Tags: political vocabulary | definitions | law | republic | democracy

Improving Our Political Vocabulary for a More Functional Republic

Improving Our Political Vocabulary for a More Functional Republic
(Stephen Coburn/Dreamstime)

By Wednesday, 13 September 2017 11:19 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein took an excellent order-writing class at the U.S. Naval Academy. The future officers were given a situation they might encounter and each wrote a concise order telling subordinates what to do about it. Each order was then subjected to withering criticism by instructor and the other cadets, pointing out ambiguities, possible misinterpretations, and bad side effects if the order was executed as written. Then, back to the drawing board.

Would that all students could take similar courses, aimed not at future naval officers but at the general public that comprises our ultimate political authority: the electorate. Improved voter sensitivity to the nuances of the words with which we think and talk about politics could make our republic more functional.  

Lacking adequate vocabulary, we can't think about anything. Imagine an ancient Greek citizen before whom a modern bicycle suddenly materializes out of a time-warp. This person lacks words such as chain, tire, derailleur, cable, brake, handlebar, axle, gear, and pedal, and he lacks the concepts or ideas to which these words now point. How could this observer describe what he has seen? How well could he even make sense of what he sees?

Given today's rapidly changing world, a static political vocabulary is unlikely to be adequate. My main work as a political scientist has sought to improve terminology used in American legal and political discourse. My goal has been to help people think systematically about policy questions and to improve their conceptual acuity — the ability to distinguish between two or more different things that may be referred to by the same word. It may help us think clearly if we can assign a different word for each of these meanings.

For example, the word “law” is used to mean three very different things:

1. a general rule of action enforced by sanctions;

2. a rule enforced by sanctions but which is not a general rule of action;

3. a rule stating with whom and on what terms government is willing to become a party to voluntary associations.

We could think and communicate more clearly if we had a different word for each of these meanings. But should we use old words, stipulating new, precise meanings, or new words coined expressly for that purpose?  

I decided to retain the existing word "law" but limit it to referring only to the first meaning: a general — applying to everybody — rule of action enforced by sanctions. And the existing term, "bylaw," was a good fit for the third meaning. But it took me several years to figure out that we need an invented word — pseudolaw — to express the second meaning.  

I originally used the word law for this purpose, but held my nose with my fingers (as if there was a bad stink) when I used the term in this sense. This indicated that I meant something other than genuine law and expressed the disgust appropriate when government imposes sanctions arbitrarily on particular individuals or groups such as women or black people. When writing, I put the word in scare-quotes — "law" — to indicate that it was only a so-called law.

During the editing of my college textbook, however, the publisher suggested that this distinction might escape the reader. Instead, she proposed that I use the term quasi-laws.

There were two problems with her thoughtful proposal. Quasi did not have a negative connotation. And it invited confusion with quasi-legislation, an expression used to describe rules legitimately enacted by administrative agencies. However the editor's suggestion was helpful since replacing her proposed quasi with the alternative prefix pseudo solved both problems. There is no danger of confusing pseudolaws with the rules made by regulatory agencies. And pseudo has an extremely negative connotation.

There is an additional advantage to splitting the territory pointed to by the older sense of law into three separate areas. The three meanings fit neatly into a "periodic table" of human associations that I began developing (without realizing what I was doing) during my 1970-1971 sabbatical at the Harvard Law School. It is inconvenient to reproduce this table here, but interested readers can find it in my virtual book, Basic Political Concepts.

Modern chemistry took off amazingly after the Russian Dmitri Mendeleev announced his periodic table in 1869. It is my hope that the new periodic table will propel political analysis to similar progress.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Lacking adequate vocabulary, we can't think about anything.
political vocabulary, definitions, law, republic, democracy
Wednesday, 13 September 2017 11:19 AM
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