Friday, December 29, 2017

Words Have Meanings Part 1

     As I sit here, contemplating the exact direction in which I’d like to steer this essay, I find myself reflecting on...myself.

     Time was, I was a working physicist. Not for long; I threw it over in favor of software engineering while I was still quite young. I did so because I found the work uninteresting owing to its narrow focus, and the academic environment uncongenial owing to the extremes to which people in academia tend to fight over trivia. However, the experience was valuable, perhaps more for one reason than all others combined: It revealed to me how readily people, including people who claim to be concerned with accuracy and precision, will resort to ambiguities and imprecisions that amount to deliberate deceit if it will get them what they want.

     That realization would elicit the central driving influence of my life. I became all but obsessive about saying exactly what I meant. In any discussion of anything whatsoever, I strove to use the correct word, allowing for topical and contextual considerations, that would most accurately, precisely, and clearly capture my intended meaning. I was equally at pains to grasp exactly what my interlocutor meant by every word he employed.

     Suffice it to say that it didn’t make me a big hit at parties.

     Nevertheless, I maintained that practice. I’ve maintained it to this very day. Senility and its ravages to the side as exceptions, I doubt I’ll ever willingly abandon it.

     As you could surely have guessed, the emotional infrastructure that supports that attitude has more than one effect.

     I purely despise people who deliberately twist or mangle the meanings of words. I particularly despise polemicists who do so to “make a point,” to win (or escape) an argument, or to con a listener into believing or doing something he wouldn’t otherwise believe or do. They are beneath contempt. Indeed, they’re responsible for a huge fraction of our contemporary sociopolitical fractiousness.

     Words are our fundamental tools of both communication and thought. They deserve all the respect and defense we could possibly give them. When I discover that I’ve encountered a word-rapist, I hurry to put as much distance between us as much for his sake as for mine. It makes political exchanges difficult, sometimes hazardous.

     One of the symptoms of our steadily hardening political division is the increasing frequency with which words are abused in such exchanges.

     While it’s accurate to say that some word-rape occurs on the Right – no sector of politics is free from it – the major (and most gleeful) practitioners of word abuse are on the Left. Indeed, I would argue that the Left could not have made the political gains it’s accrued over the century past without its extensive abuse of the English language. George Orwell had his take on the subject; this essay is mine.

     “I’m going to say something really crazy: I believe in science. Climate change is real and we have a moral obligation to protect this Earth for our children and grandchildren.” – Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, in a recent “tweet.”

     There are two kinds of people from whom an utterance of the above sort could come:

  • Idiots;
  • Villains.

     Miss Warren, a thoroughly odious figure whose political ascent has had me worried ever since she defeated Scott Brown, is not an idiot. The implication is left as an exercise for the reader.

     But let’s not hurry away. Let’s look closely at the statement, the specific words used, and the particular abuses Miss Warren has committed in it.

     “I’m going to say something really crazy.” What is the meaning of crazy? Doesn’t it mean psychotic, deranged, or in a mental state of unreality? If Miss Warren’s statement was accurate – i.e., if it accurately described her mental state – would there be any point in listening to her on any subject? If her statement was inaccurate, what was her purpose in making it? Satire?

     “I believe in science.” Seldom has so much semantic noise been crammed into a four word sentence. To believe is to accept some proposition without demanding a rigorous proof thereof. It’s only appropriate in discussing statements about specific facts, or propositions about cause and effect. But in what does Miss Warren believe? “Science.” But what is science? It’s a compressed way of referring to scientific method: a process by which one can investigate the causal mechanisms of the natural world. One cannot “believe” in “science;” one can only practice it or dismiss it.

     “Climate change is real.” Meaning what? That the climate – i.e., the general meteorological tendencies of the atmosphere that recent years have led us to expect – is changing? No one disputes that. Earth’s climate has been changing since it acquired its atmosphere. This is a palmed-card technique: a way of invoking catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, a tendentious, heavily politicized hypothesis about Mankind’s influence on Earth’s climate that’s unsupported by objective evidence.

     “We have a moral obligation to protect this Earth for our children and grandchildren.” Again, meaning what? Where does morality come into it? Morality is a useful concept only in discussing individuals’ treatment of other individuals. There’s no moral component to one’s decision to make, use, buy, or sell something unless violence, theft, or fraud are involved. Moreover, the “children and grandchildren” might not exist. At any rate, fewer are being produced than at any previous point in history.

     Word rape from beginning to end, all of it in service to a political position for which there is no evidentiary support and precious little interest from the American public.

     As one who writes fiction as well as these interminable op-eds, I need to maintain and manage two contrasting attitudes toward words and verbal expression. Fiction writers must occasionally resort to various “devices:” similes, metaphors, metonymies, images, coinages, synecdoches, hyperboles, and litotes. But the fictioneer’s mission varies from that of the expositor: to evoke mental pictures in the reader’s mind, to cause him to feel particular emotions, and to bind him to the story being told. The expositor is expected to “keep to the firmest footing:” i.e., to express himself with the greatest degree of accuracy, precision, and clarity the language will support. Keeping those missions separate involves keeping the linguistic practices appropriate to them separate.

     The expositor must not abuse the words he employs. He must not engage in rococo phrasings or verbal tarantellas that dazzle the listener so he can change the subject without being caught at it. He must be an honest vendor of both information and implication. To do otherwise is to corrupt.

     A great many persons engaged in political polemics have consciously embraced corruption.

     More anon.


Amy Bowersox said...

To Ms. Warren: DNA is also "science." Yours does not show you are Native American. So, either you are an outright liar, or you don't actually believe in science. Which is it, Fauxcahontas?

Col. B. Bunny said...

Touche, AB.