Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pragmatics

In the piece below, I mocked the phrase "social justice" and challenged a user (who'd thought he could defame libertarians with it) to define it. A few people have written to ask, apparently sincerely, why I think that's a stroke of any weight. After some reflection, I've decided to see if I can satisfy them.

Mind you, you'll need your thinking cap for what follows.

* * *

Some time ago, when embroiled in a quarrelsome encounter, I challenged my adversary in a fashion he found troubling. "Define Milwaukee," I said.
"Huh? Why?" he replied.
"To prove to me that you know both how to do it and why to do it."

At first he rejected it as absurd, but I persisted, and he agreed to try it. He had some trouble with it, but ultimately he managed to produce a valid statement about Milwaukee that most people would agree would not apply to any other city. But he couldn't cope with the "why" portion of the challenge. In particular, he couldn't articulate why he'd felt the demand for a "definition" of Milwaukee was absurd.

Eventually I let him off the hook. "There's only one Milwaukee, right?"
"Right," he said warily.
"So why bother to define it? Definition is a practical undertaking. We only need definitions so we can cope with categories -- so we can know if a thing is or is not a member of a defined category. If a thing is one of a kind, there's no need for a definition of it. Think of it this way: Do we need a definition of you?"

So it is with "social justice," one of the enduring shibboleths of the American Left.

"Social justice" is a label for a condition some persons claim is desirable. However, the condition lacks a definition. The Left's tacticians prefer it that way: it makes it impossible to state with
assurance when and where it exists. But if "social justice" is desirable yet uncertain, there's never a conclusive argument for ceasing to strive for it...or for the use of unlimited State power in attempting to reach it.

The one thing the Left insists, and will continue to insist, is that "social justice" does not exist in the United States. But ask a Leftist flackster "How do you know?" and he's immediately on the defensive. After all, he has no definition with which to falsify the claim. Moreover, he'd be unwilling ever to concede that the U.S. possesses this undefined attribute, because it would torpedo his demand for unlimited power over the American people and economy.

The core of the thing is, of course, that "social justice" is a meaningless term. Not only hasn't it ever been defined; it cannot be defined without destroying the meaning of "justice." Justice is founded
on the concept of individual rights and cannot exist apart from it. Thus, justice is inherently opposed to collectivization; any attempt to define it in terms of groups immediately destroys its meaning as applied to individuals. The Communists' "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" maxim applies with full force.

The "eggs" the flackster for "social justice" will break are thee and me, Gentle Reader.

* * *

Definition, as I remarked to my unnamed adversary above, is a practical matter. We don't compose definitions for mere pleasure. We do so because we think in categories. For categories to be useful implements of thought, they must have boundaries. Aristotle's approach to definition as a combination of a "genus" (an enclosing category) and a "differentia" (what distinguishes the category being defined from the one of which it's a subset) is what makes useful definitions possible, and any thought that employs them fruitful.

In this connection, ponder the extensive list of bludgeon-words and phrases the Left routinely uses against us:
  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Homophobia
  • Islamophobia
  • Compassion
  • Fair Share
  • Social Justice
Not one of the above possesses a firm definition applicable to political discourse. They are rhetorical weapons, nothing more: intended to intimidate, to impute low motives to their target, and to imply that "good people" ought never to align themselves with him.

This, too, is a practical matter. The best sort of weapon is one for which there is no countermeasure. Failing that, the countermeasure should be elusive and hard to wield. Leftist rhetoric, being based on
nebulous emotional appeals to the melioristic impulse good Americans share, is particularly potent for that reason: most of us on the pro-freedom Right aren't combative enough, or, quite frankly, sharp
enough, to counter it expeditiously.

* * *

Time was, I was resolved to treat with the promoter of left-liberalism as a well-intentioned sort who differed with me from a rational basis. That is, I assumed that either our premises were incompatibly different, or one of us had committed one or more logical errors. Given that assumption, it was possible for me to believe that eventually we would manage to "reason together," find the faults one or the other of us had incorporated into his thinking, and arrive at a shared conclusion.

Time was.

The giveaway to the fallacy is left-liberals' utter contempt for anyone who differs with them. Their "assumption of differential rectitude" (Thomas Sowell) amounts to a relegation of others of different opinions to a lower stratum of intelligence and morality. The article I linked below displays that contempt undisguised. Worse, it was completely unnecessary, being entirely disjoint from the topic the author was addressing.

I have no doubt that many Americans who hold political opinions of the left-liberal sort are nevertheless fundamentally decent people -- the sort who "hate only in abstractions," to borrow a phrase from the late John Brunner. But that doesn't apply to persons who readily condemn whole categories of people, in service to leftist ideology. They deserve as swift, as sharp, and as contemptuous a backhanding as I can dish out: the only treatment appropriate for nominal adults who persist in acting like vicious, self-absorbed children.

It's a practical thing: a stroke in the cause of freedom and justice. No one who preaches against freedom or justice, whatever pseudo-noble motives he claims, shall be permitted to pass me unscathed.

3 comments:

Pascal Fervor said...

No
one who preaches against freedom or justice, whatever pseudo-noble
motives he claims, shall be permitted to pass me unscathed.


I know you can do this in print. But can you and do you retain your composure in meat space?

Can you marshal your intellect and steel your nerves to deal with the repetitive "why"s of, say, a reporter who will keep going back over the same question even after you've answered it.

Often enough the boob-tube watchers will report back that Fran never answered the question. And it will be reported that way, the intent being to convince you "why bother?" for the next time. A variation on "Shut up" by other means.

Knowing all that, can you still do your best and not get rattled?

For if you can, you ought to be teaching others on the Right how to do it.

The Left has been doing precisely that sort of thing for generations. Despite the moronic look of it, look at how well they have succeeded with implementing Critical Theory.

If you CAN do withstand such attacks in meat space, can you also teach it to the next generation? Or do you believe that you have no ability in passing along such a blessing to your posterity? That's a valid answer.

Pascal Fervor said...

If you CAN withstand such attacks....

[Sorry for the extra verb previously.]

Mark LaRochelle said...

In "The Fatal Conceit," F.A. Hayek contains a chapter titled "Our Poisoned Language" which in turn contains a section headed "The Weasel Word 'Social'." It contains a list of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary cited as modified by the word "social." The list was several pages long. He concluded that "social" was what he called a "weasel word" -- an empty shell with no meaning, like an egg from which a weasel, according to folklore, has sucked the contents.

As a result, concluded Hayek, "'Social justice' can be given a meaning only in a directed or 'command' economy (such as an army) in which the individuals are ordered what to do; and any particular conception of 'social justice' could be realized only in such a centrally-directed system."

Whether he knows it or not, every advocate of "social justice" is an advocate of totalitarianism.

I believe Thomas Sowell once commented that an alien monitoring human communications would conclude that in earthly languages, the word "social" serves to invert the meaning of whatever follows: social contract, social conscience, social security...