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Memories of the 28th Century

Terms of Engagement

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Words and Things

The name is not the thing, but calling things something defines them and, to a significant degree, determines the nature of the discussion of those things. As an illustrative example, a few years ago some people decided to redefine the word "gender". At that time gender was a term in grammar, a set of classifications of nouns and pronouns, and that was all; although some dictionaries also included something about it being a humorous term for sex. But the word "gender" was redefined to mean sexual identity, sexual preference, and a few other things, so one had to revert to the prior two word terms to convey the meaning intended, but the intention was that physical realities and reproduction could be separated from sexual activity by using the word "gender" instead of sex.

Another powerful example of how the terms alter the discussion is about the word "liberal". Here in the United States of America the meaning of that word changed dramatically a few decades ago. It is difficult to even specify when the change came. Liberal originally meant "free", and liberalism was a philosophical movement that was concerned with free thought. As a philosophy it developed as the opposition to religious thought during the Age of Reason. Instead of people taking their ideas from religious authorities, they were encouraged to think things through for themselves. Liberal was first applied to politics in the early 19th century, where it related to political and economic freedom: free trade, free speech, freedom of movement, freedom from regulations, etc. The Wikipedia article indicates that the diversion of liberalism first took place in the 1930's, and a differentiation between "classical liberalism" and "modern liberalism" arose. Classical liberalism is largely about keeping governmental and other authorities out of the lives of individuals and allowing people to live their lives as they wish, while modern liberalism is concerned with increasing government intervention in the lives of individuals; the exact opposite of liberalism. At the same time that modern liberals were using the terms of guaranteeing freedom and liberty they were restricting freedom.

This topic came to mind in reference to the term "homelessness". That is a rather simple word; it means that someone has no permanent place of residence. That has become an issue where I live, because a number of people who engage in public drunkenness are homeless, and the police have taken to calling the problem of drunks on the streets as a problem of homelessness, even though some or the annoying drunks have places of residence, and most of the local homeless are not drunks. The solutions to the problem are different depending on which word is used. If drunks are the problem, then alcoholism treatment and related treatment may help, but if homelessness is the problem, then housing would eliminate the problem. But trying to eliminate drunkenness by finding housing for the people involved would move the drunks inside, at best, and more likely they would continue to get drunk in public. On the other hand, trying to eliminate homeless by treating alcoholism will do nothing at all for the people involved unless they are alcoholics.

Another situation where the verbiage is the problem just came to mind. The newsies and others have written about the problem of gun violence in America, but the problem has nothing to do with guns. The problem is violence and people with mental problems taking actions. Trying to cure mental illness by making it illegal to own guns will have no effect on the problem.

Letís call things what they are. Euphemisms may seem polite, but they donít increase understanding. Perhaps the most infamous of euphemisms are those used to talk around the matter of people of low intelligence. From time to time it becomes impolite to refer to them by the word that had been assigned to that purpose, and after a few years the new term becomes a common insult and thus unacceptable in its turn. Changing the acceptable word doesnít improve life for anyone, and, if someone wants government control of the economy, then that person is certainly not in favor of liberalism, so letís not call such persons liberals.

Language changes without the conscious intention of anyone, so letís let the normal evolution work, rather than trying to get one word to do the work of several phrases. But if you insist in twisting words to mean what you want them to mean, then expect that I will call you on it. For now let's call a spade a spade and not play Humpty Dumpty's word game: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to meanóneither more nor less." The purpose of language is communication. If you redefine words, then others may not understand what you say, so your attempt at communication would fail.

On American Liberalism



  1. Pompey Bum's Avatar
    My tentative recollection is that homeless as a term came to the fore while Reagan was closing down public programs and especially the institutions in the 1980s; and suddenly there they were were under all the bridges--a circumstance that led to the popular slur "trolls." As you point out, the population was far from homogenous. There were drunks, addicts, aging prostitutes, and depending on where you were, dangerous psychotics. At the time, it seems to me, people who opposed to Reagan's policies tended of speak of the homeless while many who supported the new approach called them trolls. So using one term or another was as much a self-identifier as a way to speak of the feral folk.

    The term homeless may have existed in the 1970s, but as I recall the vocabulary reflected a greater diversity in perceptions of them. These were usually expressed in slang terms or slurs (although I imagine all are considered illicit speech now). There were bums (the most inclusive term), winos, junkies, bag ladies, and other designations. Sometimes you heard about crazies, too, but I think most schizophrenics were still being institutionalized at the time.

    As an aside, I remember an odd sort of homeless mystique when I was a little boy in the 1960s. In those days the inclusive term tended to be hobo rather than bum. Hobos were thought (by some) to live a carefree, rambling sort of lifestyle. I suspect this was a romantic and nostalgic memory of transient life and train hopping in the 1930s. (The Depression was only as far from those days as Reagan is from ours). It is chilling to recall such dangerous rubbish. I remember coming upon abandoned hobo camps as my brother and I did our own rambling around (there was no helicopter parenting back then). We never saw hobos, but I have since wondered if they ever saw us.

    Speaking of rambling around, I apologize for the digression and will now get to my point. You mention gun violence and the mentally ill. It may be that some of the problem represents a lasting effect of Reagan era deinstitutionalization in combination with new ways of thinking about (and talking about) mental illness in the last 30 years. I find it interesting that keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill has become a default conservative response to mass shootings. As far as I know this has only been suggested in terms of background checks. But given the near certainty of further gruesome atrocities, I suspect it will eventually lead to the reinstitutionalization of certain individuals. I'm not suggesting this would end gun violence as a whole. It would not. But it would be deeply ironic if it happened since it was conservatives who emptied the madhouses in the first place.
    Updated 07-09-2016 at 10:19 AM by Pompey Bum
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    Thanks for mentioning that. I didn't go into the origin of the term "homeless, because that was simply an inappropriate word.

    It is my opinion that deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill is one of the major causes of homelessness for the last few decades, but don't put Reagan's name on that. The process began in the 1960's, when Michel Foucault wrote a book about the mental illness There was a snowball effect from there, because some people took Foucault seriously. He deserved some attention, but there should have been some reforms, rather than the massive closing of mental hospitals. Those mental patients largely became homeless, because there was no other place for them, and they were, and still are, incapable of caring for themselves. More attention to mental illness would keep guns out of the hands of the most disturbed people, and that would reduce mass murders, and I would contend that mental illness is the principal reason why people engage in mass murder, especially the random murders.
    Updated 07-09-2016 at 09:18 AM by PeterL
  3. Pompey Bum's Avatar
    You are right that the groundwork for deinstitutionalization was laid by others. But in practice, it happened through a strange combination of liberal outrage at conditions in institutions and the 1980s doctrine (whatever name you wish to attach to it) that the government just isn't going to pay your way anymore. Effects were variable. Many of the mentally retarded (another illicit term now, I hear) were successfully integrated into communities; but deinstitutionalizing schizophrenics was, predictably, a tragedy and a disaster.

    I agree that the Exodus of the mentally ill from institutions contributed to homelessness, and that they "largely became homeless, because there was no other place for them, and they were, and still are, incapable of caring for themselves." I don't know whether "mental illness is the principal reason why people engage in mass murder, especially the random murders." Statistical arguments are difficult with events that are (in fact) relatively uncommon. But because of the heinous nature of those events, preventing any would be a worthy goal even if mental illness were only a secondary cause. So keeping guns "out of the hands of the most disturbed people sounds at least like a common sense solution.

    Unfortunately, the success of that approach is likely to be highly limited. Was the autistic boy who taped up his windows and devoted himself to first person shooter games before slaughtering his mother and gunning down 20 six or seven year old children and a handful of staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School really identifiable as one of "the most disturbed people" before his decline into sociopathy? Who would make that decision and on what criteria? To adopt a Second Amendment argument, what would prevent a government from branding any individuals it chose (you and me, for example) as deeply disturbed and denying them the right to bear arms? That sounds Orwellian, but only just. It was a norm in the Soviet Union of my youth.

    The problem is made even more complicated by the u deniable success of some people with mental illnesses in joining society. Should all those with bipolar syndrome (including the Pulse Nightclub shooter) be considered "the most disturbed people"? And what about those who are fine until they decide to take themselves off their medication? What about Autism spectrum? What about borderline cases or unclear diagnoses?

    So while your proposal that "More attention to mental illness would keep guns out of the hands of the most disturbed people, and that would reduce mass murders," is laudable in principle, I suggest that it is simplistic to the point of being mostly impractical. It is, however, superior to my proposed solution, for I must admit I have none. Mental illness is a truly confounding problem. It is made even more so by the problem of gun violence and the reasonable (and constitutionally protected) wish to protect oneself and one's family.

    Thanks as always for a really interesting blog.
    Updated 07-09-2016 at 05:24 PM by Pompey Bum
  4. PeterL's Avatar
    I didn't go into detail about the methods of determining who should be denied the right to own weapons was deliberate, because it is complicated. There are procedures for determining whether someone is competent, and that general methodology could be expanded.

    I don't recall all of the chronology of closing the mental hospitals, but it started in the 1970's after the deecision that they should be closed was made in the late 1960's or early 1970's. But, yes, it was a combination of over the horrors of the institutions and saving money and a lack of common sense. I remember: "They will be taken care of in community facilities." The community facilities were the town farms and similar, and those had been closed in the early 1960's.