Saturday, May 9, 2015

Naughty Words Part 2: “But”

     The study of how expressions of any sort give rise to meaning is called semantics. Meaning, of course, arises in the mind of the recipient of a communication when he has received and interpreted it. It might be identical to what the speaker / writer / cartoonist intended to convey, it might vary somewhat, or it might be so far from the originator’s intention as to bear no relation to it. This leads us to a question central to all communication studies:

How Do I Know That’s Exactly What He Meant?

The answer is massively frustrating: You don’t. It’s impossible in the nature of things. All you can do is approach confidence in your interpretation asymptotically. With a handful of important exceptions.

     This essay is about one of the exceptions.


     First, a particularly piercing Bill Whittle video:

     Whittle has nailed one of the iconic obscenities of our time: the expressive pattern that goes as follows:

[Declarative clause], but [clause that contradicts declarative clause].

     In the matter of freedom of expression, the template goes thus:

“I believe in freedom of speech, but [insert exception here].”

     An analogous, structurally parallel version can be observed in discussions of freedom of anything. However, let’s not stop with a statement of revulsion; let’s consider what meaning the speaker really wants us to derive from his words. I can think of the following possible interpretations:

  • “I believe in freedom of speech, except for this one case of it.”
  • “I believe in freedom of speech, except for a range of cases that offend me.”
  • “I believe in freedom of speech, except for a range of cases to be decided by ‘authority.’”
  • “I don’t believe in freedom of speech; I merely want to weasel-word my way around it.”

     Got any others? The point, of course, is that the use of but negates the preceding sentiment.

     To say that one is free in some regard is to say that he has a right to do as he pleases:

  1. With no possibility of being punished by any organ of government;
  2. Should a private party or organization attempt to punish him, the attempt would be a criminal act.

     Very few persons actually grasp this critical concept. At least, nearly everyone I know wants to make exceptions:

  • To freedom of speech;
  • To freedom of assembly;
  • To freedom of association;
  • To the right to keep and bear arms;
  • To property rights;
  • To freedom of commerce;
  • To the right to face one’s accusers in a trial before a jury of one’s peers;
  • Even to the right to feed, medicate, and generally use one’s own body as one pleases.

     It’s a better gauge for America’s political devolution than anything else I can come up with at this hour of the morning.


     Semantics has a hard time coping with “but” expressions. I don’t. When I hear one, I immediately lower my opinion of the speaker by about 50%. I have to strain against a powerful inclination to go on the attack. It’s one of the reasons I tend to keep to myself.

     Government in our time is 99% “buts.” It’s whittled freedom away completely, such that the typical American’s reaction to a proposed course of positive action is to find someone to ask for permission. Yet his great-grandfather would have embraced the idea without a second thought, never imagining that he needs to beg a license from any institution, governmental or otherwise.

     Here’s a pungent example: Is your money really yours? Most persons would immediately reply in the affirmative. But if so, why aren’t you permitted to move it about without being spied upon? Why, if you should arrange your affairs to avert such spying – currently, any transfer below $10,000 is nominally exempt from federal “reporting requirements” – are your funds then subject to arbitrary confiscation, on suspicion of “structuring?” If the test of ownership is whether you’re free to do as you like with your property so long as you refrain from injuring others, why aren’t you free to move your money around as you please?

     Don’t all rush to answer at once, now.


     George Orwell wrote:

     In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible....Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
     While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

     ....But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.

     He who makes a statement about freedom / rights is making a political statement. He might not command the many Latinate circumlocutions and periphrases that Orwell condemns in his essay. He might merely say but. That one word is enough to induce the sort of cognitive dissonance in a typical hearer’s mind to make him think he’s heard a reasonable conclusion from a man who’s given the appropriate amount of thought to a weighty matter. That could not be further from the truth. Yet such a statement often becomes gospel among persons disinclined to think through basic propositions about individuals, their rights, and the social order – that is, to think about principles.

     There is no right – no sort of freedom – that admits to exceptions. Either it applies to all persons and at all times, or it is merely a conditional grant of permission from some authority, whether formally or informally constituted. The jihadis who tried to murder Pamela Geller deemed themselves an authority with jurisdiction over her speech and activities. Yet they differ not at all, in principle, from a supposedly “legitimate” government.

But Me No “Buts!”

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