Language and Freedom
Numerous personalities of note have made the connection between freedom and education. Specifically, it has been observed that a well-educated populace is a most basic and necessary condition for maintaining a state of freedom. Thomas Jefferson put it well when he wrote:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
In a related, though broader sense, Thomas Paine wrote:
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”
From these two quotes, we derive two of the important prerequisites in order for freedom to survive the attacks that it invariably must endure: a well-educated people and the determination to keep them that way.
What, one may ask, does this have to do with language? In a word, everything.
Without language, we would have no thoughts beyond those of the base instinctual variety. Without language, our thoughts would be wholly unarticulated. Language is the instrument by which humans beings conceptualize the world. Were we unable to draw and understand concepts, our capabilities as intellects would be somewhere at the level of chickens. Nearly everything we know as human beings exists in our minds as concepts. Therefore, language serves as the means by which we know and make sense of virtually every aspect of the world around us. Language is the very basis of our understandings of just about everything we know and ever will know. Equally importantly, language serves as the basis for the ways in which we know those things. Without language, we would be incapable of doing much more than eat, sleep, eliminate, engage in sex, and run away from danger. One’s thoughts form their reality, and the basis of all thought existing above the level of midbrain impulse is language. For all practical purposes, without language, there are no thoughts such as we commonly know them today.
Consider what human life would be like without language. What, for example, would people be able to do when they became hungry? At best, they would mill about in search of food in a haphazard fashion, unable to convey ideas to others because there would be no ideas. The instruments of language and the framework they provide for allowing concepts to exist and people to understand them would be absent. Human beings would perceive the world in a wholly different fashion and that manner would severely restrict their options for taking action in their environments. The manner in which people would be handicapped in this respect would be similar to the way in which a person who was blind from birth would not be able to conceptualize colors. Without the experience of perceiving color, the brain has no way of knowing what it is. We may say the same of thought and its attendant structural foundation, language.
Without language, those same people would not be able to coordinate food-gathering efforts or to engage in mutually beneficial collective action of any sort. In the case of defending the familial- or tribal-unit, instinct would almost certainly cause them to gather because of the unarticulated feelings from their midbrains would drive them to act, much as the sexual urge would drive them to copulation. There would be a complete absence of rational thought, where in its stead only primitive urges would drive all actions.
In the same case of community defense, consider how severely handicapped people without language would be from the standpoint of keeping guard and warning of danger. Once again, instinct would perhaps provide the drive to maintain vigil, which might consist of everyone sleeping with one eye open every night. Ignoring the poor state of rest in which they might find themselves, consider the practical disadvantages of an absence of language and rational thought for these people where the common defense would be concerned. Imagine that everyone is asleep, save one “sentry”, and he spies a known threat closing on them. What could he do to warn the others? Short of screaming and flailing wildly to arouse his companions, it would seem that anything useful to the defense of the clan would be beyond their reach. Supposing he does just that, those so rudely awakened would know only that there was danger. There would be no way of informing them as to the nature of the threat; what sort of creatures, from what direction, how many, etc. All they would know was that they were in danger, which we may all agree might not be enough information to be of any real help in some situations.
Consider the way of identifying similar threats. The language deprived clan sees one of their own taken by a spotted cat. That direct experience enables the survivors to identify the next spotted cat as a threat to their lives. But what of a striped cat? We take it for granted that a large cat is going to be a threat no matter what its markings, but these people have no concept of “cat” as a category because they are incapable of categorizing anything for lack of the intellectual tools that language provides. There would be no ability to abstract “cat” from “spotted cat”. Therefore, that striped cat would take those poor primitive beings completely unawares as he came along and ate one of them. What would they do when they encountered a bear?
Compare that situation with one where language, thought, and a sufficient body of relevant concepts were available to that tribe. First, there could be a sentry because through the instruments of thought and its linguistic foundation, the primitive men would be able to work out the idea that having a handful of their fellows keeping watch as the rest slept would be beneficial to the state of restfulness of the community. When a sentry discovered the approaching threat, there would now be open to him a range of responses, each appropriate to a different set of circumstances. If he discovered the threat while it was still far distant, a sentry could quietly arouse his fellows and apprise them in detail of what he had discovered. This might provide the option of quietly slipping away undetected, rather than reacting in a manner that would only serve to alert the potential enemy of their presence and location. And when that striped cat showed up, the people would immediately be able to identify “cat” and therefore realize the danger and take action before anyone was eaten.
From these simple examples, we can readily see that language and what it brings to the table of human consciousness changes the quality of life from the most rudimentary levels all the way up to the most abstruse concepts. Without language, our worlds would be far smaller and vastly more meager, not to mention a whole lot more dangerous. Language establishes the very basis of virtually everything we do by enabling us to acquire, store, abstract, and build upon information and knowledge. Without language there would be no knowledge.
Language provides us with the following capabilities:
- To conceptualize
- To abstract from specific experiences to generalized concepts
- To assign meaning through concepts
- To apply conceptual generalizations to specific and often new cases
- To communicate meaning and intention to others
- To know given things in different ways
- To think rationally
There are many other abilities for which language acts as a vehicle, but most of those arise through the agency of those listed above. The fact that one can consider this list and come up with additional capabilities based on it is yet another way in which language serves us from the depths of our minds.
This leads us directly to the idea of proper and improper uses of language, whether through intent or ignorance. Remembering that language is the foundational basis for rational, conceptual thought and that our thoughts form our realities, it then follows that the soundness of our thoughts is at least partly dependent on the soundness of our skills in using language. Strong language skills are a fundamental prerequisite for sound capabilities in reasoned thought. That is, one cannot think in a well-reasoned and orderly manner if their language skills are not sufficiently developed. Freedom, therefore, depends on language for its very existence and survival.
In the absence of strongly educated, independently thinking people who are well habituated to powerful critical reasoning, we can neither realize nor maintain the concept and practice of living freely as a nation nor even as individuals. Without adept language skills, the quality of our critical reasoning habits and our attitudes regarding our freedoms are meaningless because without those skills, our abilities to employ those habits and attitudes will be ineffectual. Without that ability, we stand impotent to determine whether any given proposition will serve liberty or hinder it.
The ignorant misuse and malicious abuse of language has been the cause of endless mischief. One of the most troublesome areas lies in the abuse of the very meanings of words themselves. Many people are fond of excusing the abuse of language, citing the “fact” that languages “evolve”. They may indeed evolve, but that does not mean that it is a good thing in all cases. There are countless examples of how such evolution causes far more harm than good. Consider this quote:
“The Constitution is a written instrument. As such, its meaning does not alter. That which it meant when it was adopted, it means now.”
- SC v. US, 199
437, 448 U.S.
This, from a Supreme Court decision, indirectly acknowledges the vital importance that the proper use and maintenance of language holds for us all. There are, however, those who assert that the Constitution is a living document, and therefore changes its meaning as times change. If the meaning of our Constitution alters in time with superficial changes of context, then in actuality the document means nothing at all for it is subject to arbitrary interpretation by whoever it is that happens to be assuming positions of power at a given time. It further implies that fundamental principals that people live by also mean nothing, as their “meanings” may alter with time and fashion. Proponents of the “living document” notion have used this fallacious, yet emotionally compelling fiction to convince people that the Constitution no longer means what it says. While it has not always been successful, that this notion has ever succeeded constitutes convincing evidence that the language skills of many Americans are probably lacking in a potentially fatal manner and degree. Fatal, at the very least, to our freedom.
We may demonstrate the wholly unsound nature of this point of view with a simple example based on our murder laws. It is safe to say that the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans agree that laws prohibiting murder are in fact constitutionally sound. Imagine, then, a defendant pleading not guilty to a charge of murder and basing his defense on the position that his act was in fact legal because “times have changed” and the applicable laws no longer mean what they once did. How many presumably sane and rational people would accept such a defense? Yet this is the very argument that some use to justify the usurpation of power by government and the infringement of rights of the people. Such people will argue that government may now assume this power or that because “times have changed” – the old “necessity” trick. Legislators often use the same argument to justify the legislative abrogation of civil rights. In virtually every case one can find that abuses of language that skew reason and hide its flaws lie at the foot of such efforts.
Regardless of the issue at hand, such arguments tend to carry with them heavily flawed reasoning. They do, however, also carry with them very strong emotional force that is almost universally couched in the misuse of language. Many people, at times a majority, who are the targets of such arguments, are unable to analyze them due to the lack of strong language skills that stands at the root of the cascade of their other deficiencies, all contributing to an inability to refute even the most egregiously obvious attempts to violate the sovereignty of the individual.
Consider the Second Amendment to the US Constitution which states:
“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a
, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” free state
This simple and eminently clear sentence has been so grossly misinterpreted that it almost defies credulity. This is especially true of those who oppose the notion of a right to keep and bear arms. Why is this so? Poor language skills and the redefinition of terms are the main culprits. A common misinterpretation, stemming from a singular lack of grammar skills, asserts that the enumerated right is collective rather than individual. One “fact” they employ in support of the claim is that the first clause, also called the “prefatory” clause (A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state), places a restriction upon the second clause (the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed). In other words, they claim that the Amendment is saying that the right to keep and bear arms is collective rather than individual and that this right is therefore reserved to “the people” and exercisable only through the militia, which many assert to be the National Guard with equal error. Therefore, according to this “interpretation”, only those in the National Guard have the right to keep and bear arms. Notice also that a “right” seems to appear to one’s possession, as if by magic when they join the National Guard and disappears with equal mystery when they leave. What of the other armed forces that are not the National Guard?
A simple example to expose the flawed linguistic understanding that underpins the collectivist interpretation might read:
“A well-educated electorate being necessary to the security of a
, the right of the people to keep and read books shall not be infringed.” free State
How many of the collectivist adherents would interpret this statement to mean that only well-educated people had the right to own and read books? Most likely, none would, and yet they advocate this ridiculous notion where the Second Amendment is concerned and many others fall for it because they simply do not possess the basic language skills that would enable them to know the true meaning of the Amendment.
How about this, for the benefit of those fans of the First Amendment:
“An open and candid Congress being necessary to the security of a
, the right of the people to hold and express opinions shall not be infringed.” free State
Is there any reasonable chance of interpreting this to mean that only senators and representatives are entitled to free speech?
Another equally significant example involves the Congress’ use of the so-called “commerce clause” to make an end-run around their constitutionally limited powers to interfere with the affairs of the citizens. Once again, the lack of sufficient language skills has enabled Congress to enact entire bodies of unconstitutional legislation, and to have them upheld by the courts. One illustrative tidbit relating to these centers on the very definition of “commerce”, which today we take it to mean trade – all sorts of trade, in fact. Back when the commerce clause was penned, “commerce” had a different and very specific meaning, which was trade over the oceans and as affected by ship. Its original, mercantilist intent was to nationalize state imposts on foreign trade. Some desired this for two reasons, the first being that the federal government was in sore need of revenues to pay the debts it incurred in financing the war of independence and the second was to minimize precious specie movements out of the country by restricting foreign trade. For anyone finding this definition non-credible, one may find original research into the issue here.
Applying the meaning of “commerce” as employed by the framers of the Constitution at the time of its ratification, the legitimacy of all such acts based on the commerce clause come immediately into question. This may not seem very consequential until we begin to consider how many people have served long and hard prison sentences because of convictions under such unconstitutional laws.
If we cannot make proper use of language even to the point of possessing the real meanings of words, how will we be able to realize freedom for a moment, much less maintain it across the generations? If an iron will does not bind us to endow ourselves with strong skills in language and the other arts that they allow for, the hope for free living is as dead as yesterday’s news.
Until next time, please accept my best wishes.