Sunday, April 28, 2013

Do You Know What You Are Talking About?

Words mean things.

Sometimes, it gets really confusing, because the same word can mean different things - like the way "fly" can be both an annoying insect and a crucial mechanism on a pair of pants.  Other times, different words that sound like they should be opposites mean the same thing - like "flammable" and "inflammable".

And if you want to get really super-King Kong word-nerdy, you could argue about how and whether usage by a population changes a meaning, and about whether people should cling to old meanings that are out of favor.  (Like, should "gay" mean what it does today, or should it mean what it meant 50 years ago?)  I don't want to get too deep into that kind of argument here.  I just want to clear up some things that people keep saying that may be leading to unnecessary confusion.

I want to address the over-used word, "Government."

If you click on the word "Government" above, it will take you to the entry.  Feel free to refer to that, or to whatever your dictionary of choice may be as I wax rhapsodic about the different definitions of the word.  No matter which set of definitions you choose, I hope you will notice that the real difference between them is scope. The first definition, though, should be the most widely used and generic one, and it should boil down to this:
Direction and control exercised over the actions of the members of a group.
Governing, in that sense, is something that we all do when we participate in any group.  And ours is supposed to be a participatory government.  We're all supposed to be paying attention to who is representing us at various levels, and have at least a vague inkling of how their choices represent our choices. The point is to keep every negotiation, disagreement, or transaction from becoming a battle that ends with the stronger party destroying the weaker party and taking away their lunch money. In other words:
Government is necessary to the existence of civilized society.
Deep down, I think all of my friends and neighbors agree with that. Where we run into trouble is when some of you start equating everything that has to do with any *kind* of government as *the* government - or the Big Government.

This is a problem, because as anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention can immediately tell, there are different kinds of governments all over the world, and different levels within each that have different rules, different jurisdictions - and it is wrong and misleading to lump them together as all being the same thing.

Doing so is lazy, and it leads to the kinds of conspiratorial thinking that drives too many people in our modern society - from relatively harmless loudmouths (like the Glenn Becks of the world) to destructive sociopaths (like the shooters & bombers in too many of our recent news headlines). I am not saying that Conspiracy Theorists Are Crazy, but it is important to bring some reason and objectivity to bear on the things that you say - and the first step is know what you meant by the words you chose.

It's probably also a really good idea to have some idea what your intended audience will think you meant.  (That's where this post comes in!)

One popular topic for people to grouse about on Facebook is schools. Most of my friends have children, and there are a million things to complain about during the course of each year that can be laid at the feet of the school district.  Too often for my taste, these conversations end with an eye roll and a jab at "the government" - sometimes, they even lead into a soapbox speech about how the current President is trying to do something to our children (brainwashing, usually) through the Big Government apparatus of their local schools.  What is maddening and absurd about that sort of notion is that there are slightly more than 16,000 school districts in the United States with an approximately equal number of different school boards running them. And almost all of them are elected school boards.

But here's a sticky question: how many of those who complain about the Big Government brainwashing program have any idea who any of the people on their local school board are? How many complainers know when they last voted for (or against) any of those elected officials?

I could repeat this process for every kind of complaint I see tossed around on my various friends' and neighbors' social media, or thrown out in public.  Listen to yourself and those around you, and see how often you hear The Government being blamed for things over which the complainer actually *could* have some control.  (And if you want to pursue the idea of running for some of those offices, well... I Dare You!)

Of course, there is always the fact that there is a big, federal government that is doing things in ways that a lot of us think it shouldn't be.  There are a lot of contentious questions to argue about that revolve on the government's proper role. But even at the national level, I see people using their ignorance of complex problems to let themselves off the hook of doing basic critical thinking.

It's not enough simply to sneer, and blame the "government" for your problems.  First, you have to know what your complaint really means.

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