Global Citizenship: When Words Turn into Semantic Quicksand
by Ted McAllister
We are told to be careful with our words, to be aware of how our words might make other people feel, or of how we might be misunderstood. However important is this advice (and it is both important and grossly overused), these are not the primary reasons we should be thoughtful about our language. Words shape ideas and beliefs, they assist in the mapping, and even reshaping, of our conceptual terrain. Linguistic mistakes lead to corrupted thinking. Because language is social, we are responsible for the way our words work on others. We should, indeed, be careful with our words.When we latch onto inappropriate, inaccurate, or unnecessarily vague labels, we plane off the subtle contours of our intellectual topography. And the more we traffic in these handy little falsehoods, the more established the literal, as opposed to the intended, meanings of the words become in the minds of people in our linguistic networks. With increasing frequency, for instance, we are called to be global citizens—or worse, “good” global citizens. What once was the call of dangerous moralists has become part of the linguistic wallpaper of the half-educated—a label transformed from a splendid monstrosity to a ubiquitous banality.
It is easier to battle monstrous ideas than to fight commonplace idiocy. A revolutionary appeal to global citizenship may include semantic confusions, but one quickly detects an idea—a vision of the world and of healthy human relations that includes an aesthetic ideal, a moral crusade and a governing theory about human nature. The idea of all humans, knitted together by a deep acceptance (tolerance); organized in ways that distribute goods and power fairly; educated to transcend provincial differences of race, religion, clan, and tradition; and habituated to accept the thorough interdependence of all humans—the idea is something that we can understand, can critique, can cha
llenge. When an earnest political activist or a crusading philosopher presents me with the moral imperative to live as a global citizen, then I can engage with her on ontological, epistemological, empirical, and moral grounds. Over time, we might come to understand each other, though we may not agree. And when we both develop our ideas sufficiently, the competing visions become clear and people can choose, can engage intellectually and morally, because they see clear differences. Because ideologies have form and structure, one can disagree meaningfully, using words that carry precise meanings and employing basic rules of logic to debate principles and to argue about consequences: ‘Tis a fair fight.
But when words become dreary or turn into semantic quicksand, they endanger ideas, making words and labels nearly useless tools for defining, for clarifying, or for expressing a vision. To the degree that precise words become banal and conceptually elastic, they enervate our thinking and undermine our capacity to see distinctions, and perhaps even our desire to see distinctions. The capacity to discriminate, to differentiate, to understand subtle distinctions is a necessary condition for judgment, for distinguishing differences that matter from those that are incidental. Because judgment is essential for defining and “seeing” a compelling political and moral vision, a keen concern for meanings is a characteristic of a free people. Banal phrases, cluttering our car bumpers and our common parlance (phrases such as “global citizens,” “coexist,” or “war is not the answer”), pander to our desire to be moral without being morally serious. In due course, a loose semantic emotiveness disarms us against evils that come clothed in moral truisms, but that are disconnected from any serious ontology. We lose a clear and compelling vision of a free people as we lose our power to define and discriminate. Semantic imprecision contributes to spiritual lassitude, making it impossible for us to defend our society’s highest principles because we can no longer comprehend them.
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