Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Rectification of Names

By now everyone knows that the Obama administration tends to traffic in euphemism. As Roger Kimball recently pointed out, it has been violating one of the central precepts of Confucian ethics: the rectification of names. Link here.

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.


J said...

Hi Stuart,

You've written a great post here, and the principles you espouse are estimable. I agree with your discussion on proper naming conventions and how important they are to human interaction.

However, one salient fact is wrong at the very beginning of your argument. "Kinetic military action" did not originate as an Obama administration euphemism. It is actually a technical military term and is commonly used among the different services to describe a specific type of military activity.

Every profession has nomenclature to describe small variations on the same theme for clear communication and thorough understanding among the group. Evidently Obama's wordsmiths appropriated the phrase for spin purposes. However, that doesn't mean it is empty of meaning and purpose to the professionals who use it on a daily basis in the course of their jobs.

I'm married to a USAF pilot, and I asked him about this when I saw people talking about it. My husband is very familiar with the term, and gave several examples of different military activities that also fall under the term.

It is safe to say that the pilots taking part in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn know specifically what they are supposed to be doing, and part of that "knowing" involves their operational activity being officially designated as "kinetic military action" and not another term.

However, you are correct that the phrase has no purpose or meaning, other than rhetorical fluff, when shorn of its original context, as it was in the Obama administration's statement to the media.

Anonymous said...

Oh, good one, Stuart. I agree completely.

Obama would have a hard time selling this war if he said:

"I am engaging in a war against the Qadaffah Tribe of Libya.

We will provide close air support and strategic bombing to advance the forces, and purposes, of a ragtag bunch whom we hope are Tweeting hipsters and not Islamic Radicals in order to stabilize oil prices for France and Southern Europe.

Let me be clear: if we do not stabilize oil prices for the ne'erdowells of the EU, they will not be able to pay back even a portion of the trillions that we, the United States, along with France, Germany and the UK floated them. If their economies sink because of high Libyan oil prices, so will we.

Quite simply: we are waging war on Al-Qadaffi, his tribe and supporters to subsidize a tradition of long Southern European lunch breaks, siestas and vacations.

Unfortunately, if these quaintly termed "rebels" turn out to be Islamic Radicals or Al Qaeda, and not the latte-sipping facebooking hipsters we identify with, we will be in Libya for a very long time. Years; as we are in Bosnia.

As you can clearly see, this is a War for Our Times: we are bombing and dying on behalf of what we hope are wannabe hipsters for the good of long European lunches and vacations.

May God Have Mercy on our Sou-- um, I mean May God Bless America."

He has no choice but to obfuscate by euphemism, the truth is too awful to bear....


Anonymous said...

I've been in the Army a long time. "Kinetic Military Action" is still a euphemism for "using ordinance and small arms to kill people".

We are civilian-controlled, as it must be and we are subject to the whims of political fashions and fads....


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks to J and Gray for clarifying the "kinetic military action" phrase. I am a bit surprised that the information has not been readily available in the press accounts I have read.

I do hope that "overseas contingency operations" was, as I suspect, the invention of a bureaucrat who was trying to obscure the nature of the conflict and the enemy.

Anonymous said...

stuart -

this was a terrific post about langauge in our post-post-modern 21st century.

a few reading sources below on the same "mis-use of language" topic, and some of its "post-modern" origins.

i feel you and your blog readers might find them rewarding.

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault - Paperback (Aug. 1, 2004) by Stephen R.C. Hicks

amazon.com link:

link to google books preview:

George Orwell,
"Politics and the English Language"



"Politics and the English Language" (1946) is an essay by George Orwell criticizing "ugly and inaccurate" contemporary written English.

Orwell said that political prose was formed "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Orwell believed that, because this writing was intended to hide the truth rather than express it, the language used was necessarily vague or meaningless. This unclear prose was a "contagion" which had spread even to those who had no intent to hide the truth, and it concealed a writer's thoughts from himself and others.[1] Orwell advocates instead Plain English.

Richard Mitchell
"Less Than Words Can Say"


with Chapter One linked below as an excerpt:

Chapter One
The Worm in the Brain


Mitchell has some very interesting things to say about "the passive voice" and "agency" and about how corporate and "collective" speech
can dull thinking and initiative.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, shoe, those are great resources... especially the Orwell piece.

Dennis said...

Language, at best, is a very poor medium of communications for a variety of reasons. When one actively seeks to alter or change the meanings of the words utilized in an already poor medium of imparting what one is attempting to say then one is dissembling and is more interested in confusing those who would be the target of that communication.
The easiest way to become conversant with almost any field of endeavor is to learn its language first. It is what provides understanding in that field. Start changing the specific meanings and those in that field no longer have a common understanding.
Words have specific meanings and without that there is no communication.

J said...

I've been in the Army a long time. "Kinetic Military Action" is still a euphemism for "using ordinance and small arms to kill people".

Yes, but under the "kinetic military action" designation, are they getting hazardous duty pay? Are they getting separation allowance? Is Libya a combat operations zone? If they land somewhere -- voluntarily or involuntarily -- do they get the cha-ching?

Follow the money. That's when you know it's a "war". The DoD is first and foremost a bureaucracy -- a bureaucracy in charge of a lot of money and subject to lots of rules and regulations about who gets paid what, when and how. Those rules and regulations rely, at their base, on what they call the military activity.

Language. You can't escape the power of calling something by its proper name.

Therapy Culture said...

Why the fascination with Confucius?