I’m currently reading a book which deals a lot with how words shape actions. It’s a bit like Orwell’s description of how the way words work in newspeak makes it impossible to even form seditious thoughts based on the language (since such thoughts are usually verbal rather than visual or mathematical or whatever). The first part of the book dealt with the way translation can change the meanings, and therefore the discussion, understanding, and application of concepts. Basically, all instances of “human rights” ended up being translated as “freedoms of individuals”, which isn’t anywhere near the same*. This narrowing of the meaning of human rights then affects what sort of things are considered within the purview of “fighting for human rights”, and it entirely excludes any claims to positive rights, as well as collective rights/freedoms.
Similar problems with the meaning of words are everywhere. The fight over the word “believe” should be pretty well known to everybody even remotely involved in the evo-creo wars, so is the meaning of the word “evolution”**; the “it’s colder here, therefore there is no Global Warming” nonsense; the hideous anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-disconnect-the-permanently-vegetative-and-the-braindead-from-life-support arguments hiding behind a ridiculously broad and factually meaningless meaning of the term “sanctity of human life”; etc.
Right now, I’m particularly interested in the way the words “politics” and “democracy” are thought of and used, and how they’ve become narrowed and hollowed out in very interesting but damaging ways.
Politics are defined by wikipedia broadly as “a process by which groups of people make collective decisions”, and in this broad definition they’re used to describe all sorts of interactions with others, about all sorts of issues, by all sorts of means, at all sorts of levels within a hierarchy/organization (see: “office politics”); but when it comes to the area from which the term originally came, i.e. issues of state and government, suddenly “politics” ends up being far narrower in meaning, and becomes almost inextricably linked to professional politicians and partisanship, thus creating the absurd notion of “apolitical” social engagement. This is the arena in which NGO’s, charities, community organizations, churches, scientific organizations, etc., as well as members of all of those are supposed to operate. On first glance, this seems like a good thing***, but in reality creating this fictional divide between “political” and “apolitical” social engagement results in a host of problems.
In the book I’m reading, for example, a charity that conducts “civil education” is described as absolutely obsessed with remaining “apolitical” even though they deal with issues of political engagement and decision-making. Because of this, their education attempts become worthless and meaningless, because they cannot address the issues that people actually want to know more about and learn to act about. They end up serving cookie-cutter speeches on highly abstract topics (like the Greek roots of democracy) which have no connection to the real lives and issues of the people who are receiving this education, because those issues are “political” and therefore cannot be addressed. A similar thing happens in American politics. Any entanglement with “politics” is seen as inherently negative (and as breaking the rules of society, by entering the arena of politics when it’s supposed to stay “apolitical”), and entanglement can simply mean having a point of view that closer resembles the stance of one political party on any given issue. And when “reality has a liberal bias”, reality itself becomes either vilified and discarded****, or it gets “balanced out” by a counter-factual view, just to avoid the appearance of taking sides and becoming “political”. Something similar happened with the stupid ACORN drama: simply because “voter registration drives” are something the Democrats support more than the Republicans, and because the people that were being registered were part of the demographic more likely to vote for Democrats, ACORN is being marginalized, vilified and attacked for having crossed the imaginary line between “apolitical” and “political”. And in an extra special case of vileness, the same people who jump on others for being “political” will engage in very similar things, but as long as they can hide them under the umbrella of something (in American society) undeniably “apolitical” and untouchable like religious freedom, they are considered safely “apolitical”. Something similar is happening with the Teabaggers who are claiming the umbrella of libertarian anti-politicism (ha!) to protect themselves from the “taint” they themselves see in those who engage in issues they oppose. It’s hypocritical, and extremely detrimental to real, honest political and social engagement.
Something very similar is happening to “democracy”. It’s supposed to be a political (as per original definition of political) system in which citizens govern their society themselves. One tool of democracy is a republican government, but it is not the only available tool, nor is a republican government the only kind of government a democratic society can have. Recently though, I have begun to notice that “democracy” is now being used almost exclusively to mean “a government you can vote for”. Voting in elections seems to have become the sole meaning of “democracy”. The crassest example of this I remember were the events in Honduras. There’s been an illegal coup followed by martial law and deconstruction of constitutional rights of the people. But the international community seemed not to care about that, and was fully pacified when the illegitimate government staged elections, and claimed that as a “return to democracy”. How absurd! There’s nothing democratic about the situation, but the symbols of democracy have now become its entirety: as long as people get to cast a vote, it counts as democracy. I noticed a similar effect in the USA when in a conversation about state-run healthcare it came up that the Californian government instituted something-or-other (I have only vague recollections of that conversation, sorry), which politicians then fucked up and stripped bare and it didn’t work, and that’s why government healthcare would be a bad idea. Someone from Europe then immediately answered with surprise why there were no protests, no boycotts, no calls for resignation, no outraged citizenry demanding that the situation be rectified. And indeed, why weren’t there? These are essential for a society to continue functioning democratically. But when democracy just means voting, then these other actions don’t occur to people, and in some cases are even seen as undemocratic (calls for resigning are seen like that, but since Americans also often confuse capitalism and democracy, actually democratic actions against businesses can also be seen as undemocratic and unAmerican).
Basically, when you reduce “democracy” to “politics”, you end up taking away a lot of tools for people to actively and meaningfully participate in their own societies, and create false, “balanced” realities that hinder people’s ability to know what to act on.
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*for example, the difference between “the freedom to receive legal counsel” and “the right to receive legal counsel”: the former only deals with the negatives, i.e. that you mustn’t be prevented from acquiring legal counsel; the latter goes further and deals also with the positives, i.e. not just not being hindered from acquiring counsel, but also being provided counsel when you cannot acquire it by your own means
**you know… differences between evolution and The Theory of Evolution, the misapplication of the word to describe the development of stars, the even worse misapplication of the word by creationists to describe All Science That Disagrees With My Faith and their consequent unwillingness to accept the very narrow and unspectacular meaning of the term (i.e. descent with modification), etc.
***an effect of the “ghettoization” of politics as the sole purview of professional politicians and political parties and their often nasty public battles; because of this, politics are seen as something dirty, corrupt, non-grassroots and entirely undesirable, from which it’s good to dissociate oneself
****best example is AGW: it’s science, so it’s supposed to be “apolitical”. But in reality there isn’t such a thing as apolitical, especially since this particular scientific is caused by human actions, and will need more human actions to be rectified. But this fake separation of issues into political and apolitical has resulted in a lose-lose situation in which the science can remain “pure” and “untainted” by politics by not drawing the necessary conclusions and thus failing to solve the problem; or it can commit the sin of becoming “political” by suggesting necessary actions, at which point it becomes tainted, motivated by political agendas, and just another political stance to be accepted or rejected at will.