Monday, April 29, 2013

That's just semantics! (But isn't it all?)

Earlier today I was involved in several discussions about whether it was best to describe this as "gay bashing," or something else. There's no value in rehashing all the issues here, but I was arguing that it is bad pragmatically and ethically to characterize all anti-homosexual opinion or statements as "gay bashing," in much the same way that denying—as most Christians do—that Muslims will go to Heaven is "Muslim bashing." (I know the issues are not exactly parallel.) And, I think that doing this denigrates the experiences of those who have been bashed. Besides, I think taking the mantle of victimhood is to fight from a place of weakness.

One of the most important things that these discussions reminded me of was that pace Plato, philosophical training does not prepare one for political discussions, let alone political power. At least in the system we have, the practice of making distinctions—and that's what philosophers do—is not all that appreciated (or, probably, helpful).

But, the other thing that came back to me was that when distinctions are made, the most common move is to say, "That's just semantics." I think we must learn this move from some well-meaning high school teacher who wants to teach us that there are real distinctions and then there are ones that are merely semantic. You know, ones that are just playing around with words. There are facts and there are words. There is a world and there is a representation of it.

Apart from the fact that this claim falls flat from those who have just been arguing that it is very important that legal same-sex relationships be termed "marriage"—isn't that just semantics, too—there is a deeper, almost existential problem with this.

One might have all sorts of things to say about human nature, but almost anyone has to admit that one of the most amazing things about us, if it is not the defining characteristic, is that we are semantic beasts. We live in a web of language. As Dan Dennett puts it, we weave narrative selves throughout our lives. We interact with one another through and in terms of language. We understand ourselves through our discussions with others (and with ourselves), through our diaries and journals and blogs. For Christ's sake, we tattoo words on our bodies and engrave them on buildings and put them on our clothes. The Abrahamic religions have God speaking the universe into existence and the first man beginning his career by giving names to all the animals. Christians (following the Stoics) worship the Word of God.

We spend all the time talking and texting and writing and reading and singing words, words, words. 

And, alone (?) among the animals, we look for meaning in our lives and in the world. Nietzsche got it right when he said that we were so terrified of a life devoid of meaning that we will take anything, including the Void, as our meaning. We create meaning, we search for meaning, we need meaning. And, we put it into words.

So, when someone says that a disagreement is semantic, or just about meaning, or just about words, she seems to be saying that the disagreement isn't real or isn't about the world. But, what can be more real that the way in which we do and must encounter and think about and represent the world. 

Yes, it's semantics, because it all is.

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