“Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning…?” (or, “This Last, Dim, Weird Battle of the West” or, “The End of Civilization, Maybe.” (Part 2)

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“Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning…?” (or, “This Last, Dim, Weird Battle of the West” or, “The End of Civilization, Maybe.” (Part 2)

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”)

In our most recent installment, we met Stultus, a real student at a real university, who told his professor that words were without meaning. Meaning was in people, Stultus insisted. In Part One, we examined several rather shallow ways Stultus’ statement might be understood, and we promised to consider a more thorough—and dangerous—perspective on the claim in Part Two.

Stultus might very well have been championing one of the primary ways communication is understood in the world of academics today. He might have been trying to state that certain sorts of words that have been traditionally viewed as windows into God’s character—e.g., goodness, truth, beauty, justice—are a kind of verba rasa, an empty sound that we, as a group, a culture, a society, will work together to define. We will fill these words with meaning.

In one way, I am quite sympathetic to this view of things. There is no question that my grasp of the world is always a mix of perspectives I have built out my own experiences and my understanding of the way you experience things. A white guy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1967, would have done himself a huge favor by listening to what a black guy in the same town had to say about justice and injustice. Listening carefully might very well have improved that white man’s understanding about his city.

In other words, by working together, those two Tennesseans might have built a larger, richer, better understanding of injustice and its presence in the world. Not to put too fine a point on it, but most white guys anywhere in America today could do the same if they were courageous enough to listen carefully to different people in their own towns who were willing to tell their story and to answer fair questions.

So, at one level, yes. The world I live in actually is one I construct, build, shape through a willingness to submit my understanding of how things are to the test of your experiences of life. I submit to you. That’s love.

And the next instant, I immediately think, “Sure, just as long as you submit to me in the same way. That’s only fair!” But do you see what just happened? I stopped loving. I changed love into transaction. I stopped listening, and I started bartering. That isn’t how love works. There is little in the world as dangerous as loving with your ears open.

And yes, again, if I don’t submit to your experience and if I don’t listen to your account of your life in the world, I will still construct my own understanding of the world out of what I’ve experienced and what I believe you experience. The selfishness is strong in this one.

Of course, without your input, I will find some way to fill up my understanding of those strange words—truth, beauty, justice, goodness—with strange meanings that do nothing to help me get a deeper, richer insight into God or his demands. I will come to build definitions of those words that, almost certainly, are mirrors of my own character.

And when I build my definition of good so that it looks, really, very much like me, I will be sure to include some small shortcomings of mine—oh, I have a bit of temper; I tend to overlook others occasionally, especially when I’m busy. And these are just accurate enough that I feel no need to dig deeper, and just tame enough that they require almost no moral effort on my part.

How convenient that words like justice and truth are so much at my disposal, and so comfortably similar to my present, pudgy, out-of-shape moral sensibilities.

So, from one very specific perspective, I agree strongly with the idea that we will fill up our understanding of certain kinds of words—that we will build certain meaning into those words—ourselves.

But there is a very different way in which people in the university think of meaning as being socially constructed. They sometimes think and act as if it is not our understanding of the word “justice” that is being built. They sometimes think justice itself can be constructed according to our preferences. Here, words are not attached to anything meaningful, but are empty pitchers waiting to be filled with meanings of our own making.

If building my understanding of the world while loving and listening to another is dangerous for my ego, this second view is more perilous still, and at a larger scale.

That view will need exploration too, in an upcoming installment, and once we understand that specific danger to the world of meaning, we can begin to examine where it came from, and what its results are.

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