Media outlets are just like any other business. They thrive and remain profitable as long as what they offer is easily explained, understood, and available. And like any other business, they use words, and their connotations, to attract attention.
But when we consume media, we do so at a personal financial cost. The interchange of media reporting with the politicians attempting to enact legislation means a flurry of semantics, with potentially lost word meanings. Thus, politicians, and media figures, use the most abstract of words, in the hopes that their vague application will make us respond the way they want us to respond. We hear words like “liberalism”, “capitalism”, “socialism”, and even phrases like “fair share” and “fat cats”, thrown out into the arena for the public to consume. Even just the moniker “Wall Street” evokes emotion. Sure, we can all go to our trusty Oxford English dictionaries to look up the meanings of these words. But it seems that those meanings are subject to change. Very quickly.
If we believe the media, the Tea Party movement is more or less inextricably linked to the Republican Party. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and President Obama confirm they have no love for the Tea Party. Equally, the media have ALSO informed us that the Democrat Party leadership has linked itself emotionally with the “Occupy Wall Street” protests.
So now we have a flurry of abstract words, with mixed and changing emotions attached to them, linking our entire economy and our political system, barraging us. These “Occupy Wall Street” “Occupy Dallas” “Occupy Chicago” et al protests are beginning to cost us our language. So let’s see if we can “save” at least three words in this semantics war:
- Capitalism. “Occupy Wall Street” protesters are protesting capitalism. The emotions attached to the word “capitalism” are fear, loathing of greedy people. The protesters believe that Wall Street is full of greedy people who simply make too much money, while so many others are unemployed, underemployed, or hovering just short of the poverty line. The Oxford English dictionary defines “capitalism” as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state”. So are the protesters, therefore, advocating that the government take over trade and industry? Well, probably not completely. Turns out that many of these protests have been organized by labor unions and other interested organizations, which are paying protesters $350-$650 per week to simply be there protesting. By definition, the arrangements are private and, therefore, advocacy of … capitalism.
- Liberalism. This is a word that has changed dramatically over the years. Again, per Oxford (liberal): “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values”. Interestingly, in the beginning of the 20th Century, the term “liberalism” referred to anyone who advocated private property ownership and completely free trade markets. At the time, most governments in the Western world felt far more benefit in allowing a centralized form of government to be able to confiscate private property, and reapportion it to those they felt were in need. Anyone advocating what the Austrian economists called the “division of labor”, and private ownership (or capitalism) were known as “liberals”. In other words, capitalism and liberalism were interchangeable. However, as America has moved to truly value private property ownership, those who advocate centralized government and property redistribution are known as “liberals”. In other words, the meaning of this word is really lost in emotion. “Occupy Wall Street” protesters are now labeled often as liberals … capitalist pay arrangements notwithstanding.
- Fair Share. This phrase is so abstract, and emotion-laden, that there is no point even trying to define it. It means only what the user of the phrase tries to lead you to believe it means. In defense of attempting to gain governmental control over privately held assets of the “wealthy” (yet another nebulously defined word), President Obama has appealed to Americans’ sense of fair play by repeatedly telling them that “it’s only right that we ask everyone to pay their fair share”. What, exactly, does he mean by “fair share”? We really do not know. Is it 25% of their income? 25% for capital gains tax? 30%? This author is FAR from wealthy. He would love to be wealthy some day. But we do know that the top 1% of income earners pay over 38% of taxes received. As of 2008, the top 25% of income earners pay over 86% of all federal taxes. So what, exactly, is fair?
Semantical conclusion: All we seem to know is emotion. And we hope that the words we use represent our emotions. But people get confused by legislators’ attempts to hijack the meaning of words. Our semantics pay the price. Rather prophetically, the famed Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, in his blockbuster tome “Human Action: A Treatise On Economics”, penned in 1949, lamented the villainizing of the word “capitalism”, and then stated the following:
A man is free as far as he shapes his life according to his own plans. A man whose fate is determined by the plans of a superior authority, in which the exclusive power to plan is vested, is not free in the sense in which this term “free” was used and understood by all people until the semantic revolution of our day brought about a confusion of tongues. Pg. 287
While most of us are entertained by the antics of Occupy Wall Street protesters, as well as the impassioned advocacy, well placed or not, by our elected officials, we can only hope that we can salvage what is left of our beloved English language. Because there will definitely be a personal financial cost to each of us if we do not.