Time Out: The Corruption of Free Thought

“It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them.” - Pierre Beaumarchais

Cynics and dilettantes embody Beaumarchais’ observation. The rest of us accidentally live up to it.

We all know that abstract nouns like love, respect, jealousy, taboo and prejudice are slippery. They mean different things to different people, let alone from culture to culture.

And words can also be weapons. They can stir dissention, rile emotions or cast ridicule and shame on another person. Consider the analogy you’ve been following. I’ve framed words as tools and weapons. In doing so, I’ve provided a metaphor to think about words, but I’ve also created a narrow way of thinking about them.

Using a different metaphor, words could also be thought of as electricity, carrying an idea from the abstract to an action. If a person could rewire the word, it would result in an entirely different action than it was designed to spark.

But what happens when a word is rewired by a culture to shift an idea to a different action?

Think of the word “war.” For centuries, the English language employed the word as a description for the violent imposition of one group’s will upon another. But the word has undergone a radical change in the modern United States of America. Lyndon Johnson began a “war” on poverty. War became a good thing. It healed wounds and inflicted no pain. It also became attached to nebulous ideas.

How does one win a war against poverty? What are the tactical objectives? Who surrenders? Wouldn’t it just be easier to call it a rescue mission that ends when everyone who wants to be rescued is in from the cold?

More dangerously, war itself became ill defined. Instead of a distinct action, best brought to as quick an end as possible, it became a noble cause; a lifelong pursuit. Then the “war” on drugs came into focus. The proliferation of the idea of war as something that encompassed generations and that had ill-defined goals became the norm. The trouble is that the vague nature of the use of the word has allowed it to be manipulated by those in need of its services. The “war on Christmas (which one can only hope is hyperbole for Santa’s sake),” recently identified by a political commentator comes to mind.

Now we have a war on “terror.” So, instead of a violent imposition of a specific code of conduct on a group of people who wage war on civilians, we have a vague struggle against an idea that is even less clear than war.

Think about the word “terror.” President George Bush says that Osama Bin Laden is a terrorist. Louis Farrakhan has been quoted as saying that George Bush is a “Christian terrorist.”  The left says that the right engages in terrorism by bombing strongholds of people that the right defines as terrorists. It does become confusing. My personal favorite was a bus driver charged as a terrorist for calling a passenger a derogatory name. All along, I was under the impression that terrorism is “the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature.” – see Dictionary.com.

And what is the collateral damage in our war on clear meaning in language? How about words like welfare? Welfare used to be related to well-being. Then, President George Herbert Walker Bush introduced us to “Welfare Queens.” So now, instead of a program designed to help the most helpless in American society, welfare means lazy women unwilling to get a job and, since corporate America technically has a job, those subsidies aren’t welfare. Those subsidies are loopholes and tax incentives and whatever other term can be crafted in lieu of welfare. Welfare, indeed.

What does any of this have to do with free thought? 

Consider this. If three simple words like war, terrorist and welfare can become so distorted that they are essentially useless in discussing some of the most pressing crises we face, then how many other words are now deprived of specific and clear meaning? Without clarity, we are slaves to the interpretations of those who misuse the words with which we communicate. I won’t bother you with words like privacy, choice and human rights.

Does that confusion really corrupt free thought? Maybe we should think about it. And maybe it’s time to re-read George Orwell’s l946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”



Issue 2

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