Guest post: Unmooring the language

Originally a comment by Enzyme on The old style of fascist often hid behind tears.

[I]t just so happens that protecting this minority requires us to reform society by jettisoning the hard-won freedoms of assembly and expression, along with the presumption of innocence and the ability for a professional to disagree with whatever governing body claims the consensus to be.

I want to suggest that it’s worse – deeper, more radical, more sinister – than that. What’s being jettisoned is the stability of the language in which any claim to rights must be articulated.

Yes, rights of assembly and expression and so on might be under threat, but they’re still thinkable as rights. Suppose you live in a society in which members of a given demographic group are told that they must pay a higher tax rate, or must not go to school, or must wear a green hat on Wednesdays whether they like it or not. All these things are bad to varying extents. They are also straightforwardly wrongs: one may have a right to go to school, and even if we think that there is not a right to go to school, we can still hold that there is a higher-order right not to be treated differently from others within the community simply because of one’s demographic.

But in all those cases, we know what we’re up against.

Let’s say that there’s a law against women attending university; and let’s say that – either because there is a fundamental right to go to university, or because there is a fundamental right to have the same educational opportunities whatever they are irrespective of sex – this policy violates at least one of the rights of women.

Well, in a funny sort of way, OK. We know what’s going on here. Anyone opposed to the policy can articulate objections to it, and that’s substantially because we know what it means: what the parameters of the words in the law are, how they’re used, to whom the law applies and doesn’t apply, and in what way it applies and doesn’t apply.

One may not like the land on which one stands, but at least it’s stable. One can at least imagine doing something to reconfigure things.

But what we are seeing is a world in which the very words in which laws and rights must be articulated are being unmoored – and not by accident, but gleefully and deliberately, and in a manner that is almost completely arbitrary, save for the one criterion of whether it happens to serve certain political ends.

That’s horrifying.

Once words become bent around outcomes, we’re all sunk – and that includes those who do the bending, would that they could see it.

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