Words, Crossed

29 Jul

Thanks to Ian Hosking for providing this little gem. Throughout this clip I can’t help but think about how the phrasing of an idea shapes the opinions surrounding. In the case of marijuana, images and stories are used to paint a picture of the horrors of the drug. (If you’ll notice in the second clip, the “reporter”/commentator asks him about his fears with very leading questions). There is no need for substantiation when you take the political, moral high ground.  Words and ideas are cheap. I think ending prohibition has had a difficult time in the U.S. due to the image of the kind of person that does drugs or, worse, sells them.

The conception of definitions alters our perceptions of identity. Consider the use of “liberal” and “conservative” in modern American politics. If we examine each word from the perspective from a foreigner (without a conception of the political party-ideology system) we might observe a literalist approach used to derive the words’ meanings. “Liberal” suggests “support of freedom; open; or generously giving”; “conservative” suggests “restrained; cautious; or interested in conserving.” Understanding the reality of these ideologies changes not only the definition of the word but also our sentiments of the object described. Understanding (from the conservative view) that to be “liberal” in the political sense implies increasing restrictions, reducing freedom, and generously taking creates a disbelief in the ideas of liberalism and a distrust of people who brand themselves as “liberals.” Likewise, the “liberally” minded thinker sees the conservative as being backwards, hypocritical, and in support of the status quo – to call oneself a “conservative” is to declare stupidity, stubbornness, and callousness.

The more centralized a word or idea is to one’s own philosophy, the  greater the tendency to place other ideas in relation to it. My conception and view of “socialism” is such that I have knee-jerk negative bias toward words and ideas that seem “socially-minded.” In “The Mirage of Social Justice,” Hayek argues that “social” or “distributive” justice is meaningless in the context of a spontaneous order and can only be meaningful in an organization (or planned order). I tend to think putting “social” in front of most terms renders that term meaningless. I certainly have a different perception of what constitutes “socialism” than most socialists. I think the same is true in the opposite direction for “capitalism” and capitalists. Without a doubt, these words suck. But any word that is going to define a large set of ideas is going to suck. If there is a greater degree of flexibility in the use and definition of a word, there will be greater animosity and discussions at cross purposes over the use of that word.

Though this is an unfortunate scenario, it is unavoidable. Banning words or mandating definitions cannot solve the problem. (However, this may not always be a problem for language, it could very well be a feature.) Unless A tries to discuss his ideas on B’s terms (or with B’s ideologies in mind), the exchange of ideas will be slowed or stopped. One of the best ways to effectively convey your ideas is to be as charitable as possible to the ideas of your opponent.

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One Response to “Words, Crossed”

  1. JON SCHWARTz July 31, 2010 at 10:23 am #

    First, The comment section should be fixed because, it is entirely white so it hard to see where you need to type, the boxes blur with the meta box and it all looks the same?!
    I really like the video and it is indeed true that we should legalize weed just to stop putting people in jail or busting grow houses when we need that money to pay for new highways, bridges, railroads, power plants and schools. Plus there would be a few billion in taxes!

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