Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Meanings and Experts

A cliche I detest is "its just a matter of semantics," as if the meaning of words is a matter both simple and unimportant. As someone who works on questions of semantics for a living, let me tell you that it is neither trivial nor meaningless. What we mean by our terms and what falls under them can be crucial. Consider the notions of genocide or civil war.

Meanings are social things and usage changes over time. There is no doubt that definitions evolve over time due to any number of factors, one of them being politics. This has accelerated with folks like Frank Luntz feeding ready made re-worked categories to the media who lap up anything that looks like an easy narrative with ready to apply bumper sticker soundbites. As a result, any number of notions have been redefined for explicitly political ends. Perhaps the first one to really make clear the relation between political power and the ability to redefine crucial social terms was Friedrich Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals and he was exactly right when he argued that sometimes the triumph is so complete that the change in meaning of a term becomes invisible. We become so used to the new meaning, that we forget it used to mean something else. This is why it ought to frustrate progressives to no end when we hear Democrats speaking in those very terms, and tickle us when we see people challenging the frame of a question and not getting sucked into the presupposition that the language provide, as George Lakoff suggests.

The one of these terms that has undergone semantic plastic surgery that particularly gets under my skin is "values," usually employed in the phrase "values voter." The standard media usage of the term indicates that to have values, one must oppose all abortions and favor discrimination against gays and lesbians under the law, whereas anyone who cares about the plight of those in need, the health of the environment, economic fairness, and opposes bigotry clearly cannot be considered to be one who votes based upon his or her values.

A similar and not at all unrelated change has befallen the terms "religion" and "religious." From the "Methinks the Lady doth protest too much" school of political rhetoric, those who most loudly assert their "values" are often doing it precisely because their actions run counter to morally acceptable values. The appeal to religion puts their value claims beyond dispute or at least reflects badly on those who would question them. "How intolerant, you who preach tolerance." This usurpation of religious language by fundamentalist Christians has been long in the making. In one of the finest blog posts I have read, Barbara over at the Mahablog discusses the history and politics of this move. I generally don't like to link to articles that I don't have something to add in terms of constructive conversation, but this one is an exception. Please read it.

It is posts like this one that undermine arguments like that of Matt Bai. Quoted and discussed by Mike the livid life scientist, Bai writes,

The emergence of the Internet age has been accompanied, in general, by a steady devaluing of expertise. A generation ago, you went to the doctor to find out about the pain in your knee; now you go to WebMD, diagnose it yourself and tell him what medicines you want. People used to trust stockbrokers and insurance agents; now they buy and sell at E*Trade and compare policies online. American voters who once looked to newspaper columnists for guidance on politics now blog their own idle punditry. Suddenly, experience is downright suspect -- it's the barrier that so-called professionals use to wall themselves off from everyone else.
As Mike correctly points out, the pundits who have been given the positions to shape public discourse and belief generally are not legitimate authorities. Those we see commenting on Hardball, the MacLaughlin Report, or This Week, those on Diane Rehm's Friday round table or on the op/ed sections of the major papers are generally not people with a deep education in the fields they comment on. Instead they are part of a journalistic in-crowd. There is no doubt that there are Daniel Schorrs, Helen Thomases, and Jack Germonds who are well worth listening to because they are genuinely insightful with long memories and keen minds. But they are not the rule. The pundrity has largely become a club of insiders who confute membership and access for background and insight.

Well, but they are reporters, they've been doing their homework. Ah, yeah. Read David Corn's discussion of Bill Kristol who has permanent pundit status and instant access on demand to any major editorial page. Is Juan Cole, Professor of Near East studies at Michigan and author of Informed Comment, a better voice on the Middle East? Um, yeah. Can just anyone start a blog or post a diary on Daily Kos and spout off even if they don't really know what they are talking about? Yeah. Sure. Is there a lot of that out there? Mhm. But then there are folks like Glenn Greenwald, and Digby, and Barbara, who are more astute, better informed, and more cogent arguers than most anyone you read on the New York Times' op/ed page -- or at least did before it went behind the wall (Krugman excepted).

Most blogs are meant to be individual contributions to the general discourse, as the old Yiddish saying would put it, pissing in the ocean of public opinion. These are not meant to be substitutes for expert discussion. They are a substitute for large dinner table discussions that happen less and less. It is good for us to take on more responsibility for shaping our thoughts, sharpening our arguments. It is also good to go into the doctor having an understanding of what may be wrong with us and having thought through treatment options. The web does not make experts unnecessary, rather it elevates us to the point where we can make use of their expertise instead of merely bowing down before it.