Words Mean Something



We talked a few weeks ago about language fads (awesome, decimate), and how misuse of words interferes with communication.

These fads are no problem at all compared to the biggest word problem in our society, namely that we have lost our political vocabulary. Political words now mean different things to different people, or even to the same people in a different context, so that political discussion is mostly just hot air, or even very heated hot air.

Expanding on this notion, in olden days, before things like toilet paper and hand sanitizers , we reserved our left hands for , ahem, bodily functions, and used the right for things like eating. That’s why we shake hands with our right hands. The word ‘sinister’ derives from latin for ‘left’, nuff said, left was bad in those days.

Left and Right became political terms when the French parliament arranged itself so parties favouring change sat to the left of the speaker, and parties favouring tradition sat to the right of the speaker. Discontented nobility and ambitious, entrepreneurial serfs would have called left good, while comfortable nobility and complacent serfs would have favoured the right. Perhaps the organizers thought it was a good joke to put those upstarts on the sinister left.

One of my heroes, Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, was a liberal as the word was used in his time, 100 years ago. Liberal then meant favouring freedom and equality of opportunity for all people, entrepreneurship, the right of all to own private property and the fruits of our labour. The individual is supreme and government cannot interfere in our private lives. If we all lived by Christian principles we would not need any government at all, except to protect us from invasion.

This ‘classical liberalism’ (now called libertarian) was pretty revolutionary, and was called left or left wing.  

Conservative in Laurier’s day meant support for traditional structures and values. This included a class system with power based on birth or wealth (know your place, boy. Don’t get above your raisin’). Strong government was needed to maintain the inequality of that class system – the nation or government would be supreme and individuals are merely cogs in the wheel. Or cannon fodder.   One might define conservative as defending the remnant of the Roman Empire. This was called right or right wing.  

Some new ideas modified that extreme right-wing “government is supreme” model. Communism expanded the supremacy of government by banning private property, so citizens will all be economically equal, and replaced the class system based on birth and wealth with one based on education (Plato’s ‘philosopher-princes’). Fascism and national-socialism (nazi) replaced the traditional class system with one based very narrowly on birth. Both denied the worth of the individual, were profoundly un-liberal, and not to be taken seriously by thinking people.

Things have changed.   Communism is extreme left in today’s parlance.   Liberal has come to mean “progressive”, leaning in that formerly right wing, now left wing ‘government is supreme’ communist direction, complicated by social reform and environmentalism arising out of the belief that there are too many people in the world (and after all it is the state and not the individual that is important).

So formerly liberal ideas like personal freedom, equality of opportunity, the worth of each individual, and minimal government are now called conservative or right wing, and formerly conservative ideas like government-enforced inequality are now liberal and left wing.

This is not to pick on any present political party, all have adopted the ‘progressive’ model, the NDP say ‘go faster’, and the Conservatives say ‘go slower’, and the Liberals hope they have it ‘just right’. Sort of like Goldilocks and the oatmeal.

I am sure every reader will disagree with at least one of the above definitions, proving my point that we have lost our political language, and a calm, respectful, meaningful discussion on politics is unlikely.  We need to listen carefully to what people say, for their true meaning and not the stereotype our definitions of words create in our minds.  And the guy with the biggest voice and biggest vocabulary and most education is not likely the smartest guy in the room — remember Forest Gump

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