The meaning of words

Radley Balko wrote this on Twitter:

DACA is one of those sorting issues. There is no moral argument for deporting Dreamers. If that’s your position, you’re just an asshole.

This prompted quite a response from many of those who do, in fact, advocate deporting Dreamers. These responses, notably, did not attempt to make a moral argument for their position. They instead challenged Balko’s premise — that morality was a relevant category for evaluating their position — and insisted that no moral argument was necessary because this was about the law. It’s only about what’s legal, they said, not about right or wrong or about just or unjust. And, they argue, if laws are written creating a legal context that requires a civil misdemeanor to be punished by deportation and confiscation of all property, then that alone constitutes a sufficient justification for doing so — at least so long as those facing such disproportionately cruel punishment are others who are not my kin and do not look like me.

This argument, repeated in endless variation in the replies to Balko’s post, demonstrates the accuracy of his conclusion — i.e., “If that’s your position, you’re just an asshole.” He says that the only arguments in support of such a position are selfish and self-centered, and dozens of repliers rushed to insist that being selfish and self-centered is, in fact, their right. They seem to think that this constitutes some form of disagreement, but it’s all confirmation of his conclusion.

Many of Balko’s respondents, of course, did not appreciate that conclusion. His logical arrival at that undeniable conclusion was, they said, nothing more than “name-calling.”

This is absurd. It misapprehends the meaning of words — the meaning of names. The logic of this rejection of “name-calling” would require us all to eschew the use of all nouns.

Carl Linnaeus stooped to name-calling in his "Systema Naturae." What an uncivil homo sapiens.
Carl Linnaeus stooped to name-calling in his “Systema Naturae.” What an uncivil homo sapiens.

Words convey meaning. The word “tree,” for example, refers to “a woody perennial plant having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part.” That’s what it means — what it signifies. I use that word all the time when I’m talking about woody perennial plants having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part. I do this because it’s both shorter and clearer. I do this because it is honest and accurate.

And yet no one has ever said to me that my use of the word “tree” was uncivil or forbidden, or that my use of it somehow delegitimized whatever it was I was communicating about those woody perennials with their elongate main stems.

There’s no logical reason that Balko’s precise, careful application of the necessary term “asshole” should be treated any differently. It is not relevant or substantive to object that this noun is often regarded as vulgar. Nor does the fact that the necessary term is pejorative entail that it must be disqualified — the fact that it is pejorative is precisely why it is necessary and accurate. Protesting that it is too emphatically accurate is simply not a coherent objection.

Words mean things. They signify. Their use and application should be judged only on their aptness and accuracy. If I use the word tree to refer to a woody perennial plant with an elongate main stem then I am using that word correctly. I am applying that word correctly. I am naming a thing with the name for that thing. This is name-using and it is good and right and proper.

The same holds true for other common names and nouns — even if those words are also “common” in the sense of being perceived as rude or vulgar. The word “asshole” means something. If that meaning aligns with that to which this term is applied, then it’s use is correct. It is true and accurate and proper.

And it is necessary. Because to use some other term — some other name or noun or label — would be to say something less than accurate, something less than true.

What, then, does the taxonomy “asshole” signify? Yes, it is an “insulting” term, but that is not its meaning. The fact that it is pejorative is a consequence of that meaning, not the substance of it. The fact that its use entails a moral judgment does not in itself tell us anything about the basis for or the quality of that moral judgment.

“Asshole” is a form of metonymy or synechdoche — a form of language in which one aspect of a thing comes to stand in as representative of the whole, as conveying the essence of its character. The denotation, connotations and correlations of the taxonomic classification “asshole” all derive from the aptness of this essential identification. An “asshole” is thus a kind of self-centered person. More specifically, it is a person whose identity — character, morality, worldview, etc. — is centered on their unloveliest aspects.

The term “asshole” can thus be grouped with other similar phrases employing various body parts as metonymous representatives of character. We might, for example, refer to someone who is particularly intellectual or cerebral as “a brain.” Or we might say that someone who is particularly open emotionally “wears their heart on their sleeve.” The use of such terminology is always evaluated on its aptness and accuracy. That accuracy may be contested as fitting or unfitting — we can argue over whether or not the person in question really is “a brain” or really “has a big heart” — but those terms are not disqualified as illegitimate. They are words and thus communicate meaning, and so we receive them and evaluate them in the same way we evaluate all words — by judging whether or not their use is fitting and accurate.

The complaint of “name-calling,” at bottom, isn’t really related to the purported offensiveness of the name being applied. That wouldn’t make sense. To say that all pejorative terminology was prohibited would only make sense if we were prepared to demonstrate that everything and everyone is commendable in every way — if everything was somehow above average. There are movie critics who talk like that, but no one regards them as trustworthy.

The objection to name-calling, rather, is logical. We object to name-calling because it entails the undefended assertion of a conclusion without first providing any premises or evidence to support that conclusion.

This is a valid objection. But note that it does not entail that we should therefore abandon all application of necessary and accurate “names” for things. It only asks, rather, that we show our work — that we justify the use of such taxonomy by supplying evidence and reason to demonstrate that its application is, in fact, fitting and truthful.

I mean “in fact” there literally. Words mean things. A woody perennial plant having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part is, in fact, a tree. That is what “tree” means. To refuse to identify it as a tree, or to insist that no one be allowed to refer to it as a tree, would be inaccurate and dishonest.

And one can, in fact, be an asshole. Refusing to identify an asshole as such is no more honest or virtuous than refusing to allow anyone to call a tree a tree.

This is where I admire the way in which Balko went about applying the appropriate and necessary term. He does not “stoop to name-calling” but, rather, shows his work. He presents an if-then and follows the logic of it to its unavoidable conclusion. And he does so after informing readers that this is what he is about to do. He does not even risk offense by applying the term specifically to any given individual, instead, with unimpeachably civil restraint, he simply lays out the logic of its meaning and — judiciously employing the second-person without an assigned antecedent — allows readers to reach their own conclusions about themselves.

Like most of his readers — including those angry over the conclusion that the term “asshole” was applicable to them — I cannot point to any flaw in his logic or his moral reasoning.

One can, of course, object that Balko’s tweet was tactless. Such bluntness, it might be argued, is predictably off-putting to many of those most in need of hearing what he’s saying here. This thereby provides them a pretext — albeit an obviously false one — for dismissing the substance of his argument and claiming they are not responsible for their actions and choices because somebody else engaged in “name-calling.”

That may be, but note that this is an argument about prudence and about tactics. It cautions against the accurate use of a meaningful designation because it might be rhetorically unpersuasive — not because it is untrue. The appeal to “tact,” actually, is a concession that the designation is certainly true and that it will be, on some level, received as such.

The argument, then, is no longer “we mustn’t call anyone an asshole,” but rather “assholes do not respond well to being identified as such.” I’m receptive to such arguments, but they need to provide more than that. They need to supply some positive advice on what approach, exactly, such assholes would respond well to. This seems difficult to do because, well, if such folks were capable of responding well to moral arguments that allow for the concerns of anyone other than themselves, then they would not be assholes.

And the point here, of course, is that they are, in fact, just that. Words mean things. Words apply.

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