Posts tagged ‘meaning of words’

The Meaning of Words

We live in a world where language is at best sloppy. People say all kinds of things that are untrue or are gross over exaggerations. Since I spent a lot of my career working where the language and structure of words is really important, contracts, I pay attention. Commercials are a great training ground if you are interested, in what they say and don’t say. With the continuous stream of lying and misrepresentations coming out of the White House and President DFF it gets worse. But one thing that may bring us back a little is the Mueller investigation. The meaning of words is really really important when you are being investigated and to the law.

This morning I picked up (downloaded, but picked up sounds more homey, wait! What does homey mean again? See what I mean about words?) the Washington post and there was a great article where a journalist took apart the Roger Stone interview with Chuck Todd. It was all about the meaning of the exact words and what seemed to be said and was not. Here is a small part:

With that as background, I’ve pulled out some of Stone’s comments Tuesday and provided a careful parsing.

“I never had any advanced knowledge of the content, the source or the exact timing of the WikiLeaks disclosures.”

What first struck me when watching Stone’s interview was his use of the word “exact.” Just because you didn’t know the exact timing of something doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t know it was coming at some point.

In addition, Stone says he didn’t know about the “content” or the “source” of the leaked documents. Again, these are things you might be aware of if you had coordinated, but not necessarily so. It would be much simpler for Stone to say, “I had no advanced knowledge of the hacked emails,” but he’s oddly specific here.

Nit picking? I don’t think so. If we want to really understand something we need to understand what we are being told and not told. What we are not being told is way more important than what we are. Here is my favorite:

I can say with confidence that I know nothing about any Russian collusion or any other inappropriate act.”

This seems like a blanket denial, but consider this: Stone doesn’t concede that WikiLeaks is allied with Russia, and he argues that it does important journalistic work. He was even asked by Todd if he thought working with WikiLeaks would be treasonous, and he said it would not be.

“No, actually, I don’t think so because for it to be a treasonous act, Assange would have to be provably a Russian asset and WikiLeaks would have to be a Russian front, and I do not believe that is the case,” Stone said. He called Assange “a courageous journalist” and said his “track record for accuracy and authenticity is superior than the New York Times or The Washington Post.”

So Stone’s thresholds for what constitutes collusion and “inappropriate acts” seem to be pretty high — and don’t include anything he’s accused of.

See it just depends on how you define words and trick yourself. Remember Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman?” That is true only if you only define sex as intercourse, which Clinton did for his benefit. But of course he did have sex with that woman in the broader context of what sex entails.

So why do I bring this all up. Well the meaning of words is about being precise. Great literature is precise in an unusual way, it explains the human condition in a way that allows us to be there and understand. The really good stuff uses language in a way that connects with us. But Roger Stone and so many others are masters at being imprecise while seeming precise. Many commercials do the same thing, and our normal conversations, Twitter, and Facebook are the very definition of imprecise, not well thought out thoughts. Being precise in 146 characters is usually not possible. That is why President DFF uses it so much, because all the underlying assumptions of the statement itself are unexposed and protected from onslaught. All this is about reason, the thing we seem to be losing, critical thinking.

The author of the above article, Aaron Blake, did a masterful job of showing how reason makes things clearer. You think you clearly understand his denials, and then you use your reason to see they are really non-denials. It is why so many are misled today and why many of our news talking heads end up with a false narrative. They did not have the training to parse the words and recognize it in others. Now you have an example. Start listening more carefully and may even find it is fun. Yes most of them out there are lying sacks of ….

All the Wrong Moves

I am wondering if the way we think about things is our problem.  Here is the big one:  Compromise may not be a virtue, but our downfall.  Let me connect the dots on two news stories today.  First, Leaders Roll up Sleeves on Climate, but Experts Say Plans Don’t Pack a Wallop:

Unless countries develop more ambitious plans, the experts say, the world could ultimately suffer profound consequences, including debilitating heat waves, food shortages and fast-rising seas.

And of course there are competing interests basically short-term pain to long-term catastrophe.  Then you turn to an op-ed that tells us:  An Energy Bill that Needs Fixes.

The bill is a modest attempt at bipartisanship in a Congress that has seen very little of it. Both sides of the aisle put aside their most ambitious energy proposals in an effort to achieve small gains. That is not necessarily a bad thing, given how deeply divided the two parties are on energy and environmental policy.

It contains some good things, “However, it also contains harmful measures that need to be stripped out before it becomes law. Its most problematic provision, a bipartisan amendment advocated by several senators, including Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, requires the government to consider electricity generated by burning trees and other forest biomass as carbon-neutral.”

So what are we playing at here?  Moving chairs around on the deck of the Titanic?  Things will be better for a while until the whole thing goes tits up?  But special interests get a short-term reprieve over the fate of our children?  Compromising with bad ideas is a bad idea.  Climate science is easy.  We know the end result, except of course for the deniers (Republicans), we know what has to be done.  And we don’t do it because…

Okay let’s take a not so direct example.  Ross Douthat, okay judge the source, wrote a column this morning about Bernie, but I thought the language was telling:  leading a left-wing-youth-movement.  What is left-wing?  Is that single payer health care?  Is it taking money out of politics?  Is it free public universities?  Is it paying more taxes so we can afford these things?

Note we call Bernie an idealist while we call Hillary a pragmatist.  All these labels are laden with meaning.  Left wing is out there.  Idealist is ineffective.  A pragmatist gets things done.  But the labels no longer apply.  If you want universal health care, a single payer system is what the world has shown us is the way to get there.  Isn’t that then pragmatic?  If being an idealist is dreaming and proposing the only real changes that will turn us around, is that idealism, or is it being pragmatic.  If what is political realistic does not solve the problem are you really impractical to propose real fixes anyway?

Let me connect the two ideas.  We are into labeling as ways to send emotion laden messages in code about ideas.  But the labeling is no longer accurate.  Compromise and bipartisanship is not a good thing if the compromise does not solve a problem that must be solved, just makes us feel better about ourselves.  Idealistic is not idealistic if the only way to make our political system work is to get money out of politics.  Right wing or left-wing are emotion and meaning laden words that tell us nothing about whether the ideas they are describing work.  Is it left-wing to want free public college education when to compete and to advance our standard of living, that is the only way we are going to make education affordable for everyone?  Oh, and other countries already do it?

We have reached a point where most conservative ideas are no longer functional.  They worked fine in a frontier society where there was lots of opportunity for everyone.  Today we have competing interests, inequality and a rigged system everywhere, and a complex world where everything we do impacts everyone else.  Just being competent and disciplined in a very unlevel playing field no longer works.  Said simply, working hard no longer guarantees anything.  The solutions we require can no longer tolerate half measures that may not work.  In terms of global warming, it simply dooms our children.  In terms of compromise with a system that no longer works, it just makes the final explosion louder and more devastating.  To attack ideas as right-wing or left-wing is nonsense.  It is an excuse to not to examine them in the light of their efficacy.

So my plea here is simple.  Let me hear no more about bipartisan bills as an assumed good idea.  Let me hear no more that an idea is left-wing or right-wing, or politically impractical.  We have real needs to move this country forward and we need to consider the ideas in simple terms of do they solve the problem.  We won’t hear that because one whole political party has no new ideas and they want us to ignore reality.  But the rest of us could get smarter and quit thinking working with them is a good idea when their ideas no longer address reality as we know it.

The Meaning of Words

Have you noticed that every discussion of guns starts with some kind of declaration that the 2nd Amendment gives each citizen the right to bear arms?  It does not make any difference if you are a NRA member or someone for more gun control.  It is apparently your ticket into the discussion.  Except I don’t think the 2nd Amendment says any such thing, just that the Roberts’ court, through judicial activism, said it did.

Now I have made this argument before, and so have real legal scholars so I won’t repeat it here.  Search on the 2nd Amendment on my blog and you can find those arguments.  My point is that we simply start the argument about guns from what is probably a false assumption.  Think about this: The 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

So if I understand sentence structure and basic logic, the right of people to keep and bear Arms is based upon the need (necessary) for a well regulated Militia.  Okay, but the right to bear arms has been divorced for this militia requirement by the Roberts’ Court because there is no need for an armed militia from the people.  We have the armed forces.  So why not the other way around.  If there is no need for a well regulated militia, there is no need for the right of the people to keep and bear arms.

Well the nut jobs will tell you that the framers wanted to protect the citizens from their own government, but that is not what this says.  And if that logic were true, why can’t we buy nukes so that we have parity with the government?  How about just a rocket launcher?  Send a Seal team in and the nuts with guns don’t have a chance.  This kind of logic is ridiculous. 

Also one might want to question what is meant by the people.  We, or the gun nuts, assume that is you and me.  But what if the people was meant collectively, we the people.  Then our guns might also be kept collectively, say in an armory as the guns of the people.  Of course the gun nuts would see that as taking our guns, but once again it is a possible interpretation.

My point is simply this:  In any discourse, make sure you understand what the assumptions are and whether there is any facts to support those assumptions.  Most politicians today have ceded that the 2nd Amendment means what the gun nuts say.  I think they ought to rethink that.  If we started the discussion from a rational discussion about whether guns make us safer or not, not that we get to have them no matter what, it might be a whole other discussion.  We might actually come up with some gun controls that allow those that need protection to have guns, but regulated in such a way as to prevent the carnage we now see.