“Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning…?” (or, “This Last, Dim, Weird Battle of the West” or, “The End of Civilization, Maybe.” (Part 4)

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“This last, dim, weird battle of the West” or, The End of Civilization, Maybe. (Part 4)

By Mark Williams, Ph.D
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento

(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)

After the breaking and entering of the US Capitol Building, the Senate chaplain, in the early morning hours after the chamber concluded its business, closed the day’s session with a prayer that quoted Proverbs: “These tragedies have reminded us,” the chaplain said, “that words matter and that ‘The power of life and death is in the tongue.’”

This seems like a very good time to return to our discussion about the consequences of having very bad ideas regarding how words work. We’ve spent a number of installments wondering how the word justice is connected to its meaning.

One popular view is that meanings are constructed as people negotiate and debate and work out their lives in the world. We make deals and compromises with each other in order to move the meaning of a term closer to the definition we prefer. Our definitions may make life unpleasant for some, but they cannot be mistaken, because, really, we are the ones writing the dictionary. The correct definition is whatever we decide. Take a quite recent example. If we decide the word justice means that only white people can vote or get a loan from a bank, or go to certain schools, then society is perfectly just to deny those things to people who are not white. Granted, those actions may make life unpleasant for some people, but they are not unjust. The are not wrong–from this “one popular view.”

But there is a basic difficulty in this idea of negotiating meaning.  One may think that I am about to point out that it really is unjust to deny property or education to someone based entirely on skin color. I am not. While I ardently believe that such actions are foundationally and inherently unjust, to try and make such an argument is silly under this system of negotiated meaning. I cannot argue that your definition of orange is mistaken when the question we are trying to solve is, “How do we want to use the word orange?” I have to object to your definition on other grounds. And now we are getting to the bedrock of the problem.

On what grounds is it possible to object to a culture’s meaning of a word in a world where we negotiate meanings according to our own preferences? It turns out, our options are pretty limited. I might argue that I’m smarter than you, so you should just shut up and do as I say. Historically, this has not been a particularly fetching argument.

Alternatively, I could observe that lots of people agree with me, which only invites the rather obvious response that lots of people don’t.

I might cut a deal, then. I might agree to back your definition of orange, if you back my definition of mauve. That is promising at first glance, but it only postpones the inevitable. Eventually, our coalition will have a disagreement with an alternative coalition, and we are right back where we started.

Very well. I might try to make the case that if we move toward my definition of this word, many people will be made more comfortable, and you will not be made less comfortable. Maybe. But this begs the question of why you should risk your comfort at all for the sake of a stranger. And, more to the point, I’ll probably be able to make that case only if I lie to you or (at least) obfuscate certain inconvenient truths about how this will impact other aspects of your life or priorities. The times when comfort can be expanded without consequences are shockingly few.

After all, while it seems to me pretty obvious that Jeff Bezos could pay for the college education of every student in American for the next 10 years (as well as my mortgage) without any discomfort on his part, it is only fair to observe that Jeff Bezos might have a different view. That is one of the problems with a standard like comfort. Only the person having the experience can decide whether or not it is uncomfortable. My teenager is immovable in her conviction that rising before 11:30 A.M. on the weekend is intolerable. However profoundly wrong the segregationists were, there is no denying that desegregation made them uncomfortable.

There is, of course, one final option. I can bully or kill you. That is, I can bring to bear the simple equation of raw power. In fact, the equation of power may be the one-and-only persuasive thing I can bring to bear under this idea of negotiated meaning.

The fragile American Experiment—Christian in culture, Secular and Enlightened in form—was always a ballet on a tightrope: a sublime drama, crafting public spaces designed to avoid this precise conclusion toward which negotiated meaning marches us. The goal was to offer an alternative where there could be disagreement without social violence or absolute terms of surrender, disagreement beyond the reach of mere power. Whatever the missteps (and there were many, God knows), those dances suggested something beyond transaction and threat as part of public life. But that was rooted in a different vision of meaning that we have, to our peril, set aside.

What that alternative vision looks like is something worth examining in another installment.



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