Title: “Words, Meaning, and Toddlerism”
Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”
By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
Words, Meaning, and Toddlerism
In case you missed it, that Everyman of Magazines, Political Psychology, put a piece out in September of 2021 that found two shocking things. First, most of us think our political leaders should reflect our own moral views and second, most of us are quite flexible in interpreting a candidate’s moral views to make sure they agree with our own, especially if that candidate is attending our Party.
I suspect this has always been true, but in the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, we saw this moral adaptability more vividly and repulsively displayed than it had been in ages. Those on the Right—and especially self-identified Evangelicals—turned their spines and guts into the raw material for tying up a moral macrame so macabre that Machiavelli would blush. As tediously fascinating as that hypocrisy was, the point is now cliche. There is an undercurrent here that still needs exploring, but for the moment I am slightly more interested in those peculiar hypocrisies that haunted the Left. Those have gotten much less press time.
By 2016, those on the Left had spent more than fifty years celebrating a vision of words and meaning that ran something like this:
The meaning of a word like good or right or justice is constructed by social discourse. The meaning of these words emerges from a multi-vocal web of interactions and has no fixed quality. It refers to no reality outside of our shared understandings. We are, ourselves, in charge of this vocabulary; justice is a word spoken by us, not to us. We are in charge of defining the word justice and we are responsible for making society into a more just place. And no voice will be excluded as we build. But there can be no ultimate right or inherent wrong; this is always the voice of the oppressor, attempting to limit the social discourse. Instead, there is only the web of meaning that will result in the social order we desire.
The core idea here is that we negotiate the meaning of words and we use those words to build our social realities. Such views animated the Left for half a century and helped fuel some genuine moral triumphs (nobody should be told you cannot buy groceries at this market because you are Black or gay or Hispanic) along with generous examples of shallow simplicity (I once had a serious conversation with a student about turning in a potted plant in place of a written Master’s thesis because the plant would challenge the university’s oppressive scholarly norms and narrow definition of education).
Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, and the Left began abandoning their half-century of verbal theory with dizzying speed. “Words matter” is the opening sentence of a New York Times News Analysis piece that was printed exactly five days after the inauguration and championed the need to anchor words to objective truths. Not twelve weeks after the inauguration, a Vox article rehashed the idea of social construction through language. The authority and prestige of public media rely on “norms, unwritten rules” and are enforced by “academia and civil society” and lead to cooperative understandings, the article notes. But then, the article suddenly abandons its entire worldview and proceeds to lament the nonsense contained in the “right-wing media.”
But if social norms are what create the authority of the press, resulting in shared meaning, then wouldn’t it follow that the right-wing social norms are creating the authority of the right-wing press and building the right-wing’s own shared meanings? So what is it that makes the right-wing media nonsense?
Don’t get me wrong. The right-wing media is nonsense. But you cannot draw that conclusion from Vox’s assumptions about how words work. If you wish, as Vox does, to challenge the growing “tribalism of information” (their phrase), you are going to need something much more powerful than the Left’s traditional view of language to do that.
The Left has long claimed that (a) “Our words build our social reality.” That is a perfectly defensible position at several levels. But Donald Trump inspired the Left to also claim that (b) “Some social realities built by words are inherently wrong, unjust, even.”
One way to argue that claim (b) is true is by saying, “We know Trump’s world is unjust because justice is a firm and fixed reality indifferent to our words; furthermore, the social order Trump is inspiring and building contradicts this fixed reality. Therefore, it is inherently unjust.” But these statements flatly contradict everything the Left has said about language since the middle of the last century.
Another way for the Left to argue that (b) is true is by saying, “We know Trump’s world is unjust because it is different from the idea of justice we want to build.” This profound assertion has the strong virtue of keeping the Left intellectually consistent. It has no other virtue whatsoever and only means “I don’t like your social construction!” In other words, this is a toddler’s argument.
Is there a way to do better? I suspect there might be.
 Dan Barry, “In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and ‘Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie,” New York Times, 25 January, 2017.
 David Roberts, “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology,” Vox, 19 May, 2017.