Australian Journal of Social Issues, November 2000 | Go to article overview
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`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass

While it is inevitable in public debate that people should, among other things, talk at cross-purposes, deliberately mislead their audience, twist opponents' arguments while cultivating self-deception, and generally treat language, truth and logic as means towards the greater end of pushing their own particular barrow, there is something about current rhetorical fashion that would shame even Humpty Dumpty. Put simply, it is an undeniably sincere and apparently inexhaustible capacity to be taken in by one's own hot air.

In many ways this is far more pernicious than deliberate obfuscation. People who manipulate words for an ulterior purpose usually have some grasp of what those words do, or can be made to, mean. Their motives may be malign, but they display at least an elementary verbal competence. It is possible to do linguistic business with them.

By contrast, people who use words to mean whatever they want them to mean at the time but give little or no thought to what that meaning meant five minutes ago, or what it might mean to anyone else at any other time, are like adolescents sampling the Golden Rule: imputing unto others what they presume others would impute unto them, but only if they happen to agree with it (at the time).

The syndrome, it should be stressed, is ideologically neutral. The term `economic rationalism', for instance, is used as promiscuously from one viewpoint as is `political correctness' from another. Both terms can be, and have been, given a relatively precise treatment, but that original precision has long been lost in the fog of partisan invective and point scoring. Which is not to suggest that they should be ignored. Far from it: the sloppier the language -- and therefore the thinking -- the more relentlessly should it be exposed and replaced by clear conceptual analysis.

Even so, both `economic rationalism' and `political correctness' are now probably a lost cause, no more than boo-words for the intellectually lazy. Two terms which do, however, deserve the closest attention in the current climate are `participation' (with reference to the current official enthusiasm for mutual obligation) and `new economy'. Enjoying far more than cross-bench support, each is bandied about as though it not only had a self-evident meaning but was also self-evidently desirable. Though this indeed may be the case, it is not one that has been argued, at any rate in the public sphere, largely because of an unwillingness to examine too closely what the operative terms actually mean -- or are being used to mean.

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