2011-11-28

The Curse of Terminology

One of the primary obstacles Ayn Rand faced in her work was the way used language. Even today, people have a tendency to take her at her most literal when she used terms like "good" and "evil." Her most fervent supporters are often the most guilty of this, lending Rand fans that infamous "cultishness" that is now married to every popular citation of Rand.

To really understand her ideas at the level they were meant to be taken, one has to develop a familiarity with Rand's written tone and unique use of language. I would speculate that this is what lead to the creation of The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Everyone has their own unique voice, and Rand was no different. But a person's unique way of expressing himself/herself shouldn't get in the way of the ability to contribute to a discussion.

Consider a Hypothetical Situation
Let's say you know a man named Bob, who always and consistently refers to the color blue as "grargh."

The first time you meet Bob and hear him use the word grargh, you will be taken aback. You will ask what he means by that. You will speculate that he is talking gibberish. You will not want to hear him remark about how grargh the sky looks today, nor about the savory taste of the grarghberries he recently picked up at the local farmer's market.

Eventually, though, using the context in which he uses the term grargh, and noticing that he is always and everywhere consistent in the use of that word, you will figure out that grargh = blue.

Once you figure that out, it is your responsibility to understand what Bob means when he says grargh. Were you instead to take his every use of grargh as an opportunity to lament that he is not saying "blue," you would not be contributing anything to anyone. You would not be making Bob's life better, nor would you be making your own life better. Furthermore, you would be hindering any discussion being had by anyone who knows and understands what Bob means when he says grargh.

You, not Bob, would be the jerk.

My Lexicon
When I write on my blog (and communicate elsewhere), I use the terms listed on The Stationary Waves Lexicon. It was entirely voluntary that I compile a list of the terms that I frequently use and define them for the benefit of my readers. I felt that doing so was important first, because it helps ensure that the writer and his audience share a common understanding of what's being said, and second, to help formalize certain concepts and build on them in the future.

Without the Lexicon, I would simply refer to concepts over and over again using similar-but-not-identical language to kind-of-sort-of convey what I'm kind of getting at. Simply speaking, it would be impossible to discuss philosophy and ethics without a readily-available glossary of terms.

I concede that I use language in a way that is tailored to my own unique voice. I phrase things in a particular way and, without some background as to what I'm getting at - some context, if you will - it just sounds like a random, opinionated guy yapping all the time. That's not fun for anyone.

Reach Out and Touch Someone
This blog is not merely a vehicle for my own personal political opinions and the occasional song or workout. The idea here is not simply to speak my mind. Believe it or not (and my critics will find this one really tough to swallow), I'm actually getting at something here.

What *I* happen to be getting at is a philosophy for living, a way of approaching life from the standpoint of cardinal-but-secular virtues and free-and-cooperative interaction with other human beings via respect for private property, personal responsibility, capitalism, and acting in good faith.

What *OTHERS* are getting at is something else entirely. Some people express ideas that are complimentary to mine, while others are opposed. The agendas of some people have absolutely no relationship to mine whatsoever. And there is every combination of complimentarity, opposition, and ambivalence out there, because everyone has their own set of ideas that they hold dear. (And, yes, ideas matter!)

If we want to learn, we will not only let each other speak and communicate, but we will take people on the level at which they intend to be taken. That means listening to the point that you understand what the other person is actually saying, rather than just assuming they are saying something you don't agree with.

It shouldn't matter whether Bob says blue or grargh, so long as his meaning is clear and consistent. There is no shame in not immediately understanding what Bob means the first time he says grargh, but if the years go by and you still can't acknowledge the obvious, then you simply aren't listening to Bob.

Examples
If you need specific examples of what I'm getting at here, consider my notorious article about Amy Winehouse's self-abnegation. My point was a simple one: Drug use - even in absence of drug addiction - is a terrible act of self-destruction. The point that others understood was that anyone who makes mistakes deserves what they get. See the difference?

Another big one is the Aggregate Demand framework in macroeconomics. Most economists go along with it, although some dissent. These two groups should be able to communicate with each other despite their difference in paradigms, but instead what we observe is the orthodox community refusing to acknowledge the real meaning of the things the heterodox community says, instead "defeating" the heterodox arguments by an obtuse application of the AD framework. How is that communication?

Well, friends, listening is a two-way street. In order to defeat a person's argument, you have to understand it at the level on which it is intended.

Blue or grargh, if you don't take Bob at his words, you're the jerk, not Bob.