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The Tyranny of Words
People keep telling me about the need for an ideology as if it alone will correct the imperfections of society. But what they don’t understand is that disparate ideologies often confuse the problem of communications. The lowest common denominator in communication is the word. With ideology different meanings for the same word create a tower of babble where people speak the same words but they have different meanings.
When thinking about words, I think about Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words (1938). It is one of those books that never lose its message. Stuart was a semanticist. His book is full of gems like “Language is apparently a sword which cuts both ways. With its help man can conquer the unknown; with it he can grievously wound himself.”
Growing up the meaning of words were important. In my case, it was probably because I did not learn English until I was six. Because I did not know many words, I was classified as mentally retarded.
Armed with a chip on my shoulder, I was very conscious that the sword “cuts both ways”, so I sought to learn how to wield the sword most effectively. I could hear Chase whisper, “I find it difficult to believe that words have no meaning in themselves, hard as I try. Habits of a lifetime are not lightly thrown aside.”
This reliance on words can be very dangerous especially in the world of economists who seem obsessed with the currency of their theory. I keep going back to Chase’s reasoning: “Attitude is your acceptance of the natural laws, or your rejection of the natural laws.”
Words mean something different to different folks. I am old school and words matter. I am more attuned with epistemology than pretentions of “the science of knowledge.” I am a skeptic and I am concerned with what kinds of things are known, how that knowledge is acquired and what the attitude of speaker is.
Words have meaning – what they mean and why they are said is essential. To repeat a cliché “the devil is in the detail” — words are distorted.
Take the words that are presently in currency: reform, privatization, globalization, and marketization. They are intentionally comingled to bring about controlled consent. Unless the words are deconstructed and contextualized their false definitions overtime become the accepted truth.
The word reform has been corrupted to fit the occasion. It once meant the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, and unsatisfactory. A reformer was to the right of the radical and the far left of a conservative. It was taken for granted that reformers wanted to improve the system. As of late, the word has been appropriated by the right.
For example, in today’s mainstream media the tea partyers are reformers. As of late those trying to change the Mexican Constitution and get rid of constitutional guarantees are not greedy capitalists but reformers who are trying to improve the economy. This change has not so subtly changed the outcome.
The right has adroitly changed the conversation. They have associated corruption with government and reform with interests of the ruling elite. Without context words induce a historical amnesia that absolves capitalists of being corrupt. Like Gordon Gekko said in the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good.”
What is left is what Americans call common sense. Chase opined is that “Common sense is that which tells us the world is flat.” Following this thread” government has to be reformed because it is basically corrupt whereas corporate crime is a “boys will be boys” lapse.
The fad is the word privatization. Its meaning has been so corrupted and so overused that it is difficult to know its meaning. When I first got the sense of the word was during the 1950s. The rage then was urban renewal which was supposed to be good because government confiscated property for public use. Rarely discussed was the huge profits made by the contractors and suppliers who benefited from it all. But at least we knew that it was basically wrong to take one person’s property to profit another.
It became outrageous when property was taken for the public good. Here government took one person’s property to give it to private individuals so they could make a killing. It was known as reform.
At a more advanced level this is happening today. Developers in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and Tucson have reaped trillions of dollars by buying city and county properties through “inside trading” that is good in this instance but is supposed to be bad on the stock market. Both are falsely labeled good business.
It was reform that shifted the cost of higher education from the ruling elite to the student. The logic was that the student was getting the benefits of education, and if government taxed business then the economy would falter.
In public higher education privatization is a mixed bag. The privatization of public higher ed follows a different path than the privatization of other state-controlled enterprises, but the logic is the same.
In higher education they use words like marketization that refers “to a set of transformations in which the underlying purpose is to ensure that market relations determine the orientation of development policies, institutions, university programs, and research projects.” Again, it is not that the educators are privatizing education; the devil makes them do it.
The privatizers say that to understand these diverse strategies that have driven privatization of higher education, you have to place the strategies into a global context. It is merely the logic of the market. It is the invisible hand of Adam Smith, “the father of modern economics”.
The marketization of higher education “refers to a set of transformations in which the underlying purpose is to ensure that market relations determine the orientation of development policies, institutions, university programs, and research projects.”
Like one administrator explained his illogical actions, they resulted from previous bad policies. In other words, the reconfiguration of the higher education to privilege the private sector is due to human errors not bad intentions.
This process has accelerated from 1970 to the present day. The world view is okay because it is happening globally, and in order to compete business and higher education must change (reform). The error of this logic is not that the product has to be improved, just that it has to become more like the private sector (which after all is not corrupt).
The invisible hand pops up once more in the logic: higher education is only meeting the increased demand for enrollment that was unmet by the public sector. Like in corporations this transformation is driven by a growing top heavy bureaucracy whose healthy salaries are paid by the consumer.
Higher education is not unique. I marvel at how the consolidation and bureaucracy has grown in the college book publishing sector. The logic is more profit so they outsource the editing and all phases of production so they can afford to hire more bureaucrats that drive up the price of textbooks allowing them to gobble up other publishers.
I could go on redefining the tyranny of words. For example, I get angry when I hear the words standards and quality. They are mostly used by the privatizers to turn education into a gas meter.
Epistemology is fundamental to how we think. In order to understand this we have to know the meaning words and why and how they are used. A basic question is who drives privatization. In the case of Mexico and other second and third world countries it is the World Bank. Domestically in the United States it is driven by the ruling elite and organizations such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Words are distorted and their meaning changed for a reason.
Like Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good.”
RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.