Defining Debate Down – How Language Keeps Us Confined

Language plays a far greater role then just communication. It defines how we think. The reason you can’t remember when you were six months old is not because your brain wasn’t recording events. It’s because you had yet to develop the intellectual framework from which to retrieve the memories of those events.

That intellectual framework is known as representation – how we convert our perceptions of the the outside world into concepts and ideas in our minds. Language is the higher development of representation – when the big round thing becomes a “ball”.

Likewise, our representations of political observations not only affect our ability to communicate, but they affect how we make sense of those observations.

Left, Right, and Center

The language of politics has been severely dumbed down by the duality of left vs right and their tripartite accomplice, the center.

These dim representations as a spectrum of political thought, and their respective correlation to specific philosophy and policy positions, shortchanges  not only debate, but our ability to even conceive of the real landscape of complex issues facing our world.

When one characterizes a candidate for public office as a centrist, for example, what does that actually mean? And can such a characterization have any value to the assessment of the pros and cons of their candidacy for office?

I think the answer is clearly no. The political landscape – which is just a representation of our political world using a geographical metaphor – is immensely complex. We all develop our own conceptions of it in relation to specific issues and their application to an overarching philosophy.

By relying on the LeftRightCenter framework to define this landscape, critical information is omitted. Worse, misinformation is introduced.

For example, where does Howard Dean fit into the LRC spectrum? I doubt any self-declared “leftist” in Vermont would claim him. He’s been characterized as pro environment, fiscally conservative, progressive on social issues, and yet supports gun rights. In terms of the LRC framework, Howard Dean is clearly schizophrenic. The fact is, Dean is all over the board on the LRC spectrum because the LRC spectrum is a myth.

All people have are positions on issues – and hopefully, an overarching philosophy from which these positions are derived.

Now, there could be an argument made that the LRC framework is code for convenience. ‘So and so is a centrist on economic issues’ actually means a lot of complex things that we all are capable of deciphering. But are we?

Where does candidate A stand on tariffs and trade, progressive taxation, monetary policy? Does “centrist” tell us? Even the language of conservative-liberal fails to inform. I found it striking that Ned Lamont, champion of the netroots, wasted no time after the primary to declare from the pages of the Wall Street Journal that he’s a “fiscal conservative.” What does that mean? Balanced budgets? Trickle down economics? Laissez faire? The term is meaningless in the absence of clearly defined positions and an overarching philosophy from which they are derived.

Not Just What We Say, But What We Think

If you ever find yourself with a sense that something is wrong, or you disapprove of a policy, but you can’t quite put your finger on why, that is usually a sign that your language of representation is ill equipped to actualize, or conceptualize the issue.

Many of the issues we face, from globalization to privatization of government functions, are so new in our political experience that it’s hard to clearly define our opposition to them.

What’s wrong with “outsourcing” our prison management or military intelligence to private contractors?  Is there an overarching philosophy or belief system that these policies are in contravention to?

The answer is yes, of course. But the current language, and consequent framework for opposing such schemes has yet to be clearly defined in the public sphere.

My working explanation of why privatizing prisons is wrong is that I believe fully in the institution of democracy as acted through government and that the outsourcing of such a function undermines, and creates a barrier to, the democratic institutional oversight necessary to maintain the integrity of any state action that would remove a fellow citizen’s sacred freedom.

And that was an easy one.

“Where does candidate X stand on trade, globalization, the abject failure of the Chicago School of Economic’s little experiments with neoliberal policies of the World Bank, or the WTO?”

“She’s a moderate.”

Oh, I see.


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  1. assholianism brings out creative new words.


    Swine Eleven

    false flag  


    big farmer

    tin foil

    tea bagger

    • RUKind on January 19, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    This explains to me why my representations take some time to digest to the point where I can begin to articulate them.

    First off, and this goes back years for me, left-center-right is a linear frame. People can’t be pigeon-holed along a single axis line. If you can develop a three axis chart for political positioning it’d make a lot more sense.

    Case in point, I lean libertarian-progressive-populist. Social wide-open liberal, fiscal conservative on wasteful spending but not on social spending, populist in that I actually own three types of pitchfork and I’m more than ready to go, and progressive in that you can’t go back and you can’t stand still.

    Our country was founded by people who to a large extent didn’t give a shit about religion compared to taxes and individual rights and representation. And privacy. And free speech.

    What are the axes that would be used to determine my plot point? I have a strong feeling that some of the honest libertarian tea-baggers and I have more in common than the more and better Dems liberals. You know who I mean.

    So, like my favorite Gaugain at the MFA – who are we? why are we here? where are we going?

    Where do I fit? where do you fit? I think if we can plot this geometry correctly, we can find some surprising allies and a way to move forward by flanking the Establishment from both sides. We can cut their legs out from under them and turn this laissez-faire capitalist bullshit inside out.


    • Heather on January 20, 2010 at 1:34 am

    My dad’s been railing against political “labels” for years. He says it’s lazy and the sign of a nonserious person.

    Also he wants fuck to be a publicly accepted word like damn.

    F’ing centrists would result in a double hijack by dad.

    You’d never EVER get to make your point.

    After I grew up, (about 5 years ago) I agreed with him.

  2. seems meaningless when it is defined by the pols and the pollster/media/consultants. Even left and right have been tweaked to mean brand, party, or opposite values.  All language which comes from the political world is strategy and memes, there is no connection between the language and the policy governance or agenda. Right now as the results come in from MA the tv is talking about strategy gone wrong. They are now going to read the tea leaves of discontent and decide how to change their language to sound more populist instead of actually governing like the majority elected them to do.        

    One of the reasons I liked Dean was that even though I could tell I was way more a old school lefty, he had core beliefs about what was wrong with the political system regardless of where you stood. A belief in democracy and representational government itself. His language did not demonize or personalize but tried to go around the parameters of fake ideology.    

    Strange. this site always throws up what I’m looking for or thinking about. After spending the last couple of weeks at dkos fighting the zombies I find the most depressing thing about the loyalist types is there lack of interest in policy, results, or implementation of the language they use. They are using the fictions and propaganda that comes from their side, to define reality. Better or worse seems the extent of any real language in terms of legislation or democractic governance. Perhaps this essay will help, I doubt it. I’m going to a town hall meeting in my liberal (there’s another one thats slippery) district tomorrow and listen to the language used by angry Democratic constituents directed at the ‘progressives’ they elected.  

    I don’t know where I stand on the political spectrum I suspect I’m an anarchist democrat with socialist leanings. This week I was branded a authoritarian lefty extremist by the dkos cowards who’s only use for language is fighting    their delusional war against lefty/libertarians and thereby vanquishing the tea baggers. Defining debate would require that at least you spoke the same language, I find that what passes for debate these days among Democrats is confining by their intention. I learned more about debating and politics from Armando an uncivil self proclaimed centrist then any of the two legs better bunch around now. Thanks for the timely essay. Your posts are always interesting.                          

    • banger on January 20, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    The Left side is reserved to the opposition to the status quo. Their job is to find new answers to experiment, be creative, be open and flexible — this keeps the system from disintegrating due to rigidity.

    The Right side is for those who want to preserve and enforce tradition and the current institutional frameworks. They literally keep the system from falling apart due to too much openess too much flexibility to much de-structuring. Without the right a system just flies into fragmentation.

    The Center tends to be the navigators who broker the left-right differences so that the system surfs the edge of chaos — not too much order, not too much rigidity. This is what the Framers had in mind, BTW.

    The trouble we have is not with the terms but with the current political conditions. These conditions have been brought about by a mind-control/propaganda regime that is unprecedented in human history. People are utterly confused and this confusion is deliberate and not only the fault of the MSM but even more the fault of an education system that encourages fragmentation of consciousness, i.e., there are only unrelated phenomena that do not connect to each other — in fact, if you “connect the dots” you are indulging in the most serious heresy known in our culture “conspiracy theory”.

    Thus, I would classify “tea baggers” as leftists and Obamacrats as rightists. Tea baggers want institutional change and Obamacrats want no change or want to blunt any change that may come to pass. That’s why I say that the tea baggers, however misinformed by corporate handlers, are the natural allies of leftists, i.e., those of us who really want institutional change. The Democratic establishment most specifically do not want any change at all…get it?

    Now leftists can differ but we can unite to defeat the current right-wing government. We only have a choice between two right wing parties. We have to stop playing this stupid, stupid game and decide that we are leftists and make our alliances with other leftists whether they are called “conservative” (they are not) or “progressive”.

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