Monday, January 14, 2008


On the Rectification of Names

Tsze-lu said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"

The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names."

"So! indeed!" said Tsze-lu. "You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?"

The Master said, "How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.

If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish.

When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded.

When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."

(Analects XIII, 3, tr. Legge)

We live in an age of euphemism. "Harsh interrogation techniques" = torture; "controversial theory" = anything the Regime doesn't approve of or believe in; "provocation" = anything the Regime fears (like blue speedboats in the Straits of Hormuz) and so on.

Yesterday, one of our favorite bloggers, Glenn Greenwald, offered up a real doozie, proposing that an investigation of a complaint to the Human Rights Commission in Alberta, Canada, was "tyranny" on its face. Much arm waving and running around shouting about Free Speech and whatnot then ensued.

And yet at no point was the case that the investigation was "tyranny" or "tyrannical" ever made. Much like the Busheviks have long done with "9/11" and their various Enemies, merely associating the incident in Alberta with the term "tyranny" in the same post was enough to get all the First Amendment junkies up in arms and hollering about suspension of civil rights and what have you.

As I said at Glenn's place, and I'll say it here, the investigation of a complaint is not on its face tyrannical.

Glenn's issue was with the proliferation of Anti-Hate Speech law in Europe and Canada and how it criminalizes various forms of unpopular political speech, and how, in the end, criminalization of political speech of any kind under the authority of the state is by definition tyranny.

But the case he used to illustrate his point had nothing to do with criminalized speech, political or otherwise. And an argument can be made that criminalizing certain kinds of speech (political or otherwise) is not necessarily tyrannical, either.

In a democratic system, the people can choose, through their representatives or directly, to limit and/or prohibit certain forms of speech they deem dangerous to the public welfare. Arguments can and should continue over whether the prohibition or limitation is right or wrong, but the decision is not on its face tyrannical.

In the case in question, nothing was occurring except an investigation of a complaint brought by a citizen against another citizen. There was no criminal complaint by government, nor in fact any obligation of the citizens to cooperate with the investigation. Apparently the fact that this investigation was being conducted at all, by a quasi-independent commission and not by a government agency, was sufficient to trigger an automatic response among some people, without ever investigating what was really going on.

Rectification of names becomes necessary.

And we see this sort of thing everywhere. Few things and events and actions are named properly or honestly, and so people act irrationally. That may in fact be the intent of people and institutions in positions of power and influence -- who, in other words, have the naming power -- but if it is, it has a highly negative cumulative effect, as Confucius warned more than 2,500 years ago.

There is a legitimate question about whether More Speech is the appropriate corrective to Speech the public doesn't like or doesn't want to hear. There is a legitimate question about whether the vaunted Marketplace of Ideas is in any way a free and fair, open and accessible forum for presentation, debate and discussion of issues and ideas.

Some people assume that the Confucian Rectification of Names that heads this post is a form of propaganda, in that when a new ruler comes into power it is incumbent upon that ruler (in the manner of the Busheviks) to alter the language, essentially renaming things, in order to secure and extend the ruler's power. But Confucius is saying the point is to correctly name things, so as to ensure domestic peace and justice. The implication is that over the course of the previous reign, naming had become a matter of artifice and euphemism and that in turn led to tumult, lawlessness and injustice. The point of Rectifying names is to return matters to their correct names so as to restore peace and justice.

We're actually long past the point at which our language should be rectified. Since the Gingrich Revolt, our names for things have become more and more bizarre, euphemistic, and inappropriate, to the point where very little has any real or agreed upon meaning.

In the blogosphere, "Progressive", is perhaps the most obvious and obnoxious example of a name that needs Rectification, in part thanks to the absurdity of Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism" now making the rounds of the wingnut welfare agencies.

When there is so much confusion of basic terminology, nothing can be carried on to success.

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