Language: May 2007 Archives

Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy is disturbed by the rhetoric of the following statement by President Bush yesterday morning:

Those determined to find fault with this [immigration] bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like. If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people.
The complaint seems to be that the president is treating those who disagree with him on this bill don't want to do what's right for America. I think the complaint relies on an ambiguity in the expression. Absent any context, principles of charity, or assumptions about what someone might mean, you can take the expression in either of the following two ways:

A. This bill is right for America, and if you want to kill it then you don't want to do this thing that's right for America.
B. This bill is right for America, and anyone who wants to kill it must agree that it's right for America and therefore must have a desire to harm America or at least to resist anything that's right for America.

Now I acknowledge that someone could use the language the president used to mean the second thing. However, I find it extremely unlikely that that's what he meant. In context, he was discussing a particular bill and arguing that the bill itself is right for America. The very fact that he was arguing with those who disagree with him on the particular bill, and that he was making an appeal to doing it because it's right for America, means he does think those who disagree with him on the bill want to do what's right for America. So taking him as if he thinks the opposite is at odds with the context of his speech. He wasn't speaking to a closed-room, partisan audience in order to smear his political opponents. He was trying to persuade people who disagree with him.

It therefore makes much more sense to interpret the president as fitting within his rhetorical situation rather than opposing it. It's always best to take someone in the most charitable way possible given all your information, and it's more charitable in terms of intellectual coherence to take him as saying A. It's also more charitable in moral terms, since it would be immoral to intend B by the sentence he uttered.

But there's no reason to think he did, and intending A is perfectly fine. So I'm at a loss to understand why there's supposed to be any problem with what he said (aside from whether it actually is best for America, but that's something he's in the process of trying to argue for, and mentioning that he thinks it's best for America is perfectly legitimate in that context).

Update: Even Peggy Noonan has joined the insanity. I'd never have predicted her to be the sort who would read this president's words in as uncharitable a light as possible. She sometimes disagrees with him, but she's not usually willing to engage in this kind of libel.

It's sometimes said that the word 'jihad' in Arabic derives from a word for striving and thus doesn't mean war or holy war. Mark Liberman points out that the English word 'war' is also derived from a root that has nothing to do with war, although in this case it is confusion rather than striving. It's easy to see how either might eventually end up meaning war. (It's a little more difficult to see how the etymological root of 'war' eventually became the German word for sausage.) But both words do actually mean war.

Now, as Mark acknowledges, this doesn't stop people from using either word metaphorically to refer to something else. Muslims do use the word 'jihad' to refer to an inner, spiritual quest that involves struggling to be a good Muslim, but in fact the English word 'war' can also be used in such a metaphorical way, as can several other words that literally mean violent conflict. Some words have even more commonly come to mean nonviolent moral missions (e.g. 'crusade') and hardly ever mean war.

I have no problem if a Muslim wants to use the word 'jihad' in this way. I'd be much happier if all Muslims did no more than go through inner struggles in their personal jihad. I do have a problem if someone wants to pretend that the word never means "holy war" or especially the historically revisionist line that Muslims never meant it as war. I do have a problem if someone tries to act as if this nonviolent use of the word is standard in a way that nonviolent uses of the word 'war' are not. But even aside from the parallels between the two words, I think it's worth resisting the etymological fallacy that takes a word to mean something simply because it was derived from an archaic root that means that. The classic counterexample of 'butterfly' in English comes to mind. It doesn't have much to do with butter or flies.

Abortion Doctors

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I've read a number of criticisms of Justice Kennedy's decision in Carhart v. Stenberg, which upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban. One theme I've seen several times is the claim that Kennedy's use of the term 'abortion doctors' is somehow pejorative and inappropriate. In fact, this meme seems to have initiated with Justice Ginsburg's dissent. See here for Justice Ginsburg's words in making this criticism.

When I first read about this, it seemed an unfair and illegitimate complaint, but I didn't really spend much time thinking about it or looking at the use of the term 'abortion doctor'. I decided to look around a little when I saw this post by Stuart Buck, which points out that one person now making this complaint had only two years earlier used the same expression in an entirely positive context. I did a Google search for "abortion doctor" OR "abortion doctors". Here are some of the results.

1. a directory of abortion providers
2. someone's explanation "Why I Am An Abortion Doctor"
3. a 1998 CNN news story about the murder of an abortion doctor
4. a 2003 AP news story about the execution of someone who killed an abortion doctor
5. the amazon.com entry for the book associated with #2
6. a 1997 pro-choice website seeking to organize the pro-choice movement against a murder charge an abortion doctor was facing
7. a 2003 Fox News story about the same events of #4 above
8. a 2007 Los Angeles Times piece on an aspiring abortion doctor still in medical school, which I have to note is (a) very positive about her and (b) significantly after the Kennedy opinion
9. another article about the 2003 case, this time hosted at a site about dangeous cults that places this killer in a larger category of anti-abortion extremists
10. an abortion provider directory at abortion.com, which as far as I can tell has removed whatever reference it had that placed it in the listings for this Google search

A little while ago, Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote a brief but interesting review of the new Tolkien novel The Children of Hurin. One statement stood out to me as especially interesting:

The story also emphasizes Tolkien's view (perhaps influenced by his experiences in World War I) that waging war against evil often requires time and patience, avoiding both premature defeatism and premature large-scale offensives.

I don't know whether this is accurate to Tolkien's intent, but I thought the ensuing discussion in the comments was very helpful in terms of why he takes Tolkien this way. But what's perhaps more interesting to me is that this seems like a perfectly normal use of the word 'evil', one that assumes nothing in particular about the metaphysical or moral content of the term. Speaking of fighting against evil in this sense does not involve any assumption about some force of evil in the world, never mind about whether such a thing is as powerful as any good force.

It amazes me how many philosophers I know think that using 'evil' as a noun in this way somehow reveals a hidden Manicheanism or dualism in one's view of good and evil (i.e. the view that good and evil are equally powerful forces). Sometimes the claim is put that President Bush is "ontologizing evil" by using the word 'evil' as a noun in this way, which is philosophical shorthand for the same point. A friend of mine called me up last week for other reasons, but the conversation degenerated to a series of his gripes against some of the views I've argued for on this blog that he'd been holding in for a couple years and had to get out before he leaves town (at least that's what it seemed to me he was doing), and at one point he just couldn't fathom how I could possibly think President Bush is not a dualist of this sort given how often he uses the word 'evil' as a noun in this way.

This kind of abstract language isn't all that uncommon. Are people ontologizing cancer as if it's some all-powerful force in the universe when they say that we're forming a crusade against breast cancer? Are Mothers Against Drunk Driving treating drunk driving as some evil force on the level of divinity if they speak as if they're waging a war against drunk driving? Are politicians ontologizing corruption as some spiritual force as powerful as God whenever they speak of fighting corruption? I don't see how it's any different when it comes to fighting terrorism, fighting terror, or fighting evil. It's a credit to the Volokh Conspiracy readers that no one repeated that meme in the comments.

From an actual church sign: "Hurting people loved here"

I count at least six disambiguations given in the post and the comments, most of them not good.

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