Friday, July 17, 2020

1889 Institute: Words Must have Meaning If Civilization is to Survive

Words Must have Meaning If Civilization is to Survive
By Mike Davis

Words have meaning. This allows us to communicate with each other. Suppose you and I are having dinner. If I ask you to pass the salt, meaning the seasoning, and you have decided to redefine the word “salt” as a handheld explosive device (what I call a hand grenade), you would be very worried, and I, having asked for salt, would be surprised by your concern. If words mean whatever the speaker or listener decides in the moment, then we lose the fundamental ability to communicate.

The continued debate over what "defund" means, and especially the Supreme Court's recent decision to include gay and transgender as protected classes under federal labor discrimination law, have called to mind the Tower of Babel, recounted in Genesis 11. A group of people decided that they would build a tower to heaven. God, seeing that they would accomplish this goal if they continued to work together, confused their language and scattered them over the face of the earth. Reading the news and social media, it feels as though Americans have imposed this sentence on ourselves. Our language is being intentionally confused.

“Defund the police” has been the subject of mixed definitions. Some extremists want to abolish all police departments. Some cities have taken this suggestion seriously. Others want to divert some funding from police to social services. Others carelessly toss the same phrase around as a blanket term for police reform. It has lost all meaning. When a conservative says they oppose "defunding the police,” meaning they want to continue having police in their city, and they are told they are racist (another word with a rapidly evolving meaning) for not supporting police reform, it becomes easy to avoid the subject of salt, so as not to get a reputation for linking hand grenades.

This doesn't end in the public square; it's also happening in the Supreme Court. In mid-June, Justice Gorsuch, normally a staunch textualist, committed the cardinal sin of substituting his policy preferences for those of Congress. In 1964, when Title VII was written, “because of sex” couldn't possibly have included sexual orientation or transgender status. Justice Gorsuch, trying desperately to adhere to his textualist principles, instead betrayed them by broadening the meaning of that phrase beyond recognition. It falls to Congress to define the limits of employment discrimination laws. The court’s duty is to uphold the law as written.

America is standing at the feet of the Tower of Babel. If we do not agree to resume speaking the same language - giving words their traditional meaning - we to will be scattered over the face of the whole earth, and whatever potential our society had will be squandered.

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at


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