Words Have Meanings

As a follow-up to my post with Suggestions for Trump Supporters [1] I notice that many people seem to have private definitions of words that they like to use.

There are some situations where the use of a word is contentious and different groups of people have different meanings. One example that is known to most people involved with computers is “hacker”. That means “criminal” according to mainstream media and often “someone who experiments with computers” to those of us who like experimenting with computers. There is ongoing discussion about whether we should try and reclaim the word for it’s original use or whether we should just accept that’s a lost cause. But generally based on context it’s clear which meaning is intended. There is also some overlap between the definitions, some people who like to experiment with computers conduct experiments with computers they aren’t permitted to use. Some people who are career computer criminals started out experimenting with computers for fun.

But some times words are misused in ways that fail to convey any useful ideas and just obscure the real issues. One example is the people who claim to be left-wing Libertarians. Murray Rothbard (AKA “Mr Libertarian”) boasted about “stealing” the word Libertarian from the left [2]. Murray won that battle, they should get over it and move on. When anyone talks about “Libertarianism” nowadays they are talking about the extreme right. Claiming to be a left-wing Libertarian doesn’t add any value to any discussion apart from demonstrating the fact that the person who makes such a claim is one who gives hipsters a bad name. The first time penny-farthings were fashionable the word “libertarian” was associated with left-wing politics. Trying to have a sensible discussion about politics while using a word in the opposite way to almost everyone else is about as productive as trying to actually travel somewhere by penny-farthing.

Another example is the word “communist” which according to many Americans seems to mean “any person or country I don’t like”. It’s often invoked as a magical incantation that’s supposed to automatically win an argument. One recent example I saw was someone claiming that “Russia has always been communist” and rejecting any evidence to the contrary. If someone was to say “Russia has always been a shit country” then there’s plenty of evidence to support that claim (Tsarist, communist, and fascist Russia have all been shit in various ways). But no definition of “communism” seems to have any correlation with modern Russia. I never discovered what that person meant by claiming that Russia is communist, they refused to make any comment about Russian politics and just kept repeating that it’s communist. If they said “Russia has always been shit” then it would be a clear statement, people can agree or disagree with that but everyone knows what is meant.

The standard response to pointing out that someone is using a definition of a word that is either significantly different to most of the world (or simply inexplicable) is to say “that’s just semantics”. If someone’s “contribution” to a political discussion is restricted to criticising people who confuse “their” and “there” then it might be reasonable to say “that’s just semantics”. But pointing out that someone’s writing has no meaning because they choose not to use words in the way others will understand them is not just semantics. When someone claims that Russia is communist and Americans should reject the Republican party because of their Russian connection it’s not even wrong. The same applies when someone claims that Nazis are “leftist”.

Generally the aim of a political debate is to convince people that your cause is better than other causes. To achieve that aim you have to state your cause in language that can be understood by everyone in the discussion. Would the person who called Russia “communist” be more or less happy if Russia had common ownership of the means of production and an absence of social classes? I guess I’ll never know, and that’s their failure at debating politics.

4 comments to Words Have Meanings

  • dog whistles

    If you’re not familiar with it, this is a technique used to talk about one thing to people in the know, while appearing to say something else to people who don’t. This is unfortunately a useful thing to be able to do in politics, and I think it explains a large part of what you may be confused about here, although proably not some of the specific examples you picked.

  • Anonymous

    What words *would* you suggest that people who described themselves as “left libertarian” use instead? (As an example, those who believe that people should be allowed to live their lives in peace, and simultaneously that we’ve had widespread demonstrations that giving *more* power to government might not be a good idea lest it be misused.)

    I’m not proposing to have an argument about politics here, I very much do not wish to. I’m interested to know what terms or descriptions you would suggest instead.

  • Joey, I am familiar with dog whistle politics, if formed a significant part of the previous political blog post I wrote and linked to in the first paragraph. I am not confused. As far as I can tell people who say that “Russia has always been communist” aren’t using a dog-whistle, but it is difficult to determine what someone means when they use words in a different way than everyone else and refuse to explain what they mean.

    Anon: Yes you can find some examples of people calling out a dog-whistle when the evidence for it seems flimsy. There are two factors there. Firstly there are many journalists with different ideas and interpretations so we can’t expect them to all agree, sometimes some of them will get things wrong. Secondly the entire point of a dog-whistle is for it to be plausibly deniable. Trump’s “fine people on both sides” dog-whistle about Nazis was really stretching what could be plausibly denied, even Mitch McConnell had to oppose that!

    Anonymous: How about “anarchist” or “anarcho-communist” (to differentiate from “anacho-capitalist” which is another term for “libertarian”)? They could just invent some new term. There is no shortage of English words which could be used in some combination to name such an ideology. Another possibility is to take a word or phrase from French or some other language.

    Just choose anything that hasn’t had a more common different meaning assigned to it. Maybe start by looking up words like “liberty” in a thesaurus.