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October 16, 2005

Meaningless Politics

We know we live in fractious, partisan times. Our public discourse weighs in with more heat than light. Truth is up for grabs. Not that truth is an easy matter. Still, our contemporary beliefs, behaviors, attitudes and speech have made the always challenging prospect of determining truth – especially shared truths – more complicated.

For the moment, though, let’s distinguish between truth as evidenced by reasonably observable facts from truth that is more purely linguistic and definitional. “The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening”. Few among us, whether “Red” or “Blue” or “Liberal” or "Moderate" or “Movement Conservative” would debate this empirically observable statement.

Facts, though, often require more work to observe. Do 21st century market economies contribute to the risks of global warming? As we’ve seen in the debate over this question, even facts (e.g. about ‘causes’ and ‘risks’) can find themselves heavily subject, even perhaps hostage, to the other flavor of truth sharing: truth as language.

The most famous recent example of this flavor may be former President Clinton's declaration: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”. His was, at a minimum, the classic lawyer’s response to a question; namely, ‘let’s define our terms’.

There is a critical difference, though, between lawyers who define terms for purposes of a particular transaction and the body politic having some minimal agreement on the language needed to govern together – to make sense of shared lives.

And, so, consider this incident from a recent election. A candidate for a city office receives a questionnaire from a politically active interest group. One of the questions asks ‘whether the candidate would favor city ordinances” supportive of the interest groups proposed policies?

The candidate responds, “I prefer a legislative solution to the issues raised by these questions.”

As a matter of language, ‘city ordinances’ are legislation. The candidate has been asked, “Would you favor legislative solutions of the type we’re proposing?” The candidate answers, “I prefer legislative solutions to the questions you raise.”

The candidate has given a 'non answer' answer. But, the problem here goes beyond a candidate being slick. The audiences for this comment -- voters and others including young adults and children -- become accomodated to langauge without meaning. They are told by candidates who, if elected, will be their political leaders, that there is a difference between 'city ordinances' and 'legislation'.

We cannot have shared values without shared language. It is not humanly possible. If we politicize language beyond the reach of shared meaning, we cannot govern together. Indeed, we cannot hope to live together in anything other than cheap ignorance and moral despair.

Posted by Doug Smith on October 16, 2005 01:02 PM | Permalink

Comments

Case in point: Helen Thomas questioning White House spokesman Scott McClellan about what he means when he says Harriet Miers won't "legislate from the bench." See,
http://volokh.com/posts/1129609680.shtml

Posted by: Jane Simkin Smith | October 19, 2005 01:30 PM

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