Interesting story. Once upon a time there was a group of people who spoke the same language. They got along well and decided to build a city together. Actually they were all the people who existed at the time, and this was a big deal. So they built a city and a big tower to show how clever and important they were, sort of like Dubai, I guess.
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” – Genesis 11: 5 -7 NIV
Apparently, God decided that if we could all understand each other; there would be no limit to what we could do in the world, and for some reason he decided that was a bad thing, so he fixed it. He scattered the people all over the world and made sure they couldn’t understand each other.
That’s worked out really well, right?
Relatively recently we have learned how to communicate across the language barrier, sort of, and you can now order shrimp scampi in Botswana if you really want to. On the other hand, some people have internalized the idea that it was God’s will that we not talk among ourselves and prosper, and they have made it as difficult as possible even inside any one language group.
Take the United States in 2015 for example.
It is almost impossible to have a conversation in this country today about meaningful issues because we do not have a common language that reaches across political and religious divides. Some of that is intentional misrepresentation of language – like when Republican presidential candidates intentionally confuse the debt limit with the budget deficit. They know better – well, some of them anyway, but it serves their purpose and they count on the fact that most of the people who support them do not know better.
Beyond these overt intentional misrepresentations are numerous similarly intentional but covert misrepresentations that have been going on for so long they have changed the way the language is used among some groups altogether.
Take the word communist. The words communist and communism have very specific meanings among historians, political scholars, and those who are well-read in those areas. Basically, communism involves the state ownership of all means of production and distribution. Everyone works for the state, private enterprise and ownership is discouraged, and there is no incentive to get ahead by working harder than anyone else.
That, briefly, is what communism is all about. That’s what Joe McCarthy accused those on his black lists of believing. That’s the form of government that the Soviet Union adopted and which became so despised in the US. It came to represent everything that the US was not. We were “One Nation Under God,” and they were “Godless heathen Communists.” Cuba came under the communist umbrella and it too was another enemy of Freedom, God, and the American Way! North Vietnam, North Korea, China under Mao, all communists, all heathens, all enemies of God and America!
The national dialogue for 65 years conditioned us to hear the words communist or communism and have a severe visceral emotion of distaste and hatred. The definition of the word no longer matters.
And like most of our national dialogue, we have never been very careful about the way we use language. Communism, Socialism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Marxism, Stalinism… they were all the same. The words were used interchangeably. They were bad; they were hateful, Godless systems that we had to stop at all costs. They were NOT US! The meaning of the words is not important, only the emotional reaction to the word is important.
Except, they weren’t the same. They aren’t the same. Entire volumes have been written about their differences. They are only the same in the common parlance that has come to be American language in the modern world where words mean whatever we want them to mean at the time and no one can talk to anyone because we have given up on common definitions and rely more on emotional reactions to words than to what they convey. And the definitions are important.
Fifty years ago I was on a high school debate team. The topic for debate that year was nuclear weapons and whether the US should use them. Every debate team at every school in the state was provided with a pamphlet that contained the debate format, rules, and facts about nuclear weaponry. There wasn’t a pamphlet for the pro side and another for the con side. Rules were rules and facts were facts. We were required at my school to debate either side of the issue as needed.
A debate consisted of taking agreed upon facts and using the rules of logic and rhetoric to present ideas through argument that supported or denied the pro or con perspective on a topic.
We really can’t have debates in this country now. How can you debate a topic when you can’t agree on what the rules are and what the facts are?
You not only can’t have a debate, you can’t even have a conversation. Put a couple of right wing Republicans in a room with a couple of progressive Democrats and the best you can hope for is a shouting match. Watch any Bill Maher show for proof.
Why is that?
To start with, they hate each other. It’s not that they disagree on certain political issues. They hate each other in a really basic way that resembles the way Americans hated fascists in WWII and the Klan hates blacks. It runs the gamut from “I really, really don’t want to have to listen to your bullshit any longer” to creating a “second amendment solution to your existence.”
Beyond that, the words one political party uses mean something entirely different than the way they were intended by the time the other side hears them.
And to take it a further step, the rules of logic and rhetoric have been out of use for so long that few know how to discern whether what is being said has any value for the deciding the topic at hand. In fact, logical fallacy has become the technique of preference most of the time in modern politics.
Recently Rand Paul made the comment that he has been spending more time going after Bernie Sanders and socialism because he doesn’t want people to think there’s “anything good about socialism.”
“I think,” Paul says, “it’s not an accident of history that most of the time when socialism has been tried, that attendant with that has been mass genocide of people or any of those who object to it. Stalin killed tens of millions of people. Mao killed tens of millions of people. Pol Pot killed millions of people.”
Those with any knowledge of world history will notice that Paul is calling Stalin a socialist when in fact, Stalin was a communist. And there’s a big difference between the two in the world of facts, history, and political science. The same is true for Mao and Pol Pot. They were communists, not socialists.
But when Rand Paul says that Bernie Sanders is a socialist, and then recites a list of communists, what a great many people have been conditioned to hear is “Bernie Sanders is a communist.” He’s just like Stalin. He’ll commit mass genocide if he gets to the White House. He’s a Godless heathen! He is an enemy of Freedom, God, and the American way! He is NOT US.
This, by the way, is a logical fallacy and the rhetorical device is known as poisoning the well. Essentially, by associating Senator Sanders with communists, Paul has called up in the listener’s mind distrust and distaste for anything Senator Sanders might say before he has said anything. And since Senator Sander’s ideas are not in evidence in Paul’s statement, it also smacks of Argumentum Ad Hominem or argument against the man, not his ideas. Logical discourse has rules. If you break those rules and use illogical arguements, you should not expect intelligent, educated people to listen to you.
The basic fallacy (lie?) is that socialism and communism are the same thing. And that fallacy (lie?) can exist because we do not have a well-informed electorate who can spot it at the telling, and we do not have a political climate where we can have a rational discourse about the distinctions between definitions of words like “communist” and “socialist.” Further, we live in a society where the precise meaning of words is much less important to us than their emotional connotations.
To complicate the issue even further, Sanders is not even a “socialist,” he is a “democratic socialist.” The distinction is more than a matter of splitting hairs. But none of that matters if all people hear is communist! The corporate interests of the day called FDR a communist too. You don’t hear that much any longer. Bernie Sanders’ proposals are arguably less “socialist” than the New Deal, and that legislation set America up for 30+ years of economic prosperity.
It would seem that it might have been much easier for all concerned if Sanders had never entered the race with the democratic socialist label in the first place. He could have presented himself as a progressive Democrat and a firm believer in the basic tenets of capitalism (which he is). But it wouldn’t have mattered. He would still have been attacked as a communist by those on the right because it is a tried and true tactic in the political arena.
We are beginning to hear a great deal about finding “common ground,” and we will be hearing a great deal more about that from the progressive left over the course of this election cycle. I have seen precious little about how to actually do it, though.
How do we engage in rational discourse with someone who hates our guts, thinks we are saying something we are not saying (and that works both ways), and might not know the difference between a logical argument and an emotional rant?
I would submit that we cannot maintain that someone is an enemy and still have a conversation. We negotiate with an enemy. We surrender or accept surrender with an enemy. In order to have a rational conversation we have to give up the idea of enemies.
We will never overcome cognitive dissonance and years of cultural conditioning by arguing ideology.
Forget about finding common “ground” in ideology and develop a commonality of language.
If we can have a conversation where we agree on how the words communist, socialist, and democratic socialist are actually defined for this and future conversation, we will have robbed those words of much of their emotional impact. We can no longer simply react because we have now invested time and energy into going beyond the emotional response through rational discourse. We need make no value judgements to define our terms. We need only talk to each other.
Agree on what words mean. Use language precisely. That’s where we start.
Because “If as one people speaking the same language (we) have begun to do this, then nothing (we) plan to do will be impossible for (us).”
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon