Sunday, January 09, 2005

What we talk about when we talk about politics

I am thinking this morning about language, and our tendency not to communicate. It is a crucial thing for anyone with strong beliefs or deeply held principles or even just an inkling that things just aren't right to reckon with.

I suppose this has been the appeal for the left of George Lakoff's writings, which speak to the metaphorical structures used be people with different political leanings, and which tend to inhibit cross-camp conversation. His Moral Politics is worth reading. Let me modify: large swathes of it merit skimming, and the man could use a decent editor, but the argument in there (which is basically a more specific rehash or development of his and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By) is important to comprehend and consider.

But now these issues of how we talk about ideas and what we mean by big complicated words like "anarchy," "democracy," "free markets" and such has become a hot topic in libertarian discussions. Libertarian Critter (via lowercase liberty) has taken on this issue directly, acknowledging points of intersection between the left and libertarians, and also recognizing the obstacles that might inhibit more discussion. And bkmarcus continues to strive for transparency by making his terminology clear.

And especially look at CatFarmer's read of Arundhati Roy's <em>War Talk, where she notes, "The language barrier was transcended between a passionate advocate of democracy and an ardent anarchist. Our dreams may be similar, but our language is not." She includes a good translation of her language and Roy's:

What I think of as "free market anarchism," she apparently terms "democracy." To me, "democracy" has come to signify a fraudulent idea that 'we the people' rule, while in fact we're more intellectually and spiritually enslaved than people who chafe against their degraded status and recognize their bondage. Ms. Roy gracefully leaps this perceptual hurdle by stating "This kind of democracy is the problem, not the solution." Her idea of democracy appears to be compatible with my concept of anarchy, perhaps equivalent to it. "Democracy" does not exist as an ideal in my mind, as it does in hers; the term itself carries poison in its tail, like a scorpion ready to deliver a fatal sting.

Thus it is for "anarchy" with many people -- the term itself is poisonous, and dangerous. It bears no resemblance to my own definition, and reality forces me to confront that fact on a daily basis. Arundhati Roy will hold on to her dream of 'democracy' as tenaciously as I'll hold on to my dream of 'anarchy.' Do we mean the same thing? If it's a question of semantics, how is it possible to convey that to someone who idealizes 'democracy,' when I despise all that the term represents to me? Somehow I must try to grasp (or grok, for Robert Heinlein fans) her underlying meaning, weighing it against my own, and choose language with care to antidote the deadly sting of disastrous associations.

If my concept of "anarchy" roughly translates to "democracy" in someone else's mind, and their "democracy" translates to "tyranny" in mine, relying on those terms fails to communicate useful meaning, and consulting dictionaries doesn't resolve issues of differing perception or subjective interpretation. Meaning suffers for an undue reliance on definitions, and insistence on a particular definitive interpretation may make differences appear more intractable or irreconcilable than they are. Words are important, but their underlying meanings or assumptions are essential, and I must learn to exercise objectivity in regard to subjective meaning.

You should read the whole post, but let me also say that there is a lot to appreciate here. CatFarmer makes the effort to translate one lexicon into another, making the similarities that she sees comprehensible to people from both languages. She acknowledges the problems that come from these different uses of language (problems that happen all over the place, not just in political discussions). And she allows that both lexicons have their power and their place.

Too often people writing about such topics insist on the primacy of their own lexicon, thereby potentially alienating those who use an alternative. Granted: I am not an advocate of prescriptive linguistics or grammar, but rather interested in seeing how language works in various contexts.

(That does not mean that I don't indulge occasional moments of curmudgeonry, such as this morning's rant to my patient partner about the use of the word "literature" in marketing contexts. As usual, he was more capable than I of working through my disgust, and when I granted that "literature" probably just meant something that could be read, added "by literate people--which rules out the marketing usage.")

I think it is important for people trying to piece through ideas to allow for the range of uses that a word has taken on in this day and age. Yes, the right probably has distorted "free-market economy" for their own purposes, making it a term of derision for the left, and this is a travesty if you are a person invested in the promise of the free market. Language = power, and if you can control the terms, you win the day. So the trick is to keep working to translate, keep looking at your target audience (probably NOT the choir), keep trying to understand why they believe what they believe, and keep trying to educate--your audience and yourself.

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