What does that mean? It means that the administration fails to call things by their proper names. When things do not have their proper names, we do not know how to relate to them. And we do not know what we should or should do about them.
Confucius believed that such failures make it impossible to conduct business successfully. Thus, they undermine propriety and social harmony.
Of course, that is quite a philosophical leap. So let’s try to explain this arcane Chinese concept. I’ll try to make it worth your trouble.
Kimball pointed out that, a “kinetic military action,” is not the same thing as a war. An “overseas contingency operation,” is not the same as a war on terror.
But, isn’t this just an exercise in semantics? Why does it matter?
Take an example. Let’s say that you call your friend and ask if he would like to throw a football around. How does this differ from calling him and inviting him to play a game of football?
If you are just throwing a ball around, you are not playing football. You might be preparing for an eventual game, but otherwise you are engaging in some enjoyable leisure activity.
If there's no game, there is no competition; there are no opposing teams; there are no players, rules, referees, scores, or winners.
Playing a game of football is an intense competitive activity. Throwing a ball around is not.
If you think that your football game is just like throwing a ball around you will have misunderstood the nature of the game.
It is one thing to tell your football team that they are going to throw the ball around; quite another to tell them that they are going to play for the state championship.
If you give out the wrong information, some team members will be confused, will not know understand what they are preparing for, and might not even show up.
If you want every member of your team to be ready to play in the big game, it makes good sense to tell them that they are going to be playing in a big game.
Let’s examine the current military operations in Libya. Clearly there is an armed conflict between forces who are and are not loyal to Kaddhafi.
If we are getting ourselves involved in a war, we are taking sides. That is part of warfare. It is not necessarily part of kinetic military actions. The latter might just be a training exercise.
In addition, we do not really know what to call those who are fighting against Kaddhafi. Who are they really? If we are fighting for them, shouldn't we know who they are. Perhaps they are rebels, but that would mean that we understand not only what they are rebelling against but what they are rebelling for.
At times, our president has declared that we are on the side of “the people.” Unfortunately, "the people" is a meaningless abstraction.
All of the fighters on both sides of the conflict are people. Why are we on the side of one group of people and not another? If our motive is humanitarian, why is it not relevant that al Qaeda terrorists are also human beings?
In a war we try to kill our enemies and ensure the victory of our friends. We are not in it for an abstraction or some ill-defined motive.
While we are all in favor of less bloodshed, who knows whether, in the long run, our intervention will cause more or less bloodshed?
When the conflict is defined as a struggle between the tyrant and the people, it becomes a historical drama. But this is merely a myth. If we are not fighting a war or conducting foreign policy, then we are trying out for a role in a drama… or better, placing ourselves on the right side of an historical narrative.
As long as no one knows who these rebels are, what their goals are, and what they are fighting for, we are effectively engaging in political theatre.
While we might have prevented a massacre in Benghazi, we do not know who we saved, what they want, and what they will do once they have gained power.
Without knowing what to name our action or what to name our allies we are flying blind and sowing potential confusion.
Calling the action by its name forces us to face up to a whole series of difficult questions, first among which is: What are we doing in Libya? Or, Why are we bombing Libya?
If our goal is humanitarian, why are we not defending the human beings who are being gunned down in Yemen and Syria?
If our policy is incoherent, why would any other nation want to conduct foreign policy with us?
If it is incoherent, then others will assume that it is self-serving, not principled. If our government conducts policy in order to ensure the re-election of Barack Obama, why would anyone want to do diplomatic business with us?
Confucius saw the rectification of names as necessary to conduct policy. But he also saw it at work in many other social contexts.
Let’s try some other examples. There is a difference between being your father and being your friend. There is also a difference between being your father and being your mother.
If you introduce your father as your friend, or your mother as your girl friend you will simply be confusing people, and ultimately, yourself. If you don't know the difference, you will not know how to behave toward your parents or your friends.
Admittedly, political correctness would insist that rectifying names, calling people by their names and using their proper titles is prejudicial. That is one way that political correctness undermines social harmony.
Confucius believed that familial relationships involve specific duties and obligations. They also impose certain taboos.
It matters that people know the nature of their relationships to others because otherwise they would not understand their duties toward those other people.
In the Confucian world, children owe their parents filial piety. This involves strong gestures of respect and deference. Calling someone your father or mother is the basis for a series of prescribed behaviors.
And those are only the beginning. Calling someone your boss or your assistant, your teammate or your competitor, your girlfriend or your wife, your husband or your ex-husband… all of these define sets of duties and obligations. They define the parameters of good behavior. Thus they ensure the good order of society.
If you would like to erase all of these terms on the grounds that we are all human beings, all members of the human species, then you will have eliminated the rules and regulations that order society. Confucius would not have approved. Neither would Miss Manners.
Let’s examine the words of the Sage himself. Confucius said: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be conducted successfully. When affairs cannot be conducted successfully, propriety will not flourish. When propriety does not flourish, punishments will not be properly meted out. When punishments are not properly meted out, the people will not know how to conduct themselves.”
What is Confucius trying to tell us about governance? First, that your language must be connected to the truth of things.
Meaning what, exactly?
Clearly, Confucius does just mean that we need to learn to call things by their proper names. He is also saying that we should be good to our word.
If you are good to your word, that means that when you say you will do something, it is as good as done.
If you are not good to your word, if your word does not count as a commitment to do this or that, then fewer and fewer people will want to do business with you.
When Confucius says that he wants propriety to flourish, I take him to mean that he wants the business of business and the business of government to be conducted on handshakes.
When people trust each other and know that they can count on everyone to be good to his or her word, then the human affairs will be conducted harmoniously.
If you go back on your word, you will be offending your partner. If you do not have enough integrity to keep your word, then you will probably try to escape responsibility by shifting the blame or by falling back on legalistic excuses.
You will be defending yourself on the grounds that the contract was unclear, that you did not understand it, and that it was impossible to fulfill anyway.
Making excuses when you fail to keep your word is the opposite of propriety.
If we do not keep our word and do not call things by their names, then we will not know how to conduct ourselves in society. We will not know whether to show up on time or to ignore the appointment. We will not know when or whether to expect the delivery. We will not know what we are doing or what we should be doing or whether we are doing it right.