Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Names

Do the names of things matter? I ask this because I've been on a bit of a Plato binge lately and names definitely matter in Plato. Socrates spends a great deal of time attempting to nail down the precise meanings of words; in some cases, he just makes it more difficult. Theaetetus ends with Socrates having disproved all attempts at defining knowledge and leaving. In other cases, Plato is fairly specific. Statesman and Stoic are handled fairly well. And his successor Aristotle is a definition machine.

The important thing though is that names matter greatly to Socrates. He wants to find the true names of things. He seems to be specifically opposed to the Heraclitian view of things in which everything in the world is in a constant state of change. For Socrates, change is illusory and the Forms are real and eternal. This search for permanence probably relates to the times- Athens was in a period of decline that clearly troubled Socrates and perhaps Plato even more. The most famous dialogue, The Republic, is an attempt, I believe, to create a permanent state that cannot decay. I would not want to live there.

All of this is Philo 101 stuff- and remember that I am not a philosophy grad student. However, it's hard not to sympathize with the Platonic (and definitely Aristotelian) search for the precise meaning of words. Names have power. This is why the true name of God is never spoken. Words also convey inside knowledge. I often say that 90% of picking up any new discipline is learning the vocabulary. Once you've learned new words, new ideas come with them like the medicine in a capsule. It's always strange to me to find terms in French or Spanish that don't really exist in English because it's a new thought that I probably would not have had otherwise.

There's also a modern tendency to be indifferent about the meaning of words. I often find it frustrating to talk with people because many of them use words in vague or incorrect ways with the expectation that you know what they're getting at. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I have no clue.

I think part of this noun fluidity comes from pop culture. Advertisements, in particular, use words as carrots to entice us forward: Dependability, Value, Excitement, Choice, Silky, Sexy, Reliability; the words they use vary in meaning depending on the campaign. As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." Words are instruments of persuasion, not stones on a path to truth.

It's the same with politics- our elected officials use terms like "stimulus package", "enhanced interrogation techniques", "undocumented workers", "non-governmental organizations", and so forth as a means of confusing us. Or, at least, providing enough vagueness that the meanings could change. The great deconstructor of political language, of course, was Orwell, who put it succinctly: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”

In a democracy, everyone takes part in politics, so everyone has a stake in changing the meaning of words to suit their purposes. In a sense, this was "political correctness"- a total war over syntax extending into the field of subtext during the interbellum periods. If you change the names of things, you change their meanings. The irritation that "PC" stirred up was perhaps because people felt like computers being reprogrammed.

PC was about niceties. Politically-minded slurs also tend to redefine words incorrectly. People often misuse the word "racist", for example, which correctly applies to the objects Holly directed us to, and probably does not apply to every racially stereotyped statement ever made. "Homophobia" is a fairly serious pathological loathing of gays- and not the correct term to use for every redneck who thought Will & Grace was "sorta fruity", or everyone whose religion has an issue with gays. Similarly, the people who are labeled "xenophobes" are quite often not actually afraid of people from other cultures; however, they are quite often racists.

This matters because calling everyone who has a personal blind-spot a "racist", "sexist", "homophobe", et cetera weakens the meaning of those terms and makes it harder to identify and oppose real racism, sexism, and homophobia, genuine examples of which are already legion.

Of course, the left mangles words with vigor; however, there are now right wingers on the Internet trying to figure out if the President is a "fascist" or a "socialist", probably because "liberal", the word that actually describes Barack Obama, doesn't have the sting it once did. For the record, real fascists have specific beliefs and programs, of which we could include:
1. Belief in a one-party state,
2. Belief in a strong authoritarian state with power centralized around a strong leader,
3. Innate inequality between races and nations,
4. The virtue of imperialism,
5. Violent struggle as the central experience of human life,
6. Emphasis on the strength of the nation over the rights of the individual,
7. A rhetorical emphasis on blood and soil,
8. A mythical history in which the Nation or Race was once stronger,
9. Persecution of all enemies, real or imagined, of the state.
While any teenager will tell you that using the word "fascist" packs a punch, people who have actually lived in fascist countries might beg to differ on the suffering of talk show commentators in the US.

Socialists, meanwhile, believe in the abolition of private ownership of property- and specifically call for public or state ownership of the means of production. We can differ about whether or not the US government is headed in this direction; but the fact is they have a long way to go to get there. And, besides, there are more than enough reasons to be queasy about the current economic stimulus program without having to read Das Kapital to understand Marxist theory. Besides, I've read the whole damn thing, and here's what it says: In the future, Capitalism is fucked. Next comes Communism. Then we party!

Of course, this is the sort of thing people argue about on the Internet, and it's nearly as thrilling as the Star Trek/ Star Wars debate. However, having everyone in the country confused about what these words mean has real world consequences: I recently received a paper from a student that discussed at great length Josef Stalin's reign as leader of the Nazi Party following Hitler.

Besides, the fact is that all of the problems currently facing the country are pragmatic problems; not political problems. The economy, the environment, the educational system, health care: all of these things need a tune up. We're all just standing around with the hood open arguing about what needs to be replaced or tightened. Trying to figure out which tool to use to get the machine going again requires serious intellectual effort, and not obfuscatory wordplay. We need clarity and specificity. Because there is truth to be had.

At least, I hope so.

(For the record, I'm all for solving the economic problem with an Americathon.)


Anonymous said...

There’s a lot to latch hold of here, but I’ll just zero in on the history of “political correctness.” People forget that it started out as a joke among leftists, who poked fun at themselves for wanting “politically correct” mates or sexual partners, i.e., people with whom it didn’t seem necessary to hold consciousness-raising sessions on a regular basis. So the buttons reading “Politically Correct” (ca. 1984, maybe with a nod to Orwell) were intended as humorous.

I suspect there may have been some disingenuousness in the recasting of “political correctness” as something that was, so we were taught, actually sought in earnest by an unspecified cabal of the “liberal elite.” Funnily enough, nothing has ever been more “P.C.” in its operations than the joyless crusade against “P.C.”

To the extent that people actually try to “act P.C.,” I think it rests on a wish to avoid conflict or the risk of losing face for not being savvy enough about the current inter-ethnic etiquette. It’s completely self-involved, in other words: “P.C.” compliance is motivated not by a concern for the oppressed or marginalized, but by a concern about what other people think of us.

Rufus said...

I think that's right. But I think there were also liberals who used the term to rib the more doctrinaire Marxists and so forth. At least, I seem to remember hearing it first used in that context.

I think most bureaucratic structures have tried to utilize some of the techniques of therapy without actually improving any of the conditions for people living under them. So, it might be that people resent the mendacity of these organizations making no actual improvements, aside from coining more polite terms for people.