Just Semantics

Lately I’ve been thinking about language, and how we human beings use it to shape and interpret our everyday experiences. I’ve long believed that most arguments are more about words and their definitions than actual issues. Its funny how definitions seems to change throughout the course of an argument, until both parties admit to be saying the same thing, only in different words. Or the opposite can happen, when one person’s definition crystalizes into the antithesis of his or her opponent’s.

A few years ago I took a philosophy class. I remember our teacher explaining different ways the word “freedom” can be defined in American politics. The “conservative” (or classical liberal) definition meant “freedom from government interference”. The “liberal” (or contemporary liberal) definition meant “freedom to participate equally in society”. This word that is thrown around so often in any political discussion can mean radically different things depending on who is using it, and also it can be interpreted in radically different ways depending on who hears it. Proponents of the “freedom from” view might naturally seek to limit government to the best of their ability, whereas “freedom to” folks might seek to expand the government so that it can ensure equal opportunity for people of different classes, genders, races, etc.

I have some friends who consider themselves “anti-capitalists”. Their definition of “capitalism” is essentially Marxist. They claim it is a system that creates social classes and exploits those in the lower of these. It is responsible for the corruption of our system of government and for the degradation of the natural environment. The definition becomes a linguistic pit that consumes any and every negative concept. Thus we have created a structural narrative in which one word is understood to represent our ultimate problem and source of all our suffering, and its’ antithesis becomes the path to our liberation. Of course the “pro-capitalist” would never dream of defining “capitalism” in such a way, but would probably opt for something closer to “economic freedom from government interference”. Can either of these definitions be right?  Or are they both gross oversimplifications that pale in comparison to the complexities of our actual situation?

Upon more reflection I started noticing these structural narratives everywhere. For Marxists, there is capitalism. For feminists, patriarchy. For anarchists, government. For primitivists, civilization. For Christians, sin. All are structural narratives built upon the demonization of a word through definition, and the idolization its’ antithesis. It would be possible for us to create some overarching umbrella structure and bring together all of these demonized words into the definition of some greater, and ever more vile word. Womanist critique has offered the term “kyriarchy” as an extension of “patriarchy” that also takes into account issues of racism and economic injustice. Some Christians have combined these injustices together as various symptoms of the larger problem of “sin”.

But should our ultimate goal be to create some monolithic, unquestionable narrative structure? I think rather we should acknowledge that any narrative falls short of grasping the true complexity of the real world. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.


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