Monday, January 14, 2008

Define your terms

I wrote a while ago at another location that there are certain words that are used as claxons. They have little or no meaning themselves, but are noises meant to be screamed at full volume (usually at places like anti-globalization protests...whatever they are) in order to paralyse an opponent. They are, in effect, political incantations, charms meant to cast a spell of muteness on an enemy.

Do you remember in grade 12 math being told about the existence of some mysterious thing, "imaginary numbers"? I think I vaguely recall it standing out in the midst of the haze of revulsion through which I remember most of my highschool math.

What a surprise now, over 20 years later, to have it pop into my forebrain again. I am reminded of it because of something that I have been thinking about: Imaginary Words.

Of course, you say, applying common sense, there's no such thing. If it's a word it's a word. A phoneme group with a set spelling and meaning. A noise that everyone agrees represents in abstract form some reality.

Ah, but no, there are sounds that people use all the time that have spelling but no meaning. I think I remember a physicist friend once telling me about a subatomic particle that had direction and spin but no mass...sort of like that I guess.

See if you agree.

What do the following words mean?

Islamist

Racist

Fascist

Choice

Anti-choice

Homophobic

...

See what all these have in common? They're words that get used a lot in the media and in politics. But what, concretely do they mean? Do they represent real things? Is it possible that they are really just useful noises?

They are sounds like a claxon, and they are so alarming that everyone is so busy jumping out of their collective skin at the sound of them, they don't take a second to wonder what they actually mean.

In some cases, like "Islamophobic" or, you know, that other one, it is a noise that has the astonishing power of creating an impenetrable shield. Bullets don't quite bounce off it, but prosecution certainly does. As well as negative media coverage.

I remember once talking to a young person at a demonstration. She had hurled one of these sounds at me and I think I suprised her by asking her what she meant (I call it my "rational thought shielding"). "I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean by that," was a reaction she wasn't expecting.

Everyone knows what it means. Sheesh! Do I have to spell it out?

No, I know how it's spelled. I just don't know what it means. It's an unword.

What exactly is a fascist? I am willing to entertain the possibility that I am one, but not until I have a clear definition.

What is a racist? What does "choice" mean?

I asked a group of school children once to name me the things that first popped into their heads when I said the word, "abortion." "Abortion" is a sound that represents a real thing. But the first word out of their little mouths was "choice." We explored that word a bit and found out that it didn't really mean what they thought it meant.

3 comments:

Paulinus said...

Islamist
Coming to a Western country near you.

Racist
Whatever the Commission for Racial Equality says it is. Probably everything you think if you are white.

Fascist
You if you oppose me and if I'm a lefty. Meaningless now.

Choice
The ability to kill one's children.

Anti-choice
Someone with the temerity to think that killing one's children is wrong.

Homophobic
The distaste that dare not speak its name these days.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I always thought the joke,

"Anti-semite: someone Jews hate"

was pretty funny.

Mark S. Abeln said...

"Nominalism has also been defined as a philosophical position that various objects labeled by the same term have nothing in common but their name." (from the Wiki article on Nominalism).

That is the philosophy regnant today. Like so many modern errors, this one started as a Protestant heresy.

A hardline Nominalist will even go as far as to say that my cats have nothing in common with each other besides their name, and that even claiming 'resemblance' is itself a medievalism.

In this theory, words are weapons only.