from “democracy,” meaning “rule by the people.” That’s using the Greek root “demos” for “the people.”

“Republican” is derived from “republic,” also meaning a form of government in which the ultimate authority rests with the people. It uses the Latin root for “the people,” as in the word “public.” (Those Romans loved to copy the Greeks.)

I don’t know. It seems to me we all started from the same place. And we’re not that different. So, what are we arguing about?  Why is there so much heat and so little light?  Why such a need to vilify the other side? To make it sound like, if they win, it will be the end of the world? (It won’t, you know, because we are the people, and we won’t let it happen.)

After 9/11, we saw a lot of the slogan, “united, we stand.”

You know how the other half of that goes…  Yeah, that’s right:

Divided, we fall.

I’m not talking about silencing dissent, here. We’re never all going to agree, and the day we stop speaking our minds, or stop being allowed to speak our minds, will be a dark day indeed. But with any freedom (of speech, for example) comes responsibility (to at least try to communicate, in this case).

There will always be differences of opinion in any large, diverse group of people. There will always be conflicting interests.  But we ought to be able to talk about these things – really talk about them, in clear, honest, practical terms.

The essence of government by the people should be that a group of elected representatives -representing all the conflicting interests – gets together to talk things out, honestly, respectfully, and in good faith.  And –yes- they have to be willing to compromise, if they’re ever going to be able to balance those conflicting interests. The idea that one side can “win” at the ballot box with 52% of the vote and thereby get everything its own way, ignoring whatever the other 48% wants, is as destructive as it is absurd. It pretty much guarantees that the other side is going to get mad, rally, and come back to “win” the next election and stick it right back to them. The U.S. government is not a football, guys. This isn’t a game.

Divided, we fall…

I really don’t want to think that I might be watching the “fall” of the United States of America, but I don’t like what I’m seeing (or hearing).  Has there ever been a time in our history when our political leaders were so rigidly and uncompromisingly divided?  As an advocate of clear communication, I am appalled by the dearth of civil discourse, the scarcity of honest efforts at persuasion, the stunning lack of simple, clear communication with respect to anything concerning politics in this country.

I, for one, am sick of it.

And, frankly, I’m a little bit scared.

Wag the dog… on thought and language

 

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

 

It seems pretty obvious that the way we think influences our language. What is less obvious is that our language also influences the way we think.

 

I remember having an argument once with my mother over whether it is possible to think without using words. She said it wasn’t, and I thought it was. Looking back, I think the real basis of our disagreement may have been a difference in what we each meant by the word “think.” To my mother, it just wasn’t really thinking if it didn’t involve words. It was something else, something more nebulous, like feeling, perhaps, or something more primitive, like reacting. On the other hand, I’m darn sure I can think without words. I’m reminded of the fact every time I get stuck because I can’t think of the right word for whatever I’m trying to say. I know I’m looking for a word that means just exactly… well, that… and it seems that there must be one, or at least there ought to be one…

 

Does that ever happen to you?  (Let’s see a show of hands…)

 

I’m getting off the subject, but the point is that our language and our thought processes are very intimately connected.  So much so that we often make the mistake of thinking that a thing must exist simply because we have a word for it – or that a thing must be possible just because we can say that it is. We fall into the error of believing that words or phrases define the world, rather than merely being imperfect tools used to describe it.

Examples:

Safe.”  I once read an entire book on the subject of “acceptable risk,” the whole point of which was that nothing is absolutely safe – totally without risk of any kind. Yet people who ask, “is it safe?” routinely expect to be given a yes or no answer. When the doctor, scientist, or government official comes back with, “the levels are too low to pose a significant health hazard,” people aren’t satisfied. The think that’s weasel-wording, or government-speak for, “we want you to think it’s safe, even though it really isn’t.” In fact, the poor guy is just doing his best not to lie to you.

Other words like “clean” and “pure” – or any word that implies some absolute condition – have similar limitations. Did you know there is a maximum number of insect parts allowed per standard volume of ketchup? Yuck! Why doesn’t the government insist that there not be any insect parts in there? Because there is no possible way in any real universe for the manufacturer to insure that there won’t be any. The best you can do is to establish a level that is as low as possible while still being reasonably achievable.

Freedom.” Increasingly cavalier use of this word as a thing that is always desirable and good is saddling it with so much emotional baggage that it’s in danger of becoming an empty shibboleth – a catch-word thrown about to make you feel good, hook your emotions, or convince people that someone is on the “right” side. We’re starting to believe that freedom is always good, and so anything that limits anyone’s freedom must automatically be bad.  In fact “freedom” really just means the absence of coercion or constraint in any choice or action. In short, it means being able to do what you want. This is fine as long as it’s you getting to do what you want, but what if it’s someone else and what he wants to do is to hurt you? It’s perfectly legitimate linguistically to talk about freedom to rob, freedom to rape, freedom to kill, etc. We’ve begun to think that “freedom” is a treasured value of our democracy when in fact it is specific freedoms, such as freedom of speech, that are our treasured values.

There are two questions you always should ask when you hear the word “freedom” being bandied about: Whose freedom are we talking about? And, freedom to do what, exactly?

I heard a sound bite in which a member of the U. S. Congress said something like, “government should protect our freedom, not tell us what to do.”  I’m sorry; a government that doesn’t tell us what to do creates a society with no rules. And who is likely to benefit in the absence of rules? The strong, the rich, and the clever will benefit for starters – also the irresponsible, the unprincipled, and the ruthless. Government can’t protect any freedoms for the weak, the poor, and the well-meaning but perhaps a bit naive nice guys, except by curtailing some of the freedoms of those who would otherwise take advantage of people less able to defend their own freedoms.

Making money.” Let’s face it, the only people, apart from counter-fitters, who actually make money are the people who work in a mint. The rest of us don’t make money, we acquire it from other people – hopefully in exchange for having done an appropriate amount of useful work, or having provided the other person with a product of appropriate value. Why make this point? Because the word “make” implies something is being produced or created, and it’s hard to see any possible moral issue with that kind of activity. Once you realize that all the money you’ve accumulated came ultimately from other people – directly or indirectly – it puts things in a different light.

We can all be rich.” While it’s possible to say this, it isn’t actually true, because the word “rich,” in monetary terms, is defined as one end of a scale. “Rich” has no meaning in the absence of “poor.”  Simply put, “rich” implies having significantly more money than a significant number of other people. We could potentially all be prosperous, since “prosperous” implies having enough to meet one’s needs, with some to spare. I think we could all achieve that, especially if we helped each other. Yet I heard that half of the 2012 college graduates in a recent poll expressed a desire to become rich. I don’t blame them; I blame us older folks who are giving them the wrong message. We use “rich” in a non-monetary sense to mean all kinds of good things, from “a rich cream sauce,” to “a rich cultural heritage.” We’ve lost track of the negative moral implications of becoming rich monetarily. (There was something about camels fitting through narrow openings…)

With that, I think I’ve probably gotten myself into quite enough trouble.