Friday, December 08, 2006


Language is amazing in that it can be used to represent reality. Simple sounds or symbols can come to mean concepts that are far more complex than their representation. Some words we use have no tangible analogue, like love, or democracy. One consequence of this is that people will often be able to use a word, but may be almost entirely clueless as to what it means. What replaces understanding is an emotional response. We know this is how "god" works. The very specific idea of humans having a say in their lives in relation to each other is replaced by the low-res word "democracy". GWB, Tony Blair, etc, use words like these to get an emotional response out of you. When you are listening to one of their speeches, the words "freedom" and "democracy" are tossed around, almost glibly, in the understanding that people don't have standard definitions of these words. Rather than replace the words with their entire meaning, the audience associates a nebulous emotion to the simple sound or symbol. These are the "feel good" words that people like to hear, but, if you actually bothered to look them up, really have nothing to do with their agendas, unless, of course, if it was to stifle or undermine them.

I'm not here to define these terms, I just want to point out what happens when we get lazy and sloppy with our words by replacing them with emotions. There are a few terms people have thrown at me that they believe betters their position in an argument (political arguments especially). These I will define.

altruism -
1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
2. Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.

Definition 1 is just false. THERE ARE NO ACTIONS UNDERTAKEN WHICH ARE SELFLESS. None. An act which benefits the group may not immediately return to the initial giver, but later on it will. In the case of actions which bring about the demise of the giver, they gain respect and prestige in the community. "Oh that brave man who was killed in Iraq defending freedom and democracy." The person may not be around to enjoy it, but the point is that it was not a total "loss", nor was it without recompense. The second definition is closer to what the word means, but still does not accurately represent reality. The term "detrimental" suggests that altruism involves a loss to the giver, and a gain to society. A happy xian family goes to the old folks home to sing to and entertain the residents. Seems like they are giving up their oh-so-precious time to perform some thankless job. Well, in xian terms, they would be doing it to be viewed favourably by god. In primate relations terms, their brains would be excreting rewarding happy chemicals that makes them feel good for helping other members of their species. Imagine a selfish person wants to feel good about themselves, and so does some "selfless", kind act for someone else to elicit these happy chemicals. The "selfish" person gets what they want, and the recipients come out ahead. Both parties win. Win-win.

I want to compare this to the idea of profits. Profits (in terms of money) involve a gain for the seller, and a loss for the buyer. Win-lose. (Yes, I understand that often the purchaser gets something they wanted that would benefit them, but it would still be at a price higher than what the seller bought it.) When people think of altruism (or socialism), they think of it as being the opposite outcome of profit. Altruism is when you lose, and the other person gains. Lose-win. In the course of discussing socialism, I have to demonstrate that altruism doesn't exist as we have defined it, or I use a term which makes their nebulous emotions gush: enlightened self-interest. Capitalism is not (just) defined by profits, and socialism is not altruism (or the reverse outcome of profit). Claiming this is making a false dichotomy, and is completely ignoring the decades of research and writing Marx did to describe capitalism. But this is for another post.

Capitalism vs. socialism is often analogous to realism vs. idealism. I have argued with people that have claimed I am too "idealistic" and have labeled themselves "realists". How do you like that for nebulous terms? There is no such thing as a "realist" when discussing these things (I'm not talking about art here). A "realist" living in the 1850s may have said "you can't stop slavery, it's natural and has been here for over a hundred years." They were not basing this solely on the situation at hand as the term "realist" suggests. There were underlying assumptions regarding slavery, among them maybe: black people are inferior to Europeans, a different species; the current situation (slavery) is a good thing, slavery is justified; making people change the way they run plantations would be immoral; etc. Someone living in the early 1900s may have claimed that women would never gain the same rights and status as men, so it would not even be worth it to try. Ideals: women are inferior to men; women are only good for cooking, cleaning, and making babies, and not for much else; changing the way people relate to women is an impossible task. Henry Kissinger is described as a "realist". His underlying assumptions include: violence is a great way to solve problems, it is the only way to solve problems; anyone claiming to be communist is worthy of death; it's okay to bomb countries that happen to border a current enemy of the US; Agent Orange and its tactical use is justified; etc. The point is all of these assumption are ideals. They may not be the most noble or ones we would care to have, but they are ideals. They may or may not align themselves with reality. Some ideals, like democracy, are desirable, but not necessarily attained. (Note: despite Bush's rhetoric, the US is not a democracy.) Ideals can be good (like democracy) or bad (like racism). They could line up with reality (like the redefined "altruism"), or they could be way off the mark (like racism).


Blogger Delta said...

I really liked this post. It reminds me of what I occasionally say when someone asks what anarchism means to me. I tell them that it's the idea that freedom and democracy aren't simply hollow words, but are actual ideas that we should really pursue.

12 December, 2006 00:52  

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