The Language of Liberty

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One of the
more troublesome causes of the decline of American culture and civilization
is the steady deterioration of the English language. This is not
a reference to the proliferation of slang and vulgarity among younger
generations or to the lack of eloquence among the general populace.
These are merely symptoms of more fundamental problems. Neither
is this difficulty confined to America or to the English language
alone. It is a problem inherent in the nature of language itself
and in the way we learn to use it. It is not an issue of poor grammar
or mispronunciation, but rather of imprecision, misapplication and
deliberate manipulation.

The development
of spoken and written language has allowed humans to communicate
in ways no other creatures can. Where animals use noises and vibrations
to signal danger, or the desire to mate, humans use words to analyze
and discuss abstract concepts and express a sophisticated array
of thoughts and emotions. Investigations into the origins and evolution
of language have sparked much debate about which holds primacy over
the other, thought or language. Since words are just symbols used
to express ideas, emotions, sensations etc, it seems natural to
assume that language springs from our thought processes and therefore
is secondary to it.

But this is
not how children learn to speak. They learn by observation to use
a common medium that is already understood by others. The symbols
we learn have established definitions and patterns of use. Because
our language learning is dependent on other people's use of pre-existing
symbols, the associations we make as children between our ideas
and words are inherently biased by the context in which this observation
takes place. Modern linguists have long recognized the intrinsic
difficulties involved in learning to use words to communicate. Edward
Sapir
, who is regarded as one of the fathers of American linguistics,
wrote the following in an
article
published in 1929.

"Human
beings…are very much at the mercy of the particular language which
has become the medium of expression for their society…The ‘real
world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language
habits of the group…We see and hear and otherwise experience very
largely as we do because the language habits of our community
predispose certain choices of interpretation."

The point is
not to say that language is too limiting or that learning to use
it is a detriment to human growth. On the contrary, language is
an extremely powerful tool, not only of communication but also of
self-awareness and understanding. Without it we are no better off
than primates. But there seems to be no doubt that language affects
the way we think and shapes our world in ways we aren't conscious
of. To counteract these effects, our language learning must be conscious
and deliberate rather than passive and unintentional. This is essential
in avoiding needless confusion and in preventing us from being deceived
by those who would use words to "predispose certain choices
of interpretation" in our minds.

Even as adolescents
and adults too much of our language learning is implicit and comes,
not through deliberate searching of established sources for concise
definitions and methods of use, but through the vague and casual
lens of context. Context alone can be dangerous in that it rarely
provides us with concrete, precise meaning. Unless our contextual
observation is followed by a formal effort to understand a term
correctly, we may end up with a mere foggy, associative notion of
what it means. Since this process often occurs subconsciously, we
may not realize the extent of our ignorance and can be left with
a false sense of comprehension.

While this
may seem like an insignificant problem that the average person needn't
worry about, the exact opposite is true. Every discipline, of necessity,
eventually creates its own set of specialized vocabulary to facilitate
a more exhaustive study of it. Only those who acquire this vocabulary
can gain more than a rudimentary understanding of the subject. It
may seem unnecessary for a carpenter to learn the vocabulary of
the physicist, and this is probably true. But in a highly political
world where a few men make decisions which affect the rest and which
are enforced by violence, a population without a correct understanding
of political and economic terms and the phenomenon they represent,
cannot long remain free.

That most Americans
do not have such an understanding should be clearly evident to those
who do. When it comes to history, politics and economics, our educational
system is geared towards confusion. Students are taught specifics
without first building the foundation needed to analyze, interpret
and apply such knowledge. Middle school students learn about vetoes,
term limits, Paul Revere and women's suffrage, but try asking your
average college grad to define the word government without being
contradictory or inconclusive. You'll find that not many can do
it without help. Even the dictionary
can't define it without using the word government in the definition.
The same goes for words like freedom, liberty, rights and equality,
which are commonplace in history and political science textbooks,
but of which most people have only nebulous conceptions.

High school
students may play stock market simulations and learn the words supply
and demand, but receive nothing that comes close to any real instruction
in economics. The situation is not much better at the university
level. The inevitable result of all this is that young people come
out of school with myopic world-views and anemic vocabularies leaving
them vulnerable to political manipulation. Democratic political
systems assume that the average person understands these issues
enough to make decisions regarding them that will affect the lives
of millions of other people. This is a naïve assumption to
say the least, and politicians know it. They are counting on it.

For over a
century, Americans have been saddled with wars, taxes, regulations,
and restrictions, all sold to them by fast-talking politicians under
the guise of safety, security and freedom. They have been blind
to the danger partly because of the deliberate usurpation of words,
which previously stood for concepts that had served to protect them,
but which gradually have been made tools of their destruction. When
they hear the words freedom, democracy and liberty being used by
a demagogue to justify villainy and despotism, or when a socialist
uses the words "basic human rights" to justify their plunderous,
parasitic proposals, most people cannot see through the fog of their
own illiteracy. Their understanding of such words consists of amorphous
feelings of pride, patriotism and veneration, but they lack the
formal definitions that would reveal to them that such a person
is either an imbecile or a liar. The feelings and emotions traditionally
attached to the words that describe the noble ideas our forefathers
fought for have been passed on, but the meanings have been blurred
and altered.

When it comes
to war, diplomacy, or economics and public policy, many people just
assume that politicians, their advisors and media talking heads
must know what they're talking about. How else could they have risen
to such prominent positions? But to one who understands the nature
of the words being used and the topics being discussed, it is clear
that on Capitol Hill, no one seems to know what they're doing. We've
been raised to believe that as Americans, we live in a safe, prosperous
world where the wisdom and virtue of our constitution, our military,
our president and even God himself protect us from danger.

Many of us
have been lulled into a false sense of security by the soothing
lullaby of political promises. Others have fallen prey to the fear-mongers
and the hypnotic rhythm of the drums of perpetual war. Both visions
are mirages that are carefully constructed using vague, ambiguous
language. We can witness the wholesale subversion of the English
language in real time by tuning in to C-SPAN, CNN or FOX News at
practically any time of day. Firebrands like Bill O'Reily, Sean
Hannity and Michael Moore spout nonsense and poisonous drivel yet
enjoy enormous popularity and influence.

Much noise
is made by libertarians about the state's domination of money, the
school system, the media, etc, but state control over these and
other institutions is (at least partly) dependent on their control
over and manipulation of language. It is an indispensable means
for disguising the nature of their crimes and the contradictions
inherent in the world they are building. The ongoing debates over
the Iraq war, illegal immigration, outsourcing, free/fair trade,
inflation, unemployment, saving the Internet, nuclear nonproliferation,
oil prices and wiretapping/surveillance are rife with disinformation
and doublespeak. The remedy for solving these problems lies in first
understanding them correctly, and that requires a proper grasp of
the words and concepts involved. Hijacked words and phrases are
some of the state's most powerful weapons of deception and pacification.

As
Charley Reese recently noted
, “It is an evil paradox that men
with the lowest motives can launch wars by appealing to the highest
ideals of better men.” Such a paradox is only possible because the
highest ideals of better men are often nebulous and ill-defined
and therefore easily uprooted from their foundations. These better
men are a tyrant’s favorite subjects because with a little rhetorical
realignment, the strength and energy of their noble conviction can
be made to serve evil with the approval of their own conscience.

These tactics
are not new and their success is well known to students of history.
Perhaps the most successful players of semantic games were the communists.
They took words like freedom, oppression, ownership, exploitation
and equality and transformed them into their polar opposites. The
words bourgeoisie, profit, landlord and private property suddenly
took on sinister overtones. They even coined a word, "capitalism,"
to describe the system of private enterprise and infused it with
a menacing stigma. This allowed them to discredit the system and
its components by merely making reference to them. Their success
at achieving their goals (grabbing power) is infamous and the results,
catastrophic. The corrupting influence they have had on some of
our most important words still lingers, infecting our universities
and poisoning political rhetoric and public discourse.

Advocates of
peace and individual liberty should be lovers and learners of the
words and phrases that represent these ideas. Most people do not
want war. They do not enjoy the slavery of high taxes, endless debt
and relentless inflation. They just don't recognize the true nature
of what the state is selling them. They are told that all America's
wars are defensive wars, deficits are good for the economy, inflation
is a rise in prices brought on by speculators and greedy profiteers
and taxes are “the price
we pay for civilization.”
New definitions for old words are
continually being manufactured with the intent to deceive and provide
unwarranted legitimacy to destructive acts. It is the responsibility
of those who see through the charade to help others do the same.

Mass communication
via the internet and the printed word is important. Libertarian
influence in this sphere is growing significantly, but statist ideas
still predominate. Much of the groundwork must still be done on
an individual level by engaging in discussion and debate with family,
friends, neighbors, co-workers and complete strangers. But to be
successful in this regard it is imperative that we begin and end
with correct definitions. To borrow from Sean Corrigan's recent
speech at the Gold
Investing Conference
, “…We must recognize that we can never
have a meaningful debate, or reach any viable conclusions from one,
if our terms are not laid out and rigidly and unalterably defined
beforehand.”

Unalterably
defined. This is what we should strive to be both in our convictions
and in the language we use to describe them. This does not mean
that our beliefs cannot grow or change, but that the symbols we
use to define them are securely rooted and constant. Our communication
should be clear and direct, and we should require the same of others.
Most people are not used to this and many will find it surprisingly
refreshing. Having to rigidly define our terms and really think
about the meanings of the words we use forces us to explore the
depths of our own ignorance and to develop coherent, systematic
ways of thinking and speaking. If properly done, such an exercise
has the power to completely transform the way we think about the
world. And the way people think about the world now will have a
direct impact on what the world of the future will look like.

June
3, 2006

Aaron
Singleton [send him mail]
is a Brigham Young University student studying economics and Mandarin
Chinese. Visit his
site
.

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