Democrats & Liberals Archives

Language's Uncertain Paths

As I read the comments on J. Anthony Matel’s entry Know Your Enemy, I came across a number of entries where the argument all hinged around what definition one used for the word “Liberal”. It just fascinated me how much one’s impression of liberal politics depended on one’s notion of what that word meant.

It got me to wondering. How much of Modern America’s contentious debates are the product of differences of discussion, rather than differences of opinion?

Language is a subject that should always be approached with care. It is a human phenomenon, and one that is quite complex on its own. Getting a computer to understand what a person is saying, much less what they mean, for example, is very difficult.

I think our education system's main failing is in getting students to understand the truth about learning how to read and write well, that it's not to bother them with more difficulty than they really need, but to make life, if not easier, then more productive. Book learning gets a bad rap. Granted, experience and practice are good teachers, and some people learn better through them, but there is one factor that makes the ability to read more important than ever: exposure to parts of this world we don't have the time to experience for ourselves.

The relevance of this is this: I think many arguments come from misunderstandings born of inexperience and unfamiliarity with subjects esoteric to one's life. The increase of knowledge has increased with it how much there is to be ignorant of concerning what other people know.

The complicating factor is that some people want folks to be ignorant, want them to reject information that comes from certain quarters, whether for honest reasons or dishonest. Our interests can get in the way of our understanding. This has become a serious problem with the Republican party, and to a lesser extent, my own.

Ignorance often conspires on behalf of inaction. If people don't know there's a problem, they don't know it needs fixing. The Conservative call for smaller government often makes this kind of secrecy a silent partner. After all, if there isn't a problem, you don't need somebody to fix it. Ironically, this means that conservative interests often help to create the exact kind of bureaucratic behavior they hate so much- ineffective, lazy, and unaccountable. It's not surprising that language plays such a prominent role in bureaucracy.

In essence, the institution, both where it's necessary, and where it's not, is about talking. When effective, bureaucracy is the necessary connection that expedites taking the requests for action from citizens and leaders, and getting the information there to the people who take the necessary actions. When not, it is a dead weight on the system. As such organization and complexity is often a necessity for achieving the ends of a nation our size, we don't always have the option of simply wishing it away. That means that sometimes the American people have to insist on their will being done. That requires vigilance.

That vigilance can be foiled by a variety of stalling tactics, often employed in a partisan fashion. When your plan is not working, and criticism comes, you can always say the ones doing the criticism either have no plan, or are just trying to make political hay. Then one can simply go on doing as one likes, either because one sees the benefits, or because one things if one just sticks with it, things will get better.

What we know and when we know it becomes crucial. What also is crucial is that we have measures of measuring our government's performance that are not dependent on partisan criteria. By partisan criteria, I do not mean criteria suggested by partisans, but rather criteria whose value is mostly or entirely based on political loyalties.

I hear an awful lot about the hatred we Democrats are supposed to have for Bush. To be honest, a lot of us don't like him too much. But we are as much concerned citizens as committed Democrats. We no more want to see a second 9/11 than any Republican out there. We want what's best for this country, and we don't see that from this president. It seems this cult of personality has built up around the president, one he and his aides go a long way towards building up. Fearless leaders win elections, they reason, so they make negative feelings for Bush tantamount to disloyalty to our country.

So everything gets twisted towards that. If we don't like his plan, then we don't want to win the war he started. If we don't like his policies, it's the war on terror we want to lose. If we don't like his go-it-alone approach, it's our sovereignty we want to lose. Everything becomes a story about a great man, and the envious rivals who want to tear him down, whether that harms the country or not.

Makes for an easy call to arms to protect that leader, doesn't it? But it makes our society very vulnerable to the intellectual errors of that one man, when even those who disagree with him and/or know he's wrong will not speak up, but will instead let the error propagate, like a crack in a gem being cut. Even diamond can be cut, if you know the right angle to break it from.

There are those who want the ideas that the nation runs by to be of a crystalline order, but really that's asking for some gem-cutter of a problem to come along and break us. We are robust as we are, because the failure of one group's ideology makes trouble for that one group. For others, the failure of the application of that faction's philosophy means it's their turn.

In reality, no group has a lock on perfection. Each group approaches truth and reality at certain points, and falls away from it in others. It's up to the different factions that our decision makers belong to do their best to refine towards reality, and thereby attempt to outcompet their rivals. There can be a winner, a group that takes the top position and dominates it, but there shouldn't be. Assumed perfection is a disaster waiting to happen.

It also makes it more difficult for the flow of ideas and facts to occur. Political loyalties can sometimes take a life of their own, excluding crucial real-world examination of the issues, and unobstructed thought on them, as the leaders take their divisively diametric positions. We need to understand that politics is a secondary phenomenon of human relations. It should not be our primary concern. Our primary concerns should be what happens on a human level, what happens in practice. We should use politics as a means to open up minds and act according to the realities of the situation, rather than as a substitute for creative and productive thought and action.

Hannibal Lector, the evil serial killer in Silence of the Lambs has some wisdom here that can prove as useful for us as it did for Clarices Starling: We must look at everything and ask what is it in itself- we must find the simplicity, where it is to be found, of the real world, and not allow ourselves to be distracted by incidentals that are only important when defining the problem politically. The issue should not be what politician gets embarrassed, because any report of wrongdoing can be embarrassing to a politician, and therefore that is unreliable as a gauge for action. We would be paralyzed to do the right thing if our concern is to save face for our politicians. Besides, our interests should matter more than theirs. We should not be hostage to a utopia that they promise us for the future, only to see things go to crap around us as the failures of their policy take their course.

Ours needs to be a government where the politicians are more afraid of failing us than of we failing them. We don't need to be the folks they only reach out to when they have an election to win. We need to be their primary interest, over and above party interests. And this is something we shouldn't take no for an answer on. We need our leaders to be folks who use their skills of persuasion, of word choice to relate us things we are not specialized enough to understand right off the bat, not ones who use our ignorance as a shield to protect their shortcomings from our notice.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at June 3, 2005 3:57 PM