Welcome back, class. Yesterday’s lesson introduced the notion of critical thought and the importance of linguistic and discursive clarity. (Dear lord, he’s a wanker, isn’t he? – ed.) Why is it important? Because language is the most basic currency of citizenship — the means whereby we exchange ideas and communicate with one another. We can use it, as I advocate, for advancing the public good, or for less noble purposes. It’s in the interest of pushing back against the latter that we’re focusing on this.
When I kicked off this little project yesterday, I was resolved to keep it non-partisan. That may be a bit of a challenge given the subject of today’s lesson, given the extent to which public discourse has been debased over the past few decades. But that’s precisely what makes it so essential.
Let’s note at the outset, then: that’s what lies at the core of our mission to reclaim the language. Insisting on adherence to the plain, traditional, and historical meanings of words isn’t a partisan exercise: it may seem that way, but that’s because of the way those words have been stripped of their meanings and repurposed for whatever destructive and/or anti-social agendas may temporarily waylay our attention.
This provides a reasonable segue into one of the most important ideas I’d like to reclaim: conservatism.
Perhaps it’s just my own Pollyanna / Rodney King naivete, but I’ve never believed conservatism to be incompatible with progressive ideals or a sense of social justice. At its heart, the conservative sensibility means identifying the most worthwhile things in our collective history and traditions, and working to enhance, safeguard, and preserve those things. It means due regard and respect for what our ancestors have built and for what generations of Canadians have fought to accomplish, and working to protect those things from those who would tear them down for ideological or financial reasons. And it carries connotations of compassion, community, civility, and respect, among other things. It’s a body of intellectual and political legacy that cannot simply be swept away with a wave of the hand.
As Edmund Burke once argued (oh, Christ, again? What is it with you and Burke? — ed.):
I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche — upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.
Burke was attempting to counter the ripple effects of the French Revolution, but his arguments are as compelling today as they were in the 18th century. It requires a profound effort of the will, not to mention what Orwell might have described as “goodthink,” not to see the parallels between the subject of Burke’s discomfiture and contemporary efforts to stunt, neuter, or even tear down established social programs, the post-war welfare state, traditions of making decisions on the basis of impartial expertise, and any other public initiatives aimed at reducing poverty, inequality, and other social stressors. So, recapping an argument I’ve made before: you don’t get to bring blowtorches, sledgehammers, and meat cleavers to attack well-established programs or the social fabric, never mind the constituent elements of civilized society itself, and still call yourselves conservatives. What you’re doing has nothing to do with preservation.
This is the damage done by 30 years of right-wing nonsense. And let’s not make this mistake, folks. This isn’t conservatism. This is destructive atavistic bullshit. So let’s be wary of people calling themselves conservatives, and ask ourselves whether they’re truly honouring the work of our predecessors, and truly consonant with the conservative tradition.
Lots more in the related links below. Let’s move on and talk about … elitism.
Apart from conservatism, it’s hard to think of a word or an idea that’s been more disfigured. In contemporary political discourse, it’s become a lethal weapon. It’s been invested with connotations of snootiness, condescension, contempt, unearned privilege, exclusion, and disdain for the mythical, good old ordinary, “real people” folks so beloved of today’s right-wing icons. It’s as if someone took an ordinary word and subjected it to deadly doses of disfiguring radiation and/or chemical experiments; what we’re left with is some hideous mutation with little resemblance to the original. So let’s push the goalposts back on this one as well.
What is elitism, really, other than the idea that important decisions should be made on the basis of the best available information? When did that become a bad thing? When did thoughtful reflection, respectful discussion, prudence, and dispassionate debate, detached from any emotional animus toward one’s opponents, become anything other than part of the basis for good governance?
We’ll discuss this in more detail when we address the notion of complexity, but for now, let’s reaffirm: expertise, education, and attention to detail are good things. They’re things we want in our elected officials and public servants, regardless of what they’re discussing or what level of government we’re looking at. When we’re making billion-dollar decisions about the future of our city, province, or country, I want those to be the touchstones. I don’t want those decisions made on the basis of gut instinct, manufactured controversy, cultivated resentment, divisiveness, lapel-button slogans, shallow disengagement, belligerent ignorance, or transparent misdirection. And lest anyone think I’m talking solely about the municipal realm, consider this: destruction of the long-form census, muzzling scientists, vote suppression on spurious grounds, kneecapping loci of expertise, not to mention antipathy to the whole notion of expertise itself, all aggregated under a misguided hostility towards “elitism,” can’t possibly help but be antithetical to good governance.
There’s more here than I’ve got room for within the confines of a single blog post, but for the moment, here’s a partial list of words that have been co-opted and need to be rescued. For whatever reason, they’ve been stripped of their meanings and invested with unholy connotations that are, as set out above, antithetical to the functions of civil society, citizenship, and good governance. Rather than means of communication and exchange of ideas, they’ve become weapons: they’re calculated to spur emotional responses, means of manipulation and demagoguery, rhetorical brickbats used to shut down reasoned debate. We need to be wary of anyone using these terms or phrases without a healthy respect for their plain meaning:
- Respect, respect for taxpayers
- Entitlement, culture of entitlement
- Strong, stable majority
- Fair elections
- Child protection
- Political correctness
- Big Government
- The Market
- Private sector
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but you see where I’m going, I hope. One of the most powerful weapons we’ve got in fighting manipulation and misinformation is a simple insistence on the plain and unadorned meanings of words, without imposed connotations or partisan agendas. Tomorrow: more on language and its importance to civic engagement.