I believe in the meaning of words.
If their meaning was limited to dictionary definitions, this would be a simple recognition rather than a core belief. But the meaning of any particular word depends upon many factors including the context of the sentence, essay or speech, the intended audience, the present audience, and the intentions, sophistication, guile and honesty of those who employ those words.
Beyond dictionaries, thesauri and glossaries, several systems have developed through the need to standardize the meaning of words. Contract law demands a “meeting of the minds” which would be impossible without the specificity of legal writ; Science would not possess its reliability, influence and due respect without the foundation of a common understanding of its terms and concepts. Similarly, the advancement and evolution of ethics, logic, art and technology depends upon a common language shared by their respective practitioners. Even poetic license extends only so far as its audience is willing or able to comprehend. Linguistics itself has a very precise and extensive vocabulary.
But any reliance on the meaning of words must recognize that propaganda, pseudoscience, commercialism, criminal fraud and other deceptions use and exploit the very same words and linguistic constructs used by respectable sources. I believe that awareness of these deceptive techniques inures us to their influence, and nurtures a healthy sense of skepticism which extends beyond mere words to broader concepts and issues. The power of propaganda has been clearly demonstrated in recent international affairs; The resulting escalation of conflict is testimony to how the intentional, tactical misuse of words can concentrate, misdirect and abuse the powers of governments to serve the ends of greed, fear and hate.
The recent spate of mortgage fraud and e-mail scams is evidence of our susceptibility to deceptive commercial techniques. Scientific illiteracy allowed the clever subterfuge of “intelligent design” to advance as far as it did. Also in politics, artful dodgers continue to avoid legal responsibility for the unlawful acts they committed under color of law. Ecological imperatives are being delayed or avoided by denial and obfuscation of the scientific evidence provided.
It is my belief that only through broadening our awareness of the use and misuse of words and other linguistic shenanigans, can we as a developing democracy address the negative influence of those whose mission it is to advance their own agendas at the expense of the common good.
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