From The Analects of Confucius:
Zi-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
The Master replied, “What is necessary to rectify names.”
“So! indeed!” said Zi-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.
If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish.
When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded.
When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately.
What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”
Consider also what this more recent commentator had to say:
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end….Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
We know ourselves — our species, that is — very well. As humans have been around for a long time now, such that human nature has become thoroughly familiar to us, seldom do we learn anything genuinely new about it. Nevertheless from time to time some atavistic genius, a Confucius or an Orwell, must remind us about some part of it that’s apparently slipped our minds.
We think in symbols — words. He who wishes to enlist your mental resources in the effort to confuse you will endeavor to cloud your understanding of the words by which you represent important concepts. By implication, it is vitally important to all serious discourse that we hold fast to the accurate, publicly agreed upon meanings of words.
Some words can be subtle in application. There’s a good example in the paragraph above. Look for it. If you think you’ve found it, call it out in the comments. For a change, I’ll participate there myself.
In the political realm, we frequently employ labels as shorthand for enveloping political postures. Various persons then associate those labels with bundles of policy positions, and perhaps also with particular organizations that purport to represent them. That’s where trouble sets in.
To be truly useful, a word must have an exact meaning. It cannot have more than one without becoming dangerous to one’s thought processes. What recent political discourse has done to the critical labels has made them extremely dangerous to our thinking, and to the future of our already endangered Republic.
First consider liberal, a word whose original, exact meaning has been severed from it for practical purposes. Have a gander:
Liberal \Lib”er*al\, n. One who favors greater freedom in political or religious matters. [Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 edition]
Anyone who hasn’t spent the last fifty years in a coma will immediately see how far the word liberal has been carried from that meaning. And it has indeed been carried away; it didn’t migrate to its contemporary usage all by itself. The kidnapping of liberal was quite deliberate.
Similarly, we have conservative, whose original meaning has also been lost:
Conservative \Con*serv”a*tive\, n. One who desires to maintain existing institutions and customs. [Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 edition]
Contemporary American conservatives could hardly be accused of that with any justice. Most of then are as hostile to the existing state of things as Bakunin or Kropotkin. Yet they stubbornly clutch the label conservative to their breasts rather than use a more accurate one, perhaps out of a misplaced…conservatism.
The damage consequent to these distortions has been incalculable. It’s been inflicted upon us with malice aforethought. The profit has accrued entirely to the Left.
Confusion can only benefit him who seeks to prevent accurate perception and thought. The Left must confuse its targets for a simple reason: the Leftist agenda, to the extent that it’s persistent in character, is wholly at odds with human nature and the laws of reality. In practice it conduces to misery and destruction. No hyper-charismatic leader and no amount of tinkering can “make it work,” the representations of Leftist mouthpieces notwithstanding. Moreover, this could never be concealed from a person of ordinary rational capacity…if he were equipped with accurate symbols for the key components of the socio-economic-political tableau and were permitted to employ them in thought unobstructed by cant about “inequality,” “exploitation,” “racism,” “patriarchy,” “institutionalized bigotry,” and the like.
(I could go into one of my customary rants about the importance of distinguishing between the Left’s well-meaning fools and the power-lusters who make up its leadership, but that’s not germane to the larger point.)
Concerning another word of increasingly frequent misapplication, consider the usages in this essay:
Now, doubtlessly many of you will have been quicker on the uptake on this point, but here is how the average layperson (who even knows what libertarianism is) hears about libertarianism: fiscally conservative, socially liberal. Don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s heard that. Following the new Reason study on millennials, which found a profile somewhat matching that definition, there are tons of people concluding millennials are libertarians.
A quick pause for an interjection: Anyone who’s followed me this far, and who’s acquainted with libertarian thought to any extent, will be aware that “socially liberal” does not mean favorable to greater freedom! The author of the essay devotes a series of unsparing paragraphs to nailing “liberal” to the cross it now deserves. But here’s his conclusion:
What am I, therefore? I am fiscally conservative and socially… well, socially libertarian. I believe in reserving to the states and to the people those rights and duties not clearly associated with mediating interactions between states and representing the United States as a whole to the world. I believe that, wherever possible, the individuals closest to an issue or, at worst, the state in which groups of individuals closest to an issue reside, should be allowed to decide on social issues. As a lodestar in that discussion I believe the best solutions will be the ones that involve the least paperwork, the least government interference, and the least litigation, but I also believe that groups and citizens alike are happiest, and find the best solutions fastest, when they are allowed to do things which I consider stupid.
Stop right there. If we proceed from the exhortations of prominent contemporary conservatives, what does “fiscally conservative” mean to you, Gentle Reader? Does it mean restricting federal spending to those few areas that have been Constitutionally approved? Does it mean that the Treasury should honor only gold and silver as the valid monies of the land? Does it mean limiting taxation to funding only “the common defense and the general welfare of the United States?” Or does it mean rather “keeping a lid” on currency inflation, plus some modest reductions in federal spending, so the national debt might grow a little more slowly?
Constitutionalist libertarians — i.e., those closest to conservatives in their practical propositions — demand absolute adherence to the terms of the Constitution. They don’t settle for niggling slivers of budgetary reductions, or for “more moderate” currency growth. If Article I, Section 8 doesn’t authorize it, the constitutionalist libertarian will have no truck with it…but the overwhelming majority of contemporary conservatives, anxious to avoid looking “uncompassionate” or “overturning too many rice bowls,” will swallow just about everything Washington has done to us, with only the tiniest adjustments around the edges. For a contrast, consider this statement from an ardent, though fictional, constitutionalist:
“Walter Coleman has promulgated several executive orders, through which he’s conscripted an entire profession and seized control of two major American industries,” Sumner said. “The power to do such a thing is not granted to any branch of the federal government. Yet the president backed up his will with federal troops, who remain at the aerospace and electronics plants to this day. He claimed that Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel mills during the Korean War was adequate precedent, but an unconstitutional seizure of power can’t be justified by saying that it’s been done before.”
Perhaps the perversions of the word libertarian have not yet become important enough to register on most radars. I expect that they will…because over the past three decades conservatives have become ever more libertarian in their attitudes and approaches, and are resolved not to shed their accustomed label for fear of losing popular attention to a competing school of thought. (Also, the Left has heaped enormous quantities of slander upon libertarian for comparable reasons.)
What is necessary is to rectify names: to speak and write with exactitude, such that one’s statements will be armored against misuse. Unless this begins at once, the corruption of our language will progress — and it’s a “progressive” project, beyond all question — making clear, undistored, entirely defensible political statements will become ever more difficult, and ever more Americans will sink into passivity and despair.