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Friday, May 24, 2024

An Addendum: Language Matters

It strikes me that the last couple of posts I've written about campus speech issues--on the "it's not a protest if" assertion and on the difference between "peaceful protest and non-violent protest"--lean heavily on making a big deal about what others might consider semantic quibbles. As an academic I'm fine with making a big deal out of semantic quibbles. (In the book A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900-1960, Nikhil Krishnan recounts the story of a don describing the philological question on which he had been lecturing at great length: "Absolutely insoluble problem, of not the slightest importance." That sounds perfectly wonderful to me.) But I think such quibbles do matter. They clarify our thinking in such matters, especially when the subject is one with great immediacy and emotional impact. They better help us describe what it is we are arguing about when it comes time to argue about whether something is permitted or not, should be permitted or not, and so on. (Are we arguing about whether and when officials can break up "peaceful protests?" Non-violent but not truly peaceful protests? Protests that "defy the authorities?" What is the it that is the subject of our attention and our arguments about what is allowed?) They enable us to better guard against mere propaganda, the use of arguments, descriptions, tropes and memes, and pre-loaded definitions that are meant to make us think as someone else would have us think rather than think for ourselves--propaganda that is often swallowed whole, often repeated unthinkingly by journalists, and competing uses of which end up taking up more time, attention, and passion than arguments about the thing itself. And as I suggested in my last post, because there is often an imperfect boundary between free speech as a doctrinal and as a cultural matter, and because discussions and understandings of one often bleed into the other, they help us better identify which domain we're arguing in and about. This is good for clarifying discussion and prescription in both domains and, for that matter, in whatever "liminal" remainder there is. These kinds of improvements to or clarifications of general public discourse may be mere drops in a bucket. But after all, when it comes to public discourse, the depositing of individual drops in very large buckets is precisely and possibly solely what academics are here to do.   

Just by way of closing, let me offer an illustration that renders the point less abstract: If one is thinking clearly and using language clearly, one knows that a boycott is a purposeful relation to deal or associate, generally for political or moral reasons and generally in the form of a measure intended to inflict economic pain. On the other hand, a judge or law firm's insistence on selecting law clerks only from "top" law schools, however ill-advised, arrogant, and foolish it may be (and I tend to think such a policy are mistaken for these and other reasons), is not a boycott. Indeed, it bears no useful relation to it, and thus is useless for purposes of analogizing to boycotts. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 24, 2024 at 03:16 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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