Saturday, April 30, 2005

Semantics and Political Discourse

Philosophy is not useless, and anyone who tells you otherwise probably just doesn't know philosophy. It's my task today to show you how a critical examination of language will uncover the deception of the MSM and certain cynical politicians.

Human language is a symbolic affair. What this means is that I must represent the objects about which I'm speaking with certain fundamentally arbitrary symbols. I glanced over and saw a pencil on the desk next to my monitor; I name that thing "pencil" but this name has no essential relation to the object itself. In German it's "Bleistift," neither worse nor better than "pencil" for representing the object, the actual pencil. Hegel points out this aspect of language when he says that we cannot literally say the book. We can say "the book," that is, we can express verbally an article and a noun that are meant to communicate the idea that a book is under discussion, but language cannot actually speak the object indicated. If anyone could literally speak the object indicated, his would not be a symbolic language but a language that would actually communicate the objects themselves with speech, and there would be no room for error in such a language. Because, for instance, I could say "I liked the book." And let us assume that what I meant was "I liked the plot, characters, theme, and style represented by the words in the book," which is a perfectly acceptable interpretation for "I liked the book." The person to whom I am speaking, however, takes "I liked the book" to mean "I liked the paper quality, size, and weight of the book." Clearly I have not been understood as I intended, and what I spoke had little relation to what was heard, except that both consisted of the precise words "I liked the book."

The fundamental ambiguity of language is a nagging problem with communication. If I cannot literally say what I mean, but must relate it by means of abritrary symbols that may well take on a different meaning in the ears of another, there is always a problem of confusion. This does not mean that communication is impossible or that, since each individual will interpret symbols in his own way, meaning is subjective. Instead, it means that special care must be taken to formulate objective definitions of clusters of symbols so that the meaning intended by the speaker is the meaning taken by the hearer.

This may seem abstract, and a frivolous intellectual exercise. Now it's time to make its political application very apparent. There are certain words and phrases floating around American political discourse with loaded meanings. I'll illustrate just two. A Democrat says "I want to help public schools." "Help public schools" here means to him "increase federal spending on public education, listen to and carry out the demands of teachers' unions, and do my best to make sure that more wealthy school districts give money to poorer districts so that no inequality in funding will exist." A Republican similarly says "I want to help public schools," by which he means "I want to reduce the dependence of public schools on federal money, I want to give more power to local authorities, and I want to examine the potential of vouchers to increase competition between public and private schools and to thereby improve public schools by market forces." Both have literally said "I want to help public schools" but they meant quite different things by that sentence. And if one agrees with the Democrat, and that Democrat says "My opponent wants to destroy public schools," one may very well agree, because that opponent intends things which are destructive of the liberal interpretation of "help public schools." But, of course, that opponent may think that the liberal policy is really the destructive policy, and that the charges against him of wanting to destroy public education are more properly leveled on his opponent.

There's another wonderfully lovely phrase I absolute hate - "separation of church and state." It occurs nowhere in the U.S. Constitution and comes from a letter by Thomas Jefferson, certainly not constitutional canon, right? But anything that's perceived to violate this separation is billed as a constitutional harm. Everyone must agree that the Bill of Rights provides certain restrictions and rights regarding religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." That's all it says. Properly speaking, religious issues that touch on the First Amendment should be evaluated as to whether they constitute an establishment of religion or whether they prohibit the free exercise of religion, not whether they tend to disrupt the separation of church and state. But, as long as that latter phrase means exactly what is stated and intended in the Constitution, it's fine. But the separation of church and state takes on its own meaning - people worry about a politician's expressing religious beliefs because it infringes the separation of church and state (which it clearly does), without realizing that unless that politician seeks to give official support for one religion over others so as to establish that religion, or restricts the free exercise of religion by others, he is not violating the First Amendment at all. In other words, violating the separation between church and state is not for that same reason a First Amendment violation.

Now, this use of the term "violation of the separation of church and state" would be fine if people understood it to mean "violation of an unofficial principle held by one of our Founding Fathers." It would then be merely an issue of political philosophy whether violating the separation of church and state is such a bad thing. But the phrase is taken to represent a constitutional harm, even though it clearly does not. So when one rightly accuses President Bush of seeking to remove the wall of separation between church and state, some people hear that to mean "Bush wants to do away with the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom," which is false.

Is the ambiguity of that phrase and others accidental? Not at all. The MSM delight in the fact that they can, for example, correctly use certain words of President Bush, which are aptly applied according to the objective meanings of those words, but that the sense in which those words will be heard by others will cast an ill light on him. The MSM can say "Bush wants to get rid of the separation between church and state," and in its objective sense that phrase applies to Bush - he's a religious man and he believes that religion and government ought to work together. But the MSM know, and it is no accident, that people who hear that will think "Bush wants to do away with the Bill of Rights!" and when a supporter of Bush protests, the question will become "Doesn't he disagree with the separation of church and state?" Language has caught the supporter - he must agree that Bush does not respect that principle, but as long as ignorance prevails he cannot show that separation of church and state and the First Amendment are not synonymous.

That manipulation of language like this, where a group plays on the ambiguity of a phrase to silence the honest dissenter, who knows what the phrase really does mean and cannot disagree, and to incite the passions of the ignorant, who take the phrase to mean something else, is epidemic in political discourse in this country. The MSM and politicians do it all the time. With a little critical examination, however, you can remove the veil of ignorance put upon you by those who want to deceive, and hopefully real discussion will be the result instead of continued semantic bickering.


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