Words Matter

I’ve made the comment before, whether in passing or as a basic premise of a belief, that words matter. The words that we use (and especially those of politicians and authorities) shed light on what they really mean, cloaked under what we assume they mean. I do not know when this fully clicked for me, but I would like to draw on a topic I used as the basis for a paper I wrote recently.

At bottom, words seem to be either concrete or abstractions from the concrete. Elsewise put, we have generalities based on more specific definitions. However, we find that the specific definitions in themselves are problematic, because they are arbitrary. They only work insofar as we allow them to do so (at what point does “red” become “purple” or “orange”?). As long as they fit within whatever arbitrary confines we agree to not dispute, we can communicate without much trouble. However, I consider words to be like recordings of music. If go to listen to a symphony, I can hear all the details of the music, because I am witnessing the actual event. However, I can also record the symphony. The best way to record something in the modern era is by digitizing the analogue source. I will probably begin by recording a lossless file of the symphony, but there is something lost in the digitizing process. Even with the most expensive of audio equipment, I will not perfectly depict all the details of the music. This lossless recording is similar to concrete words. However, if I want to make my recording more accessible, I need to compress it down so that people do not need to spend so much time transferring a massive lossless recording. I then create an MP3 file from that lossless recording, which greatly reduces the space needed to store that recording and the time it takes to transfer it. Unfortunately, though, I lose even more of the details of the original event when I do this. You probably notice that this is similar to taking ideas that would be massive if communicated only using concrete words and then creating abstract words that compress those words under the tent of a single word or phrase. You might notice, however unhelpfully, that I utilize an abstraction (a metaphor) to help communicate my idea about abstractions, but I digress.

The moral of this story is that words are not lossless. They are highly lossy, even when they are regarded as true. When I communicate abstract ideas (which, of course, all of us are constantly doing), I am relying on the person to whom I am talking to understand, at least to a significant degree, all of the concrete ideas that are encapsulated in my sentence that probably uses almost entirely abstract words. Lawyers, as students of philosophy, recognize these inherent flaws in language. Therefore, a primary reason for the existence of codified laws is to define words used in the laws themselves. It is a reflexive system. This is one of the reasons why court cases are so important – they can be used to redefine what “shall not infringe” or “clear and present danger” actual mean.

At this point, anyone recognizes that a person with an agenda can easily use these facts to illicit ends. This is why I say that words matter – because a lot of the time, they mean something entirely different to those who exist within a certain vernacular or culture. Someone who knows nothing of the US Constitution would simply think I was weird and archaic for saying something about the right to peacefully assemble (why not just say right to gather or right to protest?), but those words mean something to people who have at least a cursory knowledge of the Bill of Rights. Similarly, when politicians give speaches about “national security” and say something about there being a “clear and present danger” and we assent to what those policitians are saying, we are duped. Those words are abstracts that exist within multiple vernaculars – the common and the legal are the important ones here. National security (an Orwellian sounding word) means something different to you and I than it does to the politican (who, almost inevitably, is a lawyer), as does “clear and present danger.” Therefore, when we accept the politicans statements and we hear them in the common understanding, they can happily go about and legally apply those words under the legal definition.

To illustrate the problem again, I will use the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There are several important clauses in this statement. Note what the right of the people is, and note what the operative clause about that right states (it shall not be infringed, but upon probable cause). Therefore, there are two methods that might be employed to weaken this right that in your mind or in my mind means that people have a right to not be searched themselves or have their possessions searched except with a duly issued warrant with probable cause. Therefore, we legally define what “persons, houses, papers, and effects” mean in a way that reduces its scope (done) or we define probable cause in a way that allows courts to authorize warrants for a broad scope of reasons (also done).

Thus, the right of the people to not be searched or have their possessions seized is undermined from within the very legal system that it is supposed to govern. Why? Because language is reflexive. Words only mean something within the context of other words, and so long as we allow those words to be defined by the very people who are supposed to enforce them, we will be subject to a snowballing tyranny.

Words Matter

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