Words Have Meaning
From this piece by the awesomely clear-headed Lawrence Lessig:
“…I read this piece by Kevin Kelly, “The New Socialism.”
Words have meaning. We don’t get to choose their meaning. If you call something “X” people will hear the equation. They won’t read the fine-print which says (“By X, I mean really not-X).
When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.
That statement is flatly wrong. It is completely unreasonable to call that “socialism” — at least when the behavior described is purely voluntary. It’s like saying “Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it’s not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism.” Both statements are wrong because they point to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.
Kelly’s argument is like so many today that has implicitly embraced the view that free market, libertarian sorts believe that the only thing in the world is competition, or people working to non-common goals. It is the idea that we are free only if we are antagonistic, and that free market theorists have been working to create a world where individuals struggle against, not with. A world that aspires to dog-eat-dog as its central value.”
…Professor Lessig, if you didn’t know, is a lawyer and law professor and incredibly intelligent guy who writes numerous books about the future of copyright, public domain, and media and the Internet. The Change Congress movement, in which he’s heavily involved, is probably one of the better plans to get Congress to pop its mouth off the corporate teat (and it’s working, see?). I don’t agree with 100% of everything he’s ever said, but the man is a top-notch thinker on several topics that aren’t well represented by reason and logic, and more people ought to be listening to him, darnit.
Also, less people who have no freaking idea what they’re talking about should be using the word “socialism”, please. The blatant mis-uses of that word, specifically, are getting really old!
…But my favorite sentiment here, I think, is simply that words have meaning, and we don’t get to choose what it is. I totally agree with that: Unless you’re writing an analytic work and carefully defining everything as you go along (and therefore writing something that’s really only valuable to people who want to read analytically), you simply can’t toss words like “God”, “democracy”, “religion”, “freedom” and “theft” around and then expect to be given a freebie when you’re obviously wrong by the accepted definition.
Or as a brilliant teacher I once had used to say, “Define your terms,” because if you don’t, you’re defining them as ‘as commonly used‘ — by your readers, in their culture and setting. Either way, you accept responsibility for how your words are construed. That’s the price of having a voice.