Recently some teacher acquaintances on Facebook were discussing the recent public sector strike. Some were annoyed at accusations that they had spent the day shopping. Others said they had enjoyed spending the day shopping. Someone posted a message pointing out that Jeremy Clarkson, who said rude things about the strikers, was more than welcome to do a hard job saving lives or teaching disabled children. It occurred to me that, among other things, not all and probably less than half of public servants do such worthy jobs, and in any case what is relevant is what is really going on, which is that whatever the job, public servants (including (heh) Jeremy Clarkson, according to NickM) get their salaries and pensions from money extorted from others.
I considered getting involved in the conversation. I mentioned it to Michael Jennings. “The problem is that they think we are mad,” he said. Not only that, I thought, they will take offence and cast me out of society. “And they have the generally accepted narrative,” Michael observed. “How did this happen?”
I have some ideas about that. They are not original, have probably been stated better by someone else, and a more erudite person than I might well be able to summarise this entire post by stating the name of some philosopher or linguist. But here is my train of thought.
The primary purpose of language is cognition. So says The Monster in an epic comment on Eric Raymond’s blog.
I believe that communication is not even the primary use of language, despite the common belief that it is. That honor belongs to cognition. We use language to think; we produce names for groups of concretes that share certain properties and thereby achieve computational economy by not having to reason independently about the characteristics of every member of that group anew, as if we’d never seen any other members before.
This was in defence of an article by Eric Raymond in which he had used the same insight to seek to “undo the perversion of language that serves the enemy so well.” Clever use of language can manipulate people’s ideas. It makes sense: we put things into words to abstract big ideas and reuse them quickly and easily. I am a computer programmer. In software we write some code to, say, sort a list of items into numerical order, we give the code a name (sort) and then we just type ‘sort’ whenever we want to sort a list. If everything works to plan, we never have to think again about how that sorting code works. We have abstracted it. We might do some sorting of specific kinds of list mixed in with some other algorithm to do something complicated, like display a list of all the teachers in a payroll database whose salaries are greater than x, and give that code a name (GenerateRedundancyCandidates). In this way we build up layers of complexity at increasing levels of abstraction and get to do vastly complicated things with not as much effort as you might think.
Human language is the same. And therein lies a danger, because humans are not like computers: they are likely to forget that the word stands for something real, or get confused about what it stands for, or change its meaning half way through a sentence. So, for example, a teacher in a discussion about the strikes can say, “I pay my taxes just like everyone else.” And there are layers of abstraction beneath ‘taxes’ and ‘pay’. What is forgotten is that ‘tax’ ultimately means to take money by force. And the ‘payment’ in this case is an accounting trick. Each month a teacher gets in the post a piece of paper listing salary and various deductions for ‘tax’ and ‘national insurance’, but what is really going on is that the salary comes from the money extorted from others and the deductions are immediately paid back. This is arithmetically no different from being paid the net amount from the fund of extorted money. The confusion arises entirely from the use of the word ‘tax’ written on a piece of paper. It takes a certain kind of thinking to drill down into the real meaning.
But just try explaining this to someone who has never encountered these ideas before. You soon find yourself painfully unravelling the layers of abstraction in a person’s thought processes, all to get past one throw-away comment.
You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the world. You’ll know about the humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early from my father the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
George Orwell noticed that political writing tended to be vague and wrote Politics and the English Language.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
Alfred Korzybski invented General Semantics, which is an attempt to train people to be constantly aware of the abstractions they used. For example, he recommended avoiding group words such as ‘society’ (my example) in favour of a construction like ‘person-1, person-2, person-3, etc.’ In this way it would be impossible to forget that society is composed of individuals. He originated the phrase, “the map is not the territory” which is a reminder that the thing is separate from the name of the thing.
The rationalists at Less Wrong have a sequence of articles about map and territory. The Simple Truth by Eliezer Yudkowsky is sublime. It is a parable about the nature of truth and the dangers of metaphor, featuring a shepherd who devises a way to keep track of his sheep by putting pebbles in a bucket.
“You tried adding pebbles to create more sheep, and it didn’t work?” Mark asks me. “What exactly did you do?”
“I took a handful of dollar bills. Then I hid the dollar bills under a fold of my blanket, one by one; each time I hid another bill, I took another paperclip from a box, making a small heap. I was careful not to keep track in my head, so that all I knew was that there were ‘many’ dollar bills, and ‘many’ paperclips. Then when all the bills were hidden under my blanket, I added a single additional paperclip to the heap, the equivalent of tossing an extra pebble into the bucket. Then I started taking dollar bills from under the fold, and putting the paperclips back into the box. When I finished, a single paperclip was left over.”
“What does that result mean?” asks Autrey.
“It means the trick didn’t work. Once I broke ritual by that single misstep, the power did not linger, but vanished instantly; the heap of paperclips and the pile of dollar bills no longer went empty at the same time.”
“You actually tried this?” asks Mark.
“Yes,” I say, “I actually performed the experiment, to verify that the outcome matched my theoretical prediction. I have a sentimental fondness for the scientific method, even when it seems absurd. Besides, what if I’d been wrong?”
“If it had worked,” says Mark, “you would have been guilty of counterfeiting! Imagine if everyone did that; the economy would collapse! Everyone would have billions of dollars of currency, yet there would be nothing for money to buy!”
“Not at all,” I reply. “By that same logic whereby adding another paperclip to the heap creates another dollar bill, creating another dollar bill would create an additional dollar’s worth of goods and services.”
The same author lists 37 ways that words can be wrong. Ways that a mis-use of the labels for things causes mistakes in reasoning about them. I recommend you go and read all the sequences. See you back here in a month.
All these ideas are related to my point: people are not in the habit of questioning the meaning of words. They believe that words have intrinsic meaning; that being told the name of something answers their question about what it is.
When the police talk of stop and search not being an arrest, they do not notice that in important details, the two are the same. When Oxfam talk of net loss of zero to a developing country, they do not notice that money is being moved from private business to government within the same country, so someone is experiencing a net loss.
Furthermore, their thoughts quickly become constrained by language. Everything has to be fit into categories delineated by words already known. Hence ideas such as: “we need taxes to build roads”. It is as if a road is by definition built by governments and funded by extortion. No wonder we sound mad when we talk of private roads; it is like talking of square circles.
Why is this? Not enough people have fathers like Feynman’s. I suspect that parents want to appear omniscient to their children and end up hand-waving questions they do not know the answers to, with the result that children end up conditioned to accept low quality answers. State education systems are certainly not motivated to teach people to think properly, though individual teachers might try. Most of the good information I have found about critical thinking and rationalism is on the web, where it is found by people who already have an interest in it. It does seem that critical thinking needs to be taught; or at least curious people have to discover it. It does not come naturally: it took until the Enlightenment to really catch on at all.
Like William Gibson, I think I got my own head start from reading science fiction. Says he:
It gave me the idea that you could question anything, that it was possible to question anything at all. You could question religion, you could question your own culture’s most basic assumptions. That was just unheard of—where else could I have gotten it? You know, to be thirteen years old and get your brain plugged directly into Philip K. Dick’s brain!
That wasn’t the way science fiction advertised itself, of course. The self-advertisement was: Technology! The world of the future! Educational! Learn about science! It didn’t tell you that it would jack your kid into this weird malcontent urban literary universe and serve as the gateway drug to J.G. Ballard.
And nobody knew. The people at the high school didn’t know, your parents didn’t know. Nobody knew that I had discovered this window into all kinds of alien ways of thinking that wouldn’t have been at all acceptable to the people who ran that little world I lived in.
I propose that if people were in the habit of of questioning the deepest meaning of words, that statism would be much less acceptable. For example, such questioning would yield the realisation that ‘property’ really means what Julie from Chicago described in a recent Samizdata comment: “One’s property is untouchable by others because it is the product of a portion of one’s life.”
Imagine there were no word for tax, or you disciplined yourself not to use it, much as Korzybski recommends listing individuals rather than using group words. You would be unable to say, “I propose an income tax.” Instead, you would have to say, “I propose that for every hour you spend working to provide for your family, we are going to demand that you spend a further hour in servitude to some men you have never met, and if you refuse to do this eventually we will send some other men round to your house who will drag you away from your family and lock you in a cell.” It would be a lot harder to advocate certain statist ideas.
I imagine that libertarians are very much in the habit of questioning the deeper meaning of words. It is a necessary prerequisite for questioning the metacontext. And when we encounter those with a mainstream world view, one constructed for them by the mainstream media and politicians with everything in neat categories like ‘left’ and ‘right’, they find it very difficult to recalibrate their entire linguistic and cognitive framework in order to understand us. They find it very easy to think: he is mad.