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Linguistic Impediments to Thought

Linguistic Impediments to Thought

I caught a passing glimpse of Jesse Waters on FOX the other day, and he was criticizing 2020 presidential candidate hopeful John Hickenlooper in the following manner: a pundit asks Mr. Hickenlooper if he is a capitalist; Hickenlooper hesitates, says he’s not a fan of labels; video feed cuts, pundit insinuates he’s obviously a socialist/communist. How absurd! Cue mocking derision of people who reject capitalism. Next segment.

Hickenlooper’s non-rejection aside, I would have thought that after Tucker Carlson’s rather excellent debate with Ben Shapiro on the subject of Capitalism, FOX hosts might be more hesitant to so brazenly group all of the various and sometimes exclusive policy-perspectives which might be labeled as “capitalism” under a single, umbrella-term. Given the stated reason for Hickenlooper’s hesitation, it seems particularly egregious to label him as “not-X” when “X” is not necessarily one thing. Can one be a “capitalist” while opposing international free trade? What about some degree of regulation? If not, does capitalism mandate anarchism? If you don’t believe so, where do you draw the line on “markets?” Military power, after all, can also be viewed as a market (in which states presently have a monopoly). Can one be a capitalist while supporting a universal basic income? If not, then Milton Friedman himself was not a capitalist.

There isn’t much point in bashing FOX news (or any other “news” outlet; I’m sure MSNBC and CNN are just as bad, if not far worse) for doing what they are literally paid to do; get views by generating interest through outrage and humor. Philosophical precision gets in the way of the broad-strokes and quick transitions necessary to keep and hold attention, and nothing kills a joke or feelings of righteous indignation like carefully and honestly trying to understand the real point, without prior judgment. The goal here is not to wallow in how dumb pundits are, but to identify the linguistic impediments to real thought, and to be aware of them so that our own thought can go forward unimpeded.

Perhaps the greatest example of linguistic thought-impediments is not about capitalism, but is the entire framing of the abortion debate: “pro-life” versus “pro-choice.”

These are, needless to say, entirely rhetorical labels. But more importantly, they do not actually exhaust the options.

One could, for instance, justifiably be anti-life and anti-choice.

Consider the tacit claim made by the label “pro-life.” It implies the sanctity of life over virtually all other considerations. In the context of abortion, this includes circumstantial contexts such as rape, incest, or even significant birth defects or illnesses such as down syndrome. And “pro-choice” activists are all-too-happy to point out that many “pro-life” activists also support the death penalty. Whether capital punishment is just or unjust, one can hardly call it “pro-life.” By extension, you can hardly call yourself “pro-life” if you support the death penalty in some circumstances.

But let’s follow this death-penalty line a bit. After all, an abortion is a death-sentence of a kind. In the courts of law, the pronouncement of a death-sentence is never merely a choice, but an established punishment suitable to the offense, in accordance with precedent. While the wronged party may pursue the death-penalty, the decision is, ultimately, not up to them. To leave it up to “choice” in this regard would be to abandon justice for license and personal vengeance. The advocate for capital punishment is not “pro-choice” just because he believes that sometimes, death is the best option.

If we grant that a fetus is a human life (however underdeveloped), then leaving the decision of whether or not to kill them up to the mother alone seems incredibly arbitrary. Even if we assume that the vast majority of mothers will make the correct decision most of the time, the exceptions are enough to warrant an imposition on the “right” to take a life. Thus, perhaps the most legally sensible position on abortion is to be neither pro-choice nor pro-life. In the words of Eli Harmon, perhaps abortion should be “prohibited except when it is mandatory.”

Obviously, this is not the only defensible position one can hold on this most divisive of subjects. But it is a remarkably strong position which has virtually no representation in the public debate. This is somewhat speculative, but I think many eminently strong positions like this are neglected because of linguistic impediments to serious thought on these subjects… linguistic impediments such as framing abortion as “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” — or economics as “pro-capitalism” versus “anti-capitalism.” It’s a real shame, and a real frustration, when it comes to having a serious conversation on many of these issues.

Perhaps we can all try, like Mr. Hickenlooper, to shun the compulsive use of labels to try to signal combative virtue to some unseen audience. But given their control of the medium and their portrayal of any given encounter, perhaps it’s better to simply avoid and ignore the sorts of people who insist upon labeling everyone and everything in simplistic and stupefying terms.

We’d all be a lot smarter for it.

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