Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vague Policy, Agreements & Political Language

by Gary Berg-Cross

Politicians, lawyers and ad men make a living exploiting the vagaries of language. This is not always bad since it may be used to circumvent some prejudices that are fired up by particular language. Growing up Abe Lincoln read the philosophical works of the deist Thomas Paine which greatly influenced his thinking. Historian Craig Nelson reports that Lincoln’s friends & neighbors believed the Lincoln largely agreed with Paine’s deist and infidel position expressed in The Age of Reason. But in his political life Lincoln employed masterfully vague & deferential speech when he referred to religion, marshalling it in his efforts to save the Union. Indeed he was pragmatic in his need for the support of ministers and their congregations in the civil war effort. See for example Abraham Lincoln's Humanistic. Religious Beliefs. We live far from an age of politicians like Lincoln but vague language remains a factor for good or bad in society.

Some people’s efforts to be ambiguous is intentional, but our everyday language used for ordinary activities is often vague even though it serves non-exploitative interests. Certainly, that are particular parts of the physical world where there is a strong connection between that reality, our experience of reality and the words we use. A word like rock is precise because it describes a well–defined set of objects. So we may feel confident with a claim like, “a rock in on the table.” By contrast, words like “tall”, “kind”, “justice”, “soul”, & “life” seem open ended and vague.

Consider, for example, the word “tall.” There is no precise, known height which defines the line between a person who is tall and a person who is not. There is no fixed agreement on the meaning. I may say that my grandson Caden is tall because he is taller than other boys his age that I see. But he would not be tall in comparison to an adult. Or in olden days we might have said that a man 5’10 was tall. In today’s world 5’10 isn’t tall and on the basketball court maybe 6”3 isn’t either. Tallness is a relative term and is understood in some context or by some fiat, such as declaring that 6’4’’ is tall for a man. This provides some additional information to base a judgment and we might reach an agreement on what “tall” means. But even with context some word-concepts like “kind”, “good”, “enemy combatant” or “justice” remain vague and people don’t agree on their meaning.

I might believe and say that Barak Obama is “kind” or that people are by nature “good” or that Muslims are “enemies”, but what does this mean? The meaning of an individual belief might be pragmatically tied ultimately and necessarily to some observed experience for justification. I might say that Obama was seen performing acts of “kindness” and I have some personal notion of what this is, but it may differ from other peoples. While a pragmatic approach to the concept helps provide a context it also pushes the problem a bit further on since it implies some way of identifying a kind or good act. They can’t be easily localized to an object or act or some easy combination of them. Thus there remain entire sections of Philosophy devoted to understanding the concept of values like goodness.

I was thinking of the vagaries of language and agreements on meaning recently as I read about the debate over the 2012 National Defense Authorization Bill which taken as a whole includes powers for indefinite detention of alleged terrorists (aka ‘terrorist sympathizers’) anywhere in the world (including the US). The bill gives the US military the duty to arrest, imprison and interrogate suspects without benefit of counsel. In the bill one finds Orwellian doublespeak phrasing including: ‘substantially supports’ and ‘associated forces.’ The later seems to allow rendition of suspects to other countries for interrogation.

One worries about vague language getting into legislation and being interpreted politically according to intentions not stated in the Bill. There was a similar problem with the recent
climate change agreement and the convoluted language of the agreement. Here one may subscribe better intentions to the effort, but an equally troubling result which relies on vague language. Clearly climate change is a complex topic, even if measurements of average temperatures are not. As with many advanced scientific areas our understanding is based on a mixture of historical data, current measurement and interpretation via models. Still taken as a whole the scientific case is strong and growing stronger rapidly so the question is what can be done to mitigate the likely effects?

This was what the Climate Change meeting was about and brings me to the so called “agreement” reached after 2 weeks of grueling negotiations held at the 94-party climate conference in Durban South Africa. On the verge of collapse in the final days, the parties reached not exactly an immediately binding protocol. So they formulated a vaguer concept expressed in clause in the documents that called on countries, within three years, to complete negotiations on ‘a protocol, another legal instrument, or a legal outcome’ that would succeed the Kyoto Protocol. But the EU objected to the wording of this phrase ‘legal outcome,’ which it said would allow countries to wriggle out of commitments. The final compromise, reached at 3:30 a.m., changed the final option to ‘an agreed outcome with legal force.’ Better, but what does this mean? It might seem clear to a layman, but it is a technical term and will take on different meanings to different people.

The agreement gives about five years for ratification. So we face more negotiations to reach a later new global climate agreement by 2015 with this agreement to come into effect by 2020. It's better than "the worst" possible outcome, but as some said it's still a cowardly, and builds in an unacceptable delay on global climate action. To some of us delay seems like and a recipe for climate disasters. The so-called Durban platform is not exactly the plain language of Science, or the inspired phrasing of a Lincoln. It’s more of a dose of artful diplomatic wording that glosses over political divisions and makes some feel that success progress has been achieved. What seems less unambiguous is that it is unambitious and kicks a can down the road and heads mitigation pledges and efforts in a sideways direction. Climate science gives us an increasingly detailed projection of a warming and changing earth ecology that will take the world of our children into a red zone of catastrophe. It’s language of urgency grows clearer while the political and diplomatic effort lack courage to commit to reasonable mitigation actions.


Edd.Doerr said...

Excellent column. Lincoln got it right. And this highlights once again the importance of strategy, prioritizing, and balance. A few days ago I sent a letter to the NY Times making the point that too often atheist activism is counterproductive, as atheist activism on Christmas displays distracts attention from more serious church-state problems such as the campaigns to divert public funds to religious private schools or undermine reproductive choice. Winning a battle over a creche at city hall while losing the battles over school vouchers or abortion rights is a bad bargain.

Explicit Atheist said...

Don't watch football games, don't read novels, don't cook meals. These activities are counter-productive as they distract attention from serious problems such as violence in Afghanistan and hunger in north Korea. Enjoying a sports game, a novel, a meal, while people are killed or die is a bad tradeoff.

lucette said...

Edd said:
"Winning a battle over a creche at city hall while losing the battles over school vouchers or abortion rights is a bad bargain."

Explicit Atheist retorted:
"Enjoying a sports game, a novel, a meal, while people are killed or die is a bad tradeoff."

IMHO, enjoying a sports game, a novel or a meal, are activities that are usually reaching their goal: some pleasure. They take a limited time, and almost no money: no need for serious, long term effort to organize popular and legal support. Nobody opposes these activities, except people like the Taliban. If the goal of enjoyment is not reached in a particular case, no TV commercials, bookstores, or restaurants will suffer major losses.
Compare this situation to assigning equal priority to the removal of a cross from federal land and to the mandatory teaching of unalloyed evolution in the classrooms.