Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On the use of rhetoric in place of complex political thought

Consider the way two words are used in political discourse: "progressive" and "liberal".  Consider further the way the meanings of these two words have evolved in line with the persuasive intent of the speaker or writer.

The word "progressive" has been appropriated by people on the left to refer to positions and policies they prefer, thus implying that policies and positions with which they disagree are "regressive", i.e. perversely contrary to the direction of progress, the underpinning of modern, and particularly U.S. American, optimism. People on the right, of course, do not refer to their policies as regressive, but as conservative.  They do not oppose progress, they want to conserve tradition, what is good in the past. But now, free market advocates believe that they are promoting progress and that "liberals" stand in the way with obstructionistic regulations and confiscatory taxes.  In any case, by appropriating words that evoke values that few would disavow (progress, conservation of what is good in tradition) politicians and those who advocate for political positions seem to substitute slogans for stimulation of independent and critical thinking on the part of the citizenry.  Are political positions so difficult to defend, so fragilely sustainable, that people should not be rather encouraged to consider their merits and demerits?

Another word that has been appropriated and re-appropriated is "liberal".  This word has a particularly complex variety of meanings.  In its origin, the word derives from the Latin "liber" or free.  To be liberal, then, is to be free, to be a free man, to act freely. According to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, "liberal" means "not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted".  In other words, not "conservative", thus fitting with a traditional U.S. political use of these words---although could one not be both liberal and conservative?  Could one not be open to "new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted" while at the same time wanting to conserve what is valuable in tradition?  Of course, but then one has to do some thinking about what is good in what is new, and what is good in what is old, and evidently the populace is not up to the task, or cannot be trusted to think these issues through in the right way.  Merriam Webster online also defines liberal as "believing that government should be active in supporting social and political change".  Evidently, believing in what is new entails belief that the government should promote that which is new.  When did that equation get established?  Could one not be inclined toward what breaks with tradition without believing that government must play a crucial role in promoting change?  Doesn't government often enough play a conservative role? Aren't there conservative people and forces in government?  The idea that government stands for change is at the heart of tea party ideology that wants to see government shrink and get out of people's way so they can act freely (i.e. liberally?)  Wait, this is getting confusing. Now, we have "neo liberalism" in which freedom, i.e. liberalism, stands for "free" as in "free markets".  But now we have liberalism implying freedom from government.  I guess the "neo" signals the meaning of "liberal" is the opposite of what it used to be. I want to be free (or do I?) but I'm getting conflicting, contradictory, advice as to the direction in which freedom lies. Perhaps this is a good starting point for a real discussion, one that acknowledges that, as Isaiah Berlin liked to point out, there is no such thing as pure freedom. For one thing, there is positive freedom (freedom to do what I want; but what do I want to do?) and negative freedom (freedom from interference, which can also be known as interaction.) If I'm free to work hard and make money, am I not less free to enjoy a day at the beach? 

So maybe the problem is not that politicians don't want us to think for ourselves, but that the issues are so complex and multi-faceted, so fraught with contradiction and paradox, that its far easier to join a side than to think.  

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