May 17, 2008 (Day 571). I hate to sound cynical but I am beginning to wonder whether language is more often used to communicate the truth — or, it’s opposite. One example that comes to mind: “I drink just to be sociable.” Hmmm. Maybe. But since people are much more likely to kill each other, accidentally or on purpose, when under the influence, just how sociable is this? “I have faith in God.” Okay. But how many of us say, “I have faith in gravity.” Or, “I have faith that I cannot walk through that wall.” Not too many. At least, I haven’t heard many people express those sentiments. And, if someone were to say to me, “I have faith in gravity” and I were to reply, “Well, not me. I don’t see any evidence” — what would happen? Would they be likely to torture me until I recanted? Would they even argue vigorously why it was important to have faith in gravity? I doubt it. Mostly likely, they would give me a kind of pitying look and walk on their way. They might say in passing, “suit yourself” and give a little laugh.
When I was studying the psychology of aging many moons ago I took a test of “values” and scored way off the scale on “theoretical” which meant I was quite interested in the “truth” compared with other possible values such as economic, religious, hedonic, and so on. I think that’s probably right. It would seem that academia is the place where “truth” is pursued most purely and vigorously, but lately, I have come to wonder whether this is really so, at least now. Suppose one were in the “Department of Ologyology” and actually found “the truth?” Would everyone immediately worship you as a hero? I kind of doubt it. Because, now, you see, the game would be up. If you really proved that the fundamental truth of Ologyology were X, and no-one could dispute it or further refine it, people would basically be out of a job. All those graduate students trained in your Ologyology Department would similarly be out of a job. So, it seems to me that the real goal of the Ologyology Department is not to seek the truth, but continually to complexify the field of Ologyology so that there are ever more questions to ask. It is almost, in fact, a requirement to end any published paper with these formulaic words, “More study is obviously needed to further explore this complex and difficult subject.” No matter how compelling the results, to end a paper conversely with, “So there you have it. We have definitively shown X and thus ends the study of Ologyology” would be a certain formula for non-acceptance and non-publication and quite possibly for burning a large wooden telescope on your front lawn.
Another example: “Women are so emotional.” Compared with what? Men? In my experience, women are much more practical than men and men are much more emotional than women. Isn’t this obvious? How many women kill in a fit of rage? Precious few compared with men. What is the proportion of prostitutes of men for women versus women for men? Of course, there are individual differences, but it seems quite clear, that, in general, men are more emotional than women in the sense that their actual behavior is more often guided and clouded by their emotions. What’s more, men seem, in general, to be less aware of the impact of their emotions on their decisions. This is all fine, but what is odd is that in our culture, we have a “truism” about it that seems so clearly counterfactual.
In terms of contemporary politics, of course, we find numerous examples, but this is not quite so surprising. “Republicans believe in individual responsibility.” Huh? Everyone in politics has a tendency for finger pointing, but the recent crop of Republicans have elevated this to a high art form and religion. When, in eight years, have you heard Bush or any of his coterie say, “Oh, yeah. I was dead wrong about that.” ? “Republicans believe that the least government is the best government.” Huh? What counts as government then? They want to be able to put you in jail if you displease them with no chance of a jury trial by simply labeling you an “enemy combatant.” No proof needed. No sunshine test. They want to tell you whether or not you can have an abortion, who you can sleep with, and what kinds of drugs are okay and which are not okay. “The Republicans are the party of financial conservatism.” So laughable it requires no comment. “The Republicans believe in the economics of free enterprise.” No, folks.
“Free Enterprise” and “Crony Capitalism” are not the same thing at all. In fact, “Crony Capitalism” is really an oxymoron. Nothing is further from the spirit and logic of Adam Smith than the brand of favoritism practiced by The Bush White House.
So what then is language? Surely, it is not always used to deceive. Sometimes, teams — whether hunting parties, sports teams or software development groups — actually give each other useful information that, so far as they know, is true. But … wow….we certainly seem to have moved a long way from that.