Why does political debate not lead to better understanding?
They build, and they destroy. They define concepts. Words construct our world.
Words birth revelations and revolutions. They redirect and revitalize ideas. Hearts are moved and minds are changed by words. The motive force behind words is meaning. It is meaning that distinguishes the word from noise.
Words shape the space within the mind. One who says, “I am a religious man,” is reinforcing a complex and desperately needed view of himself. One who reflects upon, “the world is filled with sorrow,” is not identifying a provable premise but is instead nurturing an inner despair which may be expressed outwardly, but may only be experienced by that one individual: others may despair but not like she has despaired. The words of the outer world influence the unseen inner world.
The power of words is maintained by the human race. The meanings of words will change over time as they are adjusted by those who use them. An older person may suggest that “that event should be taped,” even though we no longer put sound or images on magnetic tape. An astute millennial will say instead that the event should be “recorded,” a much clearer and more inclusive word than the far-too-specific “tape.” In time “tape” as a synonym for “record” will be recounted only by historical linguists.
Human language does not merely change, it evolves. It becomes better as human after human tests the language against their experience of reality. They will use the words in different ways and their listeners will assess fitness for survival in the lexicon that will become the new language. As people test and adjust their words and syntax, new semantics yield the ability to better express the ever-evolving reality of the burgeoning and bubbling dynamic of the surrounding world. The curmudgeon may rebel against the use of “interface” or “lunch” as a verb, but those curmudgeons will die and those words will live on as verbs or adjectives or whatever fits the needs of those who live in the future. Rigid controls may be laid down on a language to prevent this natural growth (I’m talking to you France) but those restrictions will always fail against the forces of need and ingenuity. Language belongs to the people. It is not designed — it is the oldest and most useful crowd-sourced tool in human experience and it drives the sense and nature of all culture.
The ape and the crow may issue a signal identifying their territory or calling for a mate or even expressing concern for an injured member of the troupe; but all of these are about the immediate environment. Humans use words rather than signals because they are communicating concepts that go beyond that. Human language is about much more than “here and now.” It can describe a future that is ideal, or a future that must never be. It needs to describe the past with accuracy, to fully communicate the construction of the world that came before. The understanding of that past world may drive a prescient vision of a new world wherein modern problems are transformed into future advancement or forgotten irrelevance.
For this reason words are important.
The unfathomable power of language, like all power, is subject to abuse. As language advances through natural means, it becomes better; but, when language is manipulated by the powerful to mean what serves their unique needs, it is weakened and diluted. Words become a soothing distraction from the stress imposed by the powerful, leaving people to use those words as comforting substitutes for concepts that they dare not process in their conscious minds. Those who are powerful use well-established techniques to engender fear and then provide a comforting salve in the form of a word representing and quelling the object of that fear. That word is no longer a word; it is a signal.
Here’s a phrase we hear all the time: “Are you a conservative or a liberal?” That phrase is so common that it has become a trope wherein its actual meaning must be recaptured if we are to really understand it. It implies that “conservative” and “liberal” are opposites. It further implies that while they are opposites, there is no middle ground. A person may respond by qualifying their position as a compromise between the two extremes but the implications are presented as a challenge to be intentionally overcome by the determined centrist.
Here is the real problem with that question or any question like it: conservative is not the opposite of liberal. The two words mean completely different things. The question above has no more meaning than “Are you right-handed or blonde?” Those two words, “conservative” and “liberal” have been placed into our conscious attention as stand-ins for an actual assessment of political intent. The word “conservative,” which actually means the tendency to favor maintenance of and respect for existing institutions, political and ecclesiastical, lies somewhere on an axis expressing whether one prefers change or stability. Having its serious philosophical origins with The Right Honourable Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century, it holds virtue to be best expressed in respect for and preservation of existing institutions and beliefs.
As recently as 1955, William F. Buckley Jr., recognized generally by peers and observers as an exemplar of the conservative view, reiterated this definition clearly and succinctly when he wrote, “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” Thus we see the continued theme from Burke that the Conservative seeks to hold stable the institutions that exist, giving them their due appreciation and progressing, if at all, through gentle adjustment as opposed to large-scale reform.
The Liberal, on the other hand, favoring open-mindedness and personal freedom unencumbered by excessive outside controls, reveals nothing about how he may respond to existing institutions. In fact, Edmund Burke is remembered as a liberal conservative indicating that he espoused both views without contradiction because they mean entirely different things. Burke held that free men, unencumbered by oppressive rules, should appreciate their existing institutions and live contentedly and respectfully within the rules and formulae established by those institutions.
The word “liberal,” whose philosophical founder is often considered to be John Locke, refers to one who respects individual rights and who contends that knowledge and understanding best promote such rights. Locke was a philosopher and scientist who advocated direct observation of phenomena in order to understand the world around us. For this reason, he is remembered as one of the best examples of early empiricism. This was largely confirmed as the definition by John F. Kennedy when he claimed that a Liberal was one who “welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions” and who “cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties.”
Liberal, as a concept, occupies a very different axis, one that answers the question, “What is the value of the human being?” Near one end of that axis would be Liberal, representing one who believes that all people deserve to have the basic necessities of life thereby giving them the freedom to exercise their full potential, and near the other end would be the belief that humans are merely things with no attendant special rights. People whose beliefs are opposite to the liberal would include those who engage in human trafficking, acknowledging that certain humans are mere animals to be bought and sold to wealthy humans who are worthy to own other humans. Sociopaths would occupy a spot on that axis somewhere beyond slaveholders. The sociopath believes that he is the only real human and all others are simple objects to be manipulated for his pleasure. On the other side, between Liberal and the endpoint of the axis may be those who believe that the human is blessed by some deity with special rights that go even beyond the normally accepted rights ascribed through such revered human traits as self-awareness and cleverness. Somewhere in the middle of that axis may be the Elitist who believes that rights are earned by certain special groups while others do not deserve rights or education.
These are not the only words we use in common political discourse; and yet, using these words as their definitions suggest allows us to evaluate modern figures with particular clarity. Let us establish two axes and assess a few public figures based upon their behaviors. We could describe the opposite of conservative as activist (one who believes that action should be taken as soon as the status quo is impeached) and that could be useful but, even more useful would be to distinguish between activism that advocates for new solutions (progressive) and activism that seeks to reclaim perceived past beliefs and approaches (regressive).
We might draw the axis like this:
Our liberal axis may look like this:
Senator Mitch McConnell is referred to as a Conservative by most; so, is he behaving as a Conservative? Is he advocating moving slowly and respecting existing institutions and traditions? Does he show and insist upon respect for existing norms? He has violated existing norms of the Senate by refusing to consider a sitting president’s supreme court nomination. He is actively promoting legislation that serves to eliminate existing environmental law and to roll back civil liberties. He is clearly not a liberal but he is actively moving to re-establish the law and culture of yesterday. I cannot claim that he is a sociopath but he is certainly demonstrating a callous disregard for individual rights in favor of the rights of corporations and the rich. He demonstrates that he is not a Conservative but a Regressive seeking to actively return to a perceived earlier time when robber barons were allowed to act as they pleased, where there were separate drinking fountains for whites and “coloreds” and where the poor were left to fend for themselves gratefully accepting the table scraps of the rich. Mitch McConnell, therefore, does not appear to conform to the dictates of the conservative. He appears instead to be a Regressive Elitist.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, we are told, is a Liberal and not a Conservative. The Liberal seeks to advance the rights and freedom of the individual, and she has generally voted in favor of environmental protection, restriction of military spending and use of taxation to level the disparity between rich and poor. Each of those contributing to a society which allows more freedom for more individuals by providing more people more life options. When it comes to the question of how she seeks to approach tradition and institutions, she has expressed reluctance to change the status quo, even when it is damaging to her party’s goals, discouraging impeachment inquiries into a president who is very likely in violation of at least one constitutionally established mandate. She discourages advancement from the ACA to a single payer plan which has served other developed countries well. For all of her votes generally favoring freedom, she advocates very gradual change, respecting even the authoritarian institutions and policies imposed upon her by the opposition. If she is liberal at all, she appears to be a very Conservative Liberal.
As to Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, we see her Liberal emphasis on information and analysis in the Green New Deal which dedicates serious resources to research in preparation for active change. She supports laws which provide resources to individual citizens in furtherance of their ability to live in a safe and open environment with the freedom to choose a well paying job, protect their personal information and live secure in the knowledge that the ecosystem will be intact for their grandchildren. She is moving actively in the direction of a world which protects the rights of individuals over mere institutions, applying approaches that are unprecedented. She seems to be a clear example of a Progressive Liberal.
Doesn’t that analysis tell us more than we can gather from the barren poles of Liberal versus Conservative?
So what about Capitalism vs. Socialism, Right vs. Left or Religion vs. Atheism? Could it be that there are nuances we are missing in those words as well? Speaker Pelosi was once heard to say that she was a Capitalist because she believed in “free enterprise.” This statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of either the word “capitalist” or the term “free enterprise.” The Capitalist is one who seeks to invest capital into industrial or financial institutions with the goal of receiving a benefit from various mechanisms which produce the value. In other words, capital is doing the work. “Free enterprise” is an unnatural state wherein companies of various means and goals engage in competition under the watchful eye of a government which imposes rules to assure no individual company may monopolize a market. In this case, it is people who are doing the work. Business people with a good product welcome competition because it forces them and their competitors to produce better products. Capitalists only lose money in competitive environments and therefore cajole and lobby for monopoly. Capitalism is the enemy of free enterprise but it is probably not its opposite. The meaning of free enterprise is too rich and diverse for such a comparison. Its definition depends upon the word that is the opposite of capitalism but it is not limited to that.
If we were to construct another axis with Capitalist on it, what question would we be answering with it? Conservative indicates the attitude toward change. Liberal is on the line assessing the attitude toward the human soul. Capitalist expresses the attitude that money is the ultimate source of value. Perhaps the opposite would hold that the human is the ultimate source of value.
There are many other questions that we may answer in this way. We could construct a number of axes expressing people’s stance on specific questions that provide true illumination into the beliefs and intentions of public figures based upon their actions. Some such axes might be:
Are humans or capital the better source of value?
Should the means of production be controlled by the community or by the wealthy?
Should the people or an individual govern?
Imagine ranking politicians by specifying their positions on a half dozen such axes. Instead of claiming that Donald Trump is a Conservative, we could rank him from 0 to 9 on each of the above axes with 0 indicating furthest to the left of the axis and 9 indicating furthest to the right. So for the first axis (Activism) we could select 2 — Regressive. On the second axis (Human Rights) we may select 2 — Sociopath. Then continue ranking with the other three axes: Human Value, Control of Production and Locus of Governance. This will give us five digits describing the positions apparently held by Donald Trump as “22–889.” The first two digits sum up the Conservative/Liberal assessment followed by the others that rank positions around economics and governance. In the same way, we could identify Bernie Sanders as “87–323.” To say that the difference between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is that Trump is Conservative while Sanders is Liberal not only tells us nothing but it implies that the differences are simple and easily explained.
This clear falsehood is greatly appreciated by those in power because the last thing David Koch wanted you to do was ask careful questions regarding his goals and intentions based upon his actions. It is far better for him to be remembered simply as one more conservative rich person. To carefully assess the school boards, activist movements and politicians he has corrupted or destroyed would lead to a rich composition of meaningful words which should raise alarms for anyone seeking simply to live in a well-governed society. The word “conservative” turns the blaring alarm into an impotent hum.
By corrupting our words, a robber baron becomes a virtuous capitalist. An executive who forces people to work long hours in diapers is merely a clever businessman. A politician who fails to uphold his duties under the Constitution is merely conservative. For this reason, words that are corrupted by the powerful make it nearly impossible to even discuss perceived problems in the public sphere. The necessary words are no longer available.
When Newt Gingrich declared that the Democrats were not merely the opposition but the enemy representing goals that are evil and worthy of repudiation, the bars and restaurants in Washington DC that once hosted Democrats and Republicans in alcohol-lubricated discussions leading to real rhetoric-free legislation divided into Democrat or Republican establishments. From that point on, there was no mechanism whereby the two parties could discuss and decide with clarity. The two bitter enemies became estranged and incapable of compromise. With that, words were deployed to redefine “Liberal” to mean “child-killer”, “spend-thrift” and “moocher.” At the same time, “Conservative” has been redefined to simply mean “responsible”, “hard-working” and “benevolent”. These redefinitions are lopsided because the groups that have been most effective in this endeavor are the ones supporting the Republican organization. As a result, the use of the words that Republicans have sought to corrupt has become very difficult; and yet, we see that people are not as naïve as may be hoped. When Bernie Sanders revitalized the word Socialism as a rational force for good, he was readily accepted by a large number of Americans who had been taught that Socialism was a godless authoritarian theft of freedom.
What can be done to reclaim our most useful words in the service of understanding in the public arena? Certainly we may begin by trying to use our words as they have been intended. When asked if we are liberal or conservative, we should respond by asking what the person means by the question. Perhaps we could ask what the person is actually wanting to know about us. By forcing the questioner to think through what they mean, it may cause them to reconsider their lazy use of words and that may lead to a very interesting discussion indeed. We may, when engaged in political conversation, strive to use multiple meaningful words to explain the person in question avoiding misleading signals. I wonder if we could consider assessing all public figures using axes?
Certainly, anyone who finds merit in this sort of measured assessment will come up with other axes in addition to or replacing those I’ve proposed. We know that some public figures violate the law and seem to continue in office nonetheless. We know that politicians not only bend the truth but outright lie driving disastrous outcomes despite laws prohibiting such misrepresentation. Would we be able to use an axis answering the question “Is the law a guide for action?” It could look like this:
Imagine hearing this on a bus: “Oh, that Buttigieg is a 66–787, alright.” Imagine a discussion starting with, “76–443 can’t be right! She isn’t an Elitist.” Of course, this numeric ranking will never become common in casual conversation; but, while it still doesn’t completely describe the politician, it at least uses the actual meanings of the words to describe the public figure using more than one dimension. It may be useful for an individual to use this approach in order to simplify assessing a large array of candidates. Such an individual would determine where on each axis their ideal candidate would reside and record those numbers. My ideal candidate, for example, would be an 88–333. Then they would go through the above exercise in order to record an assessment of each candidate. The ideal candidate is the one whose assessment is closest to the ideal.
If the public figure’s attitude toward puppies is important to you, you could include such an axis for your assessment but keep in mind that the purpose of this approach is to discard superfluous facts in favor of relevant information that applies to how that public figure is going to participate in the political process. It allows us to set aside “the horse race” and “the optics” and all of the other distractions that are used to prevent us considering the essential facts of the matter.
The world is complicated and we use words to illuminate and simplify that complication. The words allow us to focus our attention on manageable chunks of the world. We may understand that chunk pretty thoroughly even if we don’t understand everything around it. Using words to summarize the world is useful; but, distilling real words down to simple signals that merely mark our territory further complicates the already incomprehensible. It removes words from our kit and makes villainy indescribable; so, we stand mute as atrocities proliferate around us.
When we communicate using signals, we lower our ability to comprehend the world to that of our animal ancestors. When we communicate using the rich meaning provided by our uniquely human words, we celebrate our ability to fathom the complexities of the world — a world which we were only able to build because of the cooperative actions made possible by our ability to communicate using words.