Battles Over Words

More than two hundred years ago, the French intellectual Madame de Stael made the observation that battles over words reflected a larger battle over things. And in two centuries that certainly hasn’t changed.

The battles over words such as “white privilege” or “racism” or “black lives matter” aren’t just about what those words themselves mean, but about who controls the economy, government, and policing powers of the United States, and whether that control remains in the hands of a white, largely male, elite or whether power will rest more equally in representatives of all the people.

The fight over “abortion” isn’t just about whether and/or when abortions should be legal, but about who should have control of women’s bodies, whether that control should remain in the hands of government, largely male, or whether individual women should make that decision, or whether there is some middle ground.

The battle in Britain over Brexit is another example where words don’t capture the scale of the conflict over literally the future of Great Britain and, coincidentally, of Ireland and the European Union.

Sometimes, seemingly innocuous phrases and words are anything but, and really should be battled over. Take “student evaluations.” Who could object to student evaluations? Except those evaluations have fueled an enormous pressure to dumb down curricula because college professors get evaluated on their basis and studies have repeatedly shown that professors who insist on academic rigor get bad evaluations and are less likely to be retained.

Or “Make America Great Again.” Who doesn’t want their nation to be great? But very few people are asking, “Great for who?” Is it so great for the millions of young adults with overwhelming student loan debt? Is it that great for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, forced into poverty by massive medical bills? Or for the farmers losing income and possibly their farms as a result of a tariff/trade war created in an effort to Make America Great Again? Is it great for the tens of millions of people forced to continue breathing polluted air to boost the profit margins of polluting industries?

Slogans and catch phrases sweep people up, but all too often no one looks behind the words. They just accept or reject the words based on their superficial reaction.

But that hasn’t changed since Maximilien Robespierre shouted for LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ back in 1790, at the height of the French Revolution, which resulted in the French essentially losing all three.

5 thoughts on “Battles Over Words”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Every woman should control their bodies. This involves saying “no” and sticking to it save where the consequences are desired, ideally supported by executing convicted rapists, which I would welcome. (Ditto all other violent felons.) Men that don’t pay child support should be castrated (like execution, this would eliminate recidivism). Women involuntarily impregnated, once some due process has confirmed that (at a minimum, a sworn statement subject to perjury charges), are among the very few categories of persons possibly deserving some public support, but only as an alternative to abortion.

    If those were addressed, there would be NO excuse to even consider getting into a situation other than medically necessary (self-defense) abortions. When is a blob a human? Why even open up that can of worms? Erring on the side of human avoids a litany of historical error of treating some as less human than others, and requires no metaphysics.

    Hold men and women alike accountable unto death, if that’s what it takes to incentivize self-control.

    Individual responsibility is the bottom line; minimal compulsory collectivism, and no getting into even grey areas to escape the consequences of one’s own actions.

    1. rehcra says:

      I feel by arguing one of the examples in this manner you miss the over all point of the post.

      “…but all too often no one looks behind the words. They just accept or reject the words based on their superficial reaction.”


      1. R. Hamilton says:

        I realize that the issues in the original post were examples, and provocative ones at that. It’s certainly valid to note that superficiality, esp. to provoke or manipulate, is a problem; but opposite error exists too, like trying to offer all-encompassing plans that reduce liberty and enable corruption, far in excess of the results they promise. Practical plans need to be simple enough to for most involved or affected to understand most of them, and for implementation to be consistent.

        Manipulators have many tools. At bottom, manipulation is deceptive communication, whether willful or negligent, whether by slogan or by 10,000 page legislation.

        None of my reactions (except to food, sounds, or smells in immediate proximity) are superficial (although some might admittedly be reflexive); they’ve all got plenty of thought and research behind them.

  2. John Prigent says:

    There is also the battle of the words ‘representative’ and ‘delegate’. Electors always want their votes to be taken as only delegating authority to follow the wishes of the voters, whether local, national, or a referendum. Politicians always prefer to call themselves representatives, so that they can ignore the expressed wishes of their voters in order to feather their own nests either in cash terms or by gaining more power. Hence the Brexit row over here; many of our policians want to modify the referendum results in order to maintain their own power.

    1. Daze says:

      Thus proving LEM’s point, I think. On Brexit the leavers and remainers are using very different words to attack each other’s words, usually without any reference to the actual issues.

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