Political Engines of Words and Meanings
In the past two centuries, two powerful ideological traditions have driven word creation and formation of meanings in Western politics. These traditions are bourgeois liberalism and collectivism.* On the side of bourgeois liberalism, we locate (among many contributors) English constitutionalism, individual property rights, individual civil rights, and utilitarianism, Jeffersonian democracy, and libertarianism, and the French revolution's destruction of social caste and promotion of secularism. On the side of collectivism, we place (among many contributors) the vast influence of Rousseau, the French Revolution's communalism and attack on individualism, European socialisms, communisms, fascisms and ethnic nationalisms, and American racial nationalisms, socialist feminism, and contemporary communitarianism.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the welfare state fused liberalism and collectivism in a fundamental commitment of Western societies to the collective support of all citizens' material comfort and security. Afterward, the political fortunes of the two philosophies have shifted. We can only point to several of the remarkable developments. In the U.S., collectivism spawned affirmative action, a momentous political contribution to law. Liberalism revived free market theory and began to challenge the assumptions of social ownership and government regulation of economic and social activity.
These two traditions have different strategies in using words and concepts to analyze our social world. Liberalism looks for differences between persons, events, and situations. It draws distinctions between words, concepts, and meanings. The collectivist tradition, in contrast, collapses differences and distinctions, searching for similarities and equivalencies between apparently different persons, events, and situations.
The concept of homicide provides an example of the different approaches of the two traditions. In U.S. law, homicide means simply the killing of a human being. Many different kinds of homicide are distinguished in case law and statute. Some kinds of homicide are justifiable, as provided by statute, such as abortion and the death penalty; some are excusable, such as killing in self-defense. Some kinds are inexcusable. Felonious homicide is wrongful killing. There are two kinds of felonious homicide - manslaughter and murder. Manslaughter is killing without malice, as when a store clerk is accidently killed by a robber in commission of a robbery. Murder is killing with malice aforethought. Manslaughter has been differentiated by state statute in the U.S. into as many as four degrees. Murder has also been differentiated into four degrees. The philosophy of justice associated with bourgeois liberalism has, in summary, created a very complicated taxonomy of homicide. Thus:
The purpose of the complicated taxonomy of differences and distinctions is to tailor the punishment or exoneration for homicide to the specific details of the act committed by persons involved in the act. This is justice on the basis of individual merit.
Collectivism provides stark contrast to the liberal individualistic scheme. Anarchists influenced by Marxism and Communism as practiced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, for instance, collapsed the distinction between excusable homicide and felonious murder, reclassifying certain felonious murders as excusable homicides. For them, it was excusable to kill democratically elected officials and businessmen, for a host of political reasons elaborated by their revolutionary philosophies. This point of view led to murders and bombings of innocent (in terms of bourgeois justice) victims in the U.S. before world war one and in Europe and Russia before world war two.
Similarly, today, the collectivist ideology of Muslim terrorists destroys the distinction between excusable homicide and felonious murder. According to Hamas, it is not manslaughter for Hamas leaders to force women and young boys to commit bombings, and it not murder for the bombers to kill women and children with malicious and hateful intent against them because they are Jews. From the Palestinian point of view, the bombings are excusable homicides. Similarly, it is excusable homicide when Chechen and radical Islamist terrorists murder hundreds of children and adults in a school in Beslan. In the collectivist tradition, justice is what advances collective merit.
We can suggest that in public discussion in liberal democracies a party collapsing taxonomic distinctions and meanings is probably (this is the sad Western history) hiding an intent involving revolutionary change or at worst crimes (from a liberal point of view) behind its rhetorical strategy. In the next article, we explore two more examples of collectivist rhetorical strategy - affirmative action and sexual harassment. Then we shall return to apply these lessons to our central issue of propaganda and news.
*We are not including Christian socialism and Christian democratic socialism as a separate political tradition, because they were not of major significance in the UK and US, although important in, especially, Germany.