Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Vocabulary Lesson

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." --Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

A long time ago, people didn't have language. That meant that whenever a saber-toothed tiger or other flesh-eating thing was headed toward the village, the caveman who knew it was coming had to try to communicate the threat to the others through the use of grunting, screaming, and primitive charades. This didn't work out really well, and lots of people got eaten. Then one day some genius realized that if he yelled "Run! There's a big-ass tiger coming to eat our faces!" and the other cavefolk knew what it meant, it reduced the chances that the entire village would be reduced to tiger poop. That's how language began [needs citation].

In order for language to work, words need to have consistent, widely accepted meaning. Otherwise, language is no better than grunting like a caveman. While word meanings can change over time--for example, until recently "teabagging" referred to giving somebody a mouth full of nutsack; now it refers to a political movement--this requires a general consensus of those who speak the language. If you just make up your own meaning for a word and start using it, you'll just sound like an idiot. Which, of course, brings us back to the teabaggers, who have turned the misuse of language into an art form. Whether they are actively trying to change the meanings of these words without consulting the rest of us or are simply ignorant of the words' actual meaning isn't clear. Regardless, there are a number of words that the teabaggers use in ways that don't match up to their commonly accepted definitions. In order to prevent the English language from devolving back into a series of pre-historic grunts, I'm going to give you the actual meanings of some of these words, and how they differ from the teabagger usage.

What They Think It Means: Atheism; Tyranny; Any form of Taxation; The welfare state; Taking money away from white people and giving it to black people.
What It Really Means: Both of these economic systems seek to eliminate economic classes by putting the means of production into the hands of the workers. The main differences between the two is that communism is a political as well as an economic system, distributes more according to need than contribution to society, and tends to vest the decision making power into the hands of a small group of people, usually in the form of a single, self-perpetuating political party. This inevitably leads to the kind of corruption found in the old Soviet Union.

Socialism, on the other hand, is purely an economic system that typically places emphasis on one's contribution to society for purposes of wealth distribution and attempts to keep power in the hands of the people, often by employing democracy as the accompanying political system. While most people view socialism as the antithesis of capitalism, many forms of socialism not only allow but embrace many free market ideals. In such cases, the emphasis is on providing all citizens with equality of opportunity (equal access to things like education, health care, and other basic necessities) rather than equality of outcome (an equal division of resources and political power between all citizens).

What They Think It Means: The same thing as communism and socialism, only with a Hitler mustache, from what I can tell.
What It Really Means: In his book The Anatomy of Fascism, Columbia University's Robert O. Paxton defines fascism as:

"A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

For a more straightforward and in-depth definition of fascism, take a look at this article by Dr. Lawrence Britt based on his study of fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, Spain, Indonesia, and Latin America. I suspect you'll have a "Holy Shit!" moment.

What They Think It Means: Dismantling the government, except for those parts of it that promote the Christian religion, prevent women from making their own reproductive choices, and keep gays from marrying each other (which would, of course, cause your next-door-neighbor to fuck a turtle). Also, according to Rand Paul at least, in a truly libertarian society, the darkies would know their place.
What It Really Means: According to dictionary.com, a libertarian is "One who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state." According to most libertarians, that "maximizing individual rights" bit includes allowing people to choose their own religion, determine what reproductive decisions are best for them, marry who ever the fuck the want, and be allowed to use the bathroom in public places regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, or favorite Stooge. While I personally believe that libertarianism takes a naive view of human nature (especially as it applies to corporations) and places the right to one's pursuit of wealth above basic human rights of others, at least real libertarians (like the Kentucky Libertarian Party, who recently distanced themselves from Rand Paul) have a consistent belief system.

Unbiased Journalism
What They Think It Means: The kind of journalism practiced by Fox News: screaming about fascism, drawing elaborate conspiracies on chalk boards, covering astroturf political movements that you're sponsoring, and occasionally boiling a live frog on national TV.
What It Really Means: Presenting all of the facts (and in some cases fact-based opinions) about an issue to the audience and letting them make their own decision.
What It Definitely Doesn't Mean: Giving equal time to both sides of the issue, regardless of the veracity of each side's arguments. This is actually a misunderstanding by lots of Americans (including nearly all of our major news agencies), not just the teabaggers. Don't get me wrong, if each side has valid, factually based arguments regarding an issue, then both sides should be allowed equal opportunity to express those arguments. However, when one side's argument is based on fundamentally flawed facts and wild speculation, it should be discarded. For example, if one side claims that the latest Senate proposal on financial regulation ignores fundamental problems that led to the financial meltdown, and can underpin that opinion with facts and logic, they should be allowed the same opportunity to express that opinion as the side supporting the proposal. If, on the other hand, the side opposing the proposal claims that the bill will allow the New World Order and the Trilateral Commission to send every American's first-born child to Alpha Centauri, where they will become Matt Damon's sex slaves and spend all day re-enacting scenes from Manos, The Hand of Fate for the amusement of Jabba the Hutt and Micky Mouse, they should not be allowed anywhere near a news studio. In fact, they should be encouraged to remain in their homes where their tin foil hats can provide them with optimal protection from Ringo Star's mind control lasers.

While there are plenty of other words and phrases that many American people in general (and teabaggers in particular) frequently misuse--"Clear Skies Initiative," "enemy combatant," and "Must See TV" come to mind--the ones mentioned above are among the most abused in the English language. Before you start spouting these or other words at the political rally, around the office, or in your Facebook status, please take a moment to consider whether they actually mean what you think they mean. If you're not sure, you can always consult that most wondrous of inventions, the dictionary. Since it doesn't have a political agenda, investment portfolio, or upcoming re-election campaign, it's unlikely to lead you astray.