The Politics of Meaningless Words

Sometimes talking to leftists could better be accomplished with interpretive dance routines, or perhaps by miming our meaning.

For weeks now, I’ve been stewing over a yard sign in one of the more virtue-signally parts of Denver, Colorado.  The sign was bi-colored and two-part. The top said “we believe in science,” while the bottom said“no human being is illegal.”

Understand, I didn’t oppose the meaning of those words on that sign, because those words were nonsensical.  Or, to quote from one of my favorite books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, “null program.”

I mean, let’s take “we believe in science.”  Uh.  Does that mean that they believe in the scientific method?  Or that they believe that in general science arrives at the right conclusion?  And do they mean all science or a particular science?  Is this an expression of support for the more abstruse and “artistic” of sciences, mathematics?  My husband thanks you.  Does it reveal their enthusiasm for quantum mechanics?  Do the members of this family gather every Sunday morning for a ritual recitation of chemical formulas and physics equations?

Expressing (or engaging in) any of those would be at best silly, even if incredibly funny.

But of course we know, given the times we hear people proclaim they believe in science, that what they are actually trying to say is that they believe the Earth is warming and that the cause of the warming is human.  The first is questionable (we seem to be at best in a pause) and the second is… non-scientific, since the effect of humans on the climate is at best unproven, and the only “proof” of the very silly anthropogenic warming theory is computer modeling.  That is it to say, the only proof is no proof at all, and has always caused computer professionals to laugh and mumble GIGO (garbage in, garbage out.)

Frankly, even if anthropogenic global warming were true and proven (two different things, by the way) there would be a whole range of solutions that those who loudly proclaim their belief in “science” a priori exclude.  Gregory Benford did a series of articles in Reason, sometime in the late nineties or early two thousands, in which he advocated a series of “remediation for global warming” that included stuff like dumping iron filings in the North Sea.  The fact that these believers in “science” see as the only solution the establishment of socialism and strict government control over the lifestyle of the masses means they don’t believe in science, they believe in socialism.  Which, granted, at one time was also called “scientific” with even less justification than computer models.

As for “no human being is illegal,” it is on its face demonstrably false.  There have been, in many times and places, human beings whose very existence was illegal. From children, originating in an illegal act, to people not allowed to enter or exist in certain places.  For instance, for a long time having a second child in China was illegal, and your child could easily be killed for it before or (it is rumored) after birth.  The family could also suffer horrendous penalties, from loss of property to loss of liberty.  All of which would make that human being illegal.

In the United States, we don’t declare the existence of any human being illegal. However, we do declare many things human beings do illegal.  And among the many things human beings do, entering the United States of America without permission from our government to do so is illegal.  This makes you in legal terms an illegal alien (i.e. foreigner) and makes your immigration illegal, causing you to be an illegal immigrant.  No one ever – that I know of – says you’re an illegal human.  They say you are an illegal immigrant.  Sure, they might say illegal for short, but it’s an abbreviation for “illegal immigrant.”

Having violated the laws of admission to the United States (relatively lenient laws compared to the laws of admission to most countries in the world.  Trust me on this, there was a time I applied to work temporarily in a lot of countries – as part of language study – and the U.S. had some of the easier-to-meet requirements) you are an illegal alien, until such a time when you return to your place of origin where, presumably, you’re legal.  Your humanity or lack thereof is never in question.  Should you happen to be an illegal centaur, you’re still an illegal ALIEN centaur.

The sign bothered me for weeks because to someone who is a trained linguist, as I am, and who spent her youth studying not just languages but the mechanics of language, this was the equivalent of someone running around with a t-shirt that said: “I believe in semantic incoherence.”

But I didn’t think of the root of the trouble until I was recently involved in a (what else?) Facebook argument with someone who was clearly leftist.

The argument itself should have been apolitical, except that the tactics used caused me to check the man’s political affiliation.

He entered a discussion on the purpose of writing, and whether writing should/could be good when done simply for money, by saying that since all great writers never made money from their writing, it was obvious that writing for money was a bad thing.

I countered with the names of six (considered) great writers who made fortunes from writing.  He said “Ah, half a dozen out of hundreds” -- so I continued giving him names, as they occurred to me.  It is a fact (perhaps not universally acknowledged, but a fact) that most writers we consider great made money from their writing.  If they died in poverty it was because of their spectacularly bad money-management skills.  Now, I’m not going to get into an argument over whether writing for money makes writing better. The sample of “writers we consider great” is contaminated by the fact that the writers have to have been widely disseminated enough to begin with for their writing to be known now and considered anything.  That implies a degree of initial success, which usually brings money. It’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere wrote something great that was never read except by their mother and their cat, but then those writers are not now universally acknowledged as “great.”

All I was doing was pointing out he had no proof of his statement and in fact, there was plenty of proof to the contrary.  Where it got interesting was his tactic in the argument.  He started by calling me a snowflake and saying I was obviously hurt by what he said.  I told him I wasn’t in the least hurt, just amused at his lack of reasoning, and furnished him with another half dozen names of great/rich writers.  He tried to call me snowflake again, and then told me to go copulate with myself but in more common words.  When that failed, he said he was deleting the thread because he’d obviously hurt people.  Note that in none of this had he hurt me, not even with the profanity, nor had I or any of the people who agreed with me on that thread implied we were hurt.  Somewhere between amused and appalled is not hurt.

I was discussing this argument with a friend later, and he said I was making the mistake of interpreting the words as words.  Or of thinking any kind of thought was behind first calling me snowflake, and then saying he’d hurt people’s feelings.

He said that the whole thing was more a reaction on the level of “when I’m called snowflake it hurts me, so I’ll call her snowflake and that will hurt her” and when we didn’t cave to his argument, he couldn’t figure out how to get out of it other than apologizing for hurting our feelings.

He – he’s an academic – pointed out this is the whole point of post-modern analysis, be it of literature or society: words have no meaning and can be assigned arbitrary meanings according to the emotions they elicit.

He says that’s why the left is more and more resorting to shouting random slogans and words until they get them the reaction they want.  Not because they don’t know the meanings of words, but because they reject the idea that words have inherent meanings.

At that moment I understood the sign above.  They’re shouting “I believe in science” and “no human being is illegal” at us, and will continue shouting it (and probably “snowflake” now that “racist, sexist, homophobic” is working so poorly) until we fall in line and become good little proles.

The fact that it’s going to take 'til hell freezes over hasn’t dawned on them.

But it leaves them as an impossible partner — or even opponent — in a representative democracy.  It’s impossible to argue concepts such as “least harm” with people who are making noises to which they attach no fixed meaning.

Until they decide to join the human race — known for its use of language, among other things — it leaves us in the odd position of shouting across the political chasm “Second word, rhymes with 'huff it'" and “Stomp your foot once for yes, twice for no.”