Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Crisis Of Meaning

“The destroyer is not a truth-crisis, it is a meaning-crisis.” – Piers Anthony, Macroscope

Political persuasion specialist Michael Emerling has said that the meaning of a communication inheres in the reaction of the receiver. Unless you have a considerable grounding in epistemology and semantics, that statement can be somewhat difficult to decode. Yet it’s one of the most important statements ever made about political outreach. Recent developments in the strategies and tactics of the Left have made it essential for freedom lovers to grasp it and internalize it.

For openers, consider the following episode:

The Obama Administration, following in the footsteps of another noteworthy Democrat liar (“It depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”), has decided to defend the indefensible by arbitrarily redefining the terms of discussion. That this has been viewed – so far, at least – as merely one more outrage to add to the Obamunist ledger suggests that in political discourse words shall no longer be permitted to have enduring meanings. If this is the case, our political degeneracy has reached a terminal stage.

But pause for a moment and reflect upon:

  • What Administration spokesdroid Eric Schultz said;
  • The meaning drawn from it by those who have heard his words.

No one with three functioning brain cells could imagine that the Taliban, whose operational tactics are indistinguishable from those of other Islamic terrorists in the Middle East, is anything but a terrorist organization. It differs from the others only in once having had control of a nation-state. Calling it an “armed insurgency” cannot change the objective facts of its behavior; it can only provide a tissue-thin rhetorical cover for the Obama Administration’s actions toward it.

So what Schultz said amounted to “Don’t probe us on this or we’ll take some sort of vengeance for it later.” That’s almost certainly the meaning he wanted his audience to derive from it. However, the meaning they drew from it might have included that, but surely also included: “The Obama Administration will do what it damned well pleases when it damned well pleases, without regard for the prior policies of this or any other Administration.”

Ponder the difference for a moment before continuing on.

Man’s rational capacity requires the use of symbols. The reason is embedded in the nature of reason itself:

  • To reason is to make use of abstractions – generalizations from specific cases to general patterns – to deduce effects from causes applied to adequately specified contexts.
  • One cannot conceive a abstraction without inserting symbols – each one a placeholder for a generic member of some defined class – into one’s conception.
  • Thus, symbols with stable meanings are essential to the conception and employment of abstractions.

(A little deep for a Thursday morning? Blame my snowblower, which weighs twice what I do and was massively disinclined to deal with the load Mother Nature dropped on my driveway Monday night and Tuesday morning.)

This is so fundamental to human mentation that even mathematicians tend to be unaware of it until it’s been proposed to them explicitly. It’s too automatic – too integral to Man’s pursuit of knowledge about the world and the creatures in it. Compelling oneself to think about it involves deliberately inserting oneself into a “strange loop” of the sort Douglas Hofstadter wrote about in Godel, Escher, Bach. Such a loop has no exit point upon which we can rely.

By corollary, if one is forbidden to attribute stable meanings to certain symbols – for example, the words used in political discourse – one cannot make sense of the statements that employ them. A barrier rises between our minds and the truths of reality with which we must grapple.

This is immensely appealing to those who seek to evade the consequences appropriate to their actions.

I wrote some time ago:

In the ideological clashes of today, the attention of the greater mass of Americans is focused on secondary matters. Arguments over national defense, tax rates, social policy directions, regulatory structures, and so forth continue to rage, but with less prospect of being satisfactorily settled than ever before...because a critical pinion for all argument of any sort has been undermined near to collapse.

The pinion of which I speak is the concept of objective truth.

It's hard for most people to grasp that objective truth is a conception, rather than something self-evident. Yet furious philosophical battles have been fought over it. The negative side has never conceded defeat. They've advanced reason after reason to doubt the existence of objective reality. As each one is destroyed, they shift to another. In a sense, their proposition is its own strongest weapon, for they respond rather frequently to even the most obvious points by saying, "No, that's your truth" -- an implicit claim that it's the not the observation but the observer's willingness to accept it that really matters.

John Q. Public has heard little of this, of course; it's mostly fought in the ivory towers, and in the publications that cater to professional intellectuals. All the same, it matters to him more than he's able to appreciate.

Truth is an evaluation: a judgment that some proposition corresponds to objective reality sufficiently for men to rely upon it. The weakening of the concept of truth cuts an opening through which baldly counterfactual propositions can be thrust into serious discourse. Smith might say that proposition X is disprovable, or that it contradicts common observations of the world; Jones counters that X suits him fine, for he has dismissed the disprovers as "partisan" and prefers his own observations to those of Smith. Unless the two agree on standards for relevant evidence, pertinent reasoning, and common verification -- in other words, standards for what can be accepted as sufficiently true -- their argument over X will never end.

An interest group that has "put its back against the wall" as regards its central interest, and is unwilling to concede the battle regardless of the evidence and logic raised against its claims, will obfuscate, attack the motives of its opponents, and attempt to misdirect their attention with irrelevancies. When all of these have failed, its last-ditch defense is to attack the concept of truth. Once that has been undermined, the group can't be defeated. It can stay on the ideological battlefield indefinitely, preserving the possibility of victory through attrition or fatigue among its opponents.

As the years have flowed past, I’ve come to consider that particular essay the most important of all my emissions onto the Web. Indeed, the importance of its core thesis has risen to the point that no political statement can be assessed without evaluating whether the words it uses are being employed according to their public meanings: i.e., the meanings private persons routinely attribute to them. In other words, we must determine whether the speaker respects the truths those words are used by us common folk to express.

The effort involved in even listening to political gabble has risen proportionately to politicians’ self-defensive reinterpretations of key words and phrases. Such reinterpretations are inherently attempts to evade the facts.

If you’ve wondered why it is that no politician ever answers a yes-or-no question with a yes-or-no answer, wonder no longer. It’s utterly impossible to reinterpret “yes” and “no.” That makes them quicksand for the politician determined to retain the option to “adjust” his positions for subsequent needs.

Yesterday afternoon, the esteemed Glenn Reynolds wrote thus:

IN JOHN CARTER’S WORDS, I STILL LIVE: Andrew Sullivan is going to stop blogging. No, blogging isn’t dead. And InstaPundit gets more pageviews than pretty much everyone who’s calling blogging dead. But I can understand Andrew quitting. For me, the real strain isn’t the blogging, but having to pay close attention to the news all the time. The news is usually depressing, when it’s not angering, and that’s doubly true for the Obama years. But I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

I’m pleased that our beloved InstaPundit has resolved to soldier on, but ponder for a moment why “The news is usually depressing, when it’s not angering.” There’s always been a large percentage of bad news in the news; after all, the major maxim of journalism has always been “if it bleeds, it leads.” In earlier decades, we were far more confident that bad news with political import – i.e., negative developments the response to which would appropriately come from an American government – would be confronted squarely and coped with properly. Public confidence in such a response ain’t what she used to be. (If that comes as news to you, congratulations on a really long nap.)

The reason is the increasing – today near to absolute – unwillingness of our political class to confront reality when doing so might make it look bad.

When reality slaps you across the face with a wet mackerel, the only imaginable evasion is rhetorical: “No, no! While it did look like a mackerel, it wasn’t an authentic mackerel, as these variances along the lateral fins and the belly scales should make obvious. Besides, I turned forty-five degrees in the instant of the first impact, so it didn’t get my right cheek, so I wasn’t really slapped across the face. Anyway, we’re still good friends.” Dealing with the evasions and their implications is what I find most wearying and most angering. I’d be surprised if that weren’t so for Reynolds and many other commentators who’ve been tempted to lay down their keyboards.

Politicians’ methods for evading reality increasingly employ redefinitions of common words and phrases, distortions of their meanings, and a refusal to use those terms whose meanings are so strongly established that they cannot be so treated. The marvel of political journalism in our time is that anyone still bothers to ask a politician a question, when we all know that the answer will be self-serving rather than honestly responsive. Why, indeed, should a reporter bother to report on political statements and orations, which are inevitably more deceitful than informative? The temptation must be strong to eschew such wastes of ink and pixels, and merely report on politicians’ deeds as recorded by cameras and microphones.

Our political destroyers – and by that term, I mean our entire political class, regardless of party affiliation – have embroiled us in a meaning-crisis whose consequence is a truth-crisis. They are resolved that we shall never be able to hold them to the least of their statements. (Their promises? Forget it, Jake.) If we can be battered out of our reliance on the meanings of common words and phrases, our yearning for truth, and our belief in objective reality, their paths to absolute power over us will be completely unobstructed at long last.

Food for thought.

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