Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Tyranny of Words

"'Tis but thy name that is my enemy..." - Juliet

Whatever you may happen to think about the OWS movement, it's surely bringing a lot of heat into front-and-center political discourse. Because its supporters and their views are somewhat diffuse, it's hard to lean too hard into any particular generalizations about specific points of policy. It isn't, however, particularly hard to pick up on their general mantra of combating wealth inequality. Or at least you might think so. That generalization sounds somewhat substantive and cogent, but I'm not completely sure to what degree such an assumption is warranted.

When I was first digging into libertarianism I became aware of two related but distinct schools of thought on the origins of natural rights (property rights). One was the familiar Lockean theory (self-ownership, homesteading, etc.), and the other was an argument for rights that sprang from philosophical arguments about language (pushed by Hoppe et al). For the longest time I thought that a linguistic foundation for rights would probably end up being very weak. I gravitated towards the former.

In recent months, however, I've been reading more into Wittgenstein. It's become increasingly apparent exactly how formative language can be not only in our individual understanding of things, but even more generally in argumentation or proposition(s). It's reopened the door to the argument for a linguistic foundation for rights for me. But, even more importantly, I've managed to conjoin some of these thoughts with previous ideas I'd already had from Ayn Rand and Roderick Long concerning how language is utilized in the political sphere.

To bring OWS back into the fold, take a look at some of the comments on this New York Times piece about the evacuation of Zuccotti Park for cleaning early this morning. Let's be clear here; I'm certainly not supporting the confiscation or destruction of personal items or effects (which is what I find questionable about the event). But take a peek at some of the ensuing comments. I don't think I could read a single one without some level of confusion regarding the wording of the commenter.

Many commenters created ambiguous allusions to authoritarian behavior in revolutions of the past by referencing "attacking peaceful protesters in the middle of the night without warning." A useful reference, no doubt. But were the protesters attacked? Were they peaceful? Don't the circumstances of the matter affect how the language should be applied. If you "occupy" my living room for two months without my consent, are you being peaceful? If I move you out (particularly without striking or maiming you) then am I attacking you? I'm inclined to answer "no" for both of these. And yet the particulars of the park occupation and it's subsequent (and probably temporary) removal doesn't seem to come up at all.

The "peacefulness" of their occupation seems to be challenged by the fact that the park is privately owned - and even if it was wholly public, there would still be very real (and very democratic) issues with fair use, collective ownership, and maintenance. The framing of such an eviction as an "attack" seems to be equally challenged by the same set of circumstances. And the claim of "secret" action "in the middle of the night", however that may ultimately apply to the rightness of wrongness of the police's actions, seems to be challenged by the fact that the city and its leaders have been haranguing the movement for a month with regards to trying to conduct basic upkeep and maintenance in the park.

Another commenter claims that OWS has done more to our politics than anything in the last 40 years. On what basis is that even remotely true? A few hundred demonstrators in various cities has proven more politically important than...

1. Vietnam War Fallout
2. Iran Contra
3. 2008 Global Recession
4. The Cold War
5. 9/11
6. The Iraq War
7. The Iraq War (Part 2)
8. The Tea Party Movement
9. Collapse of the Soviet Union
10. 2000 Electoral Recount

Of course, it's merely conjecture or opinion - but by what scale would we attempt, at this point, to color the OWS movement as currently more important than anything in the past 40 years?

Others claim that the movement is "messy" because media outlets aren't giving the movement a voice or coverage. And yet everywhere I've turned for the last two months I've seen almost nothing but complete saturation of the news cycle. Given the numbers of actual protesters, I'm not sure how you could call the coverage they've managed to get at this point anything but a complete media coup. They've managed to drown out most of the news of far, far, far more extensive protests in Europe...not to mention the buckling of the European monetary system - which is arguably the most important world-wide event since the 2008 financial crisis. Exactly what percentage must your movement constitute in the daily news diet of this country before you're not being effectively "ignored" anymore?

Still others want to stick to persecution of the wealthy, and a demand that they be brought to justice and put in jail. And yet very few seem to be willing to supplement their demands with reasons as to why being productive is inherently evil. And if the accusations are more narrowly directed at those who are wealthy at the privilege of the state, why aren't such important discriminations being made? Instead we're fed with a steady line of demands that those who occupy the skyline of NYC be thrown into jail for their crimes. Crimes such as...and...well, the crime of being wealthy it seems. Perhaps the most socially fascinating aspect of this general thrust is not a distinct plea to be helped, but instead a very vocal plea to deliver some sort of punitive justice to the wealthy.

The point is that all of these views and accusations are so vague and ambiguous that they create this viscous medium of social discourse...one that has both inert and fluid properties. It's vague enough to complement ripostes to any of my particular criticisms. They can always drill down from the more ambiguous point to say something less inclusive or controversial. On the other hand, they can continue to use particular language and meta-narratives which are bound to pull in more sympathy than is warranted to their cause. If they can claim being "peaceful" when squatting on privately owned land by pointing to their non-use of "violence", then they can rhetorically, albeit enigmatically, occupy both frames of reference in the zeitgeist - drawing on sympathies for "peace" whether you've excluded the consideration for aggression through violation of property rights or not. It's truly the best of both worlds.

Likewise, their refusal to discriminate between what would be legitimate or illegitimate wealth actually works in their favor. They, consciously or otherwise, manage to elicit a good deal of support from both those who would make such a discrimination and those who would not. This is particularly disconcerting because such groups can be and often are very different in their aims and reasoning. In a way, this explains a lot of the mixed antipathy/sympathy that many groups feel towards the OWS movement more generally.

One can imagine, taken to its logical extreme, that a group could simply claim to be against "bad" things. And there's a sense in which, upon our understanding of the language, we would all rally behind such a notion. But surely how we individually understand the term "bad" differs among us all. And I suppose my frustration with the OWS movement (and a lot of people on the left more generally) is that they've fallen into this spell of extreme semantic regression - where they can ambiguously support happiness, sunshine, and unicorns without being explicit as to their means and ends. You'll rarely hear someone on the left frame their support for "state-run indoctrination of children" in those terms. But you can be sure that if you question the public education system, you'll get a whole lot of talk about how they think a "child's education is important" (as if you don't).

Our arguments ultimately come down to assumptions (right or wrong). And our language animates but often conceals those assumptions. I think this may be where the ambition of many (but still far too few) to move back to first principles comes from. Once you feel like you've begun to unveil the many assumptions hidden in our language, there is an eerie and dominating frustration that arises - borne of the realization that most talk is, well, just talk. We've tucked so much baggage into our ordinary use of language that it seems as though most discussions are just people talking completely past one another; not connecting on what might be the true source of disagreement. Having our discourse wrought with such misunderstandings and concealment, we should all take any and every opportunity to unpack our terminology for our political opponents so that their understanding of our positions is clear and concise. It won't get you the blind support that ambiguity will. But a little intellectual honesty might let you sleep better at night.

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