Sunday, January 21, 2007

Of Redefinition and the Soundbite Gotcha

As my devoted followers know, I like for words to mean things. You probably share that point of view; it's one of the best ways to test for conservatism or liberalism: is a person misusing a word, or is it acceptable to use words as we see fit, if doing so allows us to prove a point, or at least to feel that we have proven it?

It is the most liberal of illicit crafts: redefine the word, to attach to the word a new connotation.

"Morality? But isn't true morality caring for our fellow man, or would you say that is immoral?"

"Justice? But isn't true justice when children are fed -- or is a hungry child what you think is just?"

"Peace? Peace includes Justice and Equality -- or do you want injustice and inequality?"

"Patriotism? Dissent is patriotic."

Both sides agree that X is good, so the redefiner says "true" X is X plus another good thing Y, and equates disagreeing with the new definition of X with being against Y.

We all agree that Peace is good, and a lack of societal tension (injustice, tyranny, inequality, discontent) is good. But it's redefinition to go from there to saying that Peace is not Peace if there is tension. Where does that stop? It can't. The poor will always be with us. People will always be dissatisfied; it's what we do.

Why not just say Peace cannot last long without Justice? Why can we not agree that any Peace without Freedom is an unacceptable Peace?

Because then one of us has to say that Peace alone is not our goal. Let that be me, then. Peace is not my goal, either for you or for me, unless we are both Free, unless we both live under Justice, and unless we both have some opportunity to better our lot.

We face a risk in saying that while we like children to be fed, and not feeding the hunger violates Charity, that's not what we mean by Morality or Justice. The risk is the Soundbite Gotcha: "You said you don't think it's moral to feed the hungry!". No, I said it was uncharitable, a charge just as grave. There are many ways for something to be wrong; it may be uncharitable, injust, or immoral; it might be illegal, unethical, or just plain sneaky. But while logical, applying that notion doesn't defend against the Soundbite Gotcha very well.

And it won't fit on a bumper sticker.

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