Sunday, April 22, 2018

Unsatisfactory Lexicon

     Political discourse, insofar as any remains that doesn’t involve epithets, slanders, threats, or actual violence, requires a lexicon: a set of terms whose meaning are agreed upon by all the participants. Without agreement on the meanings of the words we use, discussion of any sort is pointless, for we can convey neither evidence nor reasoning. In these United States in this Year of Our Lord 2018, we lack such an asset. My secret heartthrob Adrienne provides a case study:

     Yesterday at history club a gentleman informed me he was the token liberal in the group. He and his wife had been traveling for the past seven months so it was my first encounter with him.

     After declaring his liberalism he was quick to add that he was anti-abortion and pro 2nd amendment. Um, okay.

     My suspicion is always aroused when someone is so hasty to declare themselves in an almost confrontational manner with not a clue about the person to whom they are speaking and apparently no desire to find out.

     Finally I asked him what he believed that made him define himself as a liberal.

     He sat there for many minutes and if he had a trapdoor in his forehead I could have popped it open and witnessed the wheels of his mind churning at warp speed. It was clear no one had ever asked him that before because he finally answered, "I don't really know."

     The above is not an outlier; it is representative of the actual understanding, if I may use the term somewhat sardonically, of the term liberal at this time in this nation.

     Please read the rest of Adrienne’s post. She goes on to ask whether it remains possible to use the words conservative and liberal in a fashion that conveys usable information. It’s an important inquiry. The lack of an answer tells us quite a lot, if we’re listening.

     You can look up the words liberal and conservative in any dictionary. But you’d learn nothing that would help to explain the positions, preferences, and behavior of those who label themselves as one or the other. The same is true of several even more important words: rights, justice, and freedom. What they retain are only connotations; auras of significance that seldom attach properly to the specific ideas to which those words are currently applied.

     This separation of politically potent words from their actual meanings has been mostly deliberate. The Left wants to appropriate those powerful words to its exclusive use. They have emotional weight; they glow with an inherent merit, a kind of sanctity, that lends power to him who can wield them. But if we probe them for objective meanings according to contemporary usage, we get nothing but contradictions.

     Rights is probably the most important of the three. Ronald Dworkin called rights “political trumps held by individuals.” To claim a right is to argue that the referenced condition outweighs all practical concerns.

     When a Leftist asserts that illegal aliens have a right to remain in the U.S., he’s claiming that no other consideration could possibly matter. Border control laws? Port-of-entry laws? Customs enforcement? Extradition treaties? Sweep them away! There’s a right on the table.

     That is the current position of many who clamor for an “amnesty” for the approximately 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. at this time. Many; not all. Some argue on practical grounds. But the ones getting the most air time and column-inches are the ones screeching that everyone has a right to be an American.

     Consider in this light the demands of Leftists for guaranteed incomes, for a high minimum wage, for free higher educations for all, for “safe spaces” for innumerable minorities, and so forth. The word rights always enters the picture sooner or later. No other word can “trump” the legal and practical considerations that oppose their demands.

     The word is powerful. But according to current usage it has no objective meaning. The same is true for justice and freedom.

     Conservatives tend to be cautious about the use of rights, justice, and freedom. We generally think we know what we mean by them. However, we’re leery of going beyond the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as amended. Even the most strident conservative advocate wants some scriptural basis in a claim of rights. As for justice, we tend to be only slightly less legalistic.

     Which is part of why when the shouting starts the Left’s screeching tends to drown out our arguments. We argue from tradition, whether legal, scriptural, or Anglo-American; they’re working with pure emotion, the easier to mobilize the troops.

     In this connection, freedom is more often used as a fundamental rationale than a debating point. Conservatives’ understanding of freedom – i.e., the absence of coercion or constraint from all areas of decision making that don’t involve force or fraud – has roots sunk a thousand years deep. Leftists’ conception of freedom is quite different: they see it as the absence of unfulfilled desires. They seek to elevate every desire to a right – except the desires of conservatives to be left alone in peace and privacy, that is – and to charge the federal government with the obligation to fulfill the lot of them.

     Isn’t it plain from the above that arguments between Right and Left are impossible to resolve? We don’t even agree upon the meanings of the words we use. How, then, could we possibly settle any more specific dispute?

     The most recent foofaurauw to claim national headlines and front-page space arose from the mobilization of high school students for various gun-control propositions. The Left has played that drama to the hilt. Most significant for this discussion, they’ve prattled about “a right to be safe.”

     When I first heard that notion put about, I could barely restrain my laughter. Yet it was a bitter thing, for millions of Americans have swallowed the “right” to “be safe” unreflectively. No one who has ever lived has been 100% safe – i.e., absolutely assured that he will come to no harm – regardless of who he was or where or when he existed. Danger inheres in every setting and every undertaking. We do what we can to eliminate as many risks as possible, especially when it comes to our children. We do a better job of it than any previous civilization. But we can’t eliminate them all.

     An example: While school is in session, a fire alarm is pulled. Classes begin evacuation procedures. During the evacuation, a student stumbles and falls. The student behind him trips over him, and the screams trigger a stampede. Several children are hurt; perhaps some are killed. This has happened more than once. No imaginable prior arrangement could reduce the probability of such a tragedy to zero.

     The “right to be safe” is thus both objectively meaningless and physically impossible. But this is the case with virtually every claim of rights that goes beyond “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

     I could go on. Sometimes I do. But the above will serve for the present. It’s my argument for not crossing rhetorical swords with someone on the Left. He could be 100% sincere; it matters not. If we don’t mean the same things by the words we use, we cannot communicate. We will resolve nothing.

     As for engaging the insincere Leftist, whose true aim is for unlimited and unbounded power over all of us...need you ask?


Paul Bonneau said...

From my quotes file:

"The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they... have always held... The people are made to transfer their allegiance from the old gods to the new under the pretense that the new gods really are what their sound instinct had always told them but what before they had only dimly seen. And the most effective way to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning.

Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed....

If one has not one's self experienced this process, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change of the meaning of words, the confusion it causes, and the barriers to any rational discussion which it creates... And the confusion becomes worse because this change of meaning of words describing political ideals is not a single event but a continuous process, a technique employed consciously or unconsciously to direct the people. Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite and used solely for the emotional associations which still adhere to them."
-- Friedrich Hayek, "The Road to Serfdom"

As to "rights", this is an 18th century meme formerly used as a tool against tyrants, but now appropriated by tyrants for their own use. It has little connection to reality.

Adrienne said...

I'm honored. But, as usual, you added some much needed scholarship to the subject - and I thank you. I just stumble along trying to make sense of it all.

Linda Fox said...

It is kind of hard to imagine, but - for Liberals/Progressives/Leftists, the definition is:

those of us who have been educated to understand that we are the ones that need to protect the 'lesser' (but, not through their own fault - it was the EVIL ones) people who we plan to rule over

The definition of Conservative is even easier:

Evil Hater, whose death would rid the world of all troubles - after, of course, all traces of their existence would be removed, and they would become 'they who will not be named' (nice reference to Voldemort!)