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Semantics and Selective Quoting verses Context and Substance

November 15, 2009

Semantics and Selective Quoting verses Context and Substance

 

‘Justice’ like ‘Love’ are words that often get abused. In fact a lot of words get abused for various reasons. Perhaps the best explanation of why this is so was put forward by George Orwell in the novel 1984 presented the system of ‘Newspeak’ as a method of controlling peoples thoughts. By removing words from the language people are unable to express what they wish to say about an unapproved subject. Emotions are limited because they eventually come to a point where no words exist to express unapproved emotions. Though George Orwell was playing around and satirizing how important verbal engineering can be he did leave out another equally disruptive abuse of language; the incremental creation of new buzz words to politicise language. What did happen to terms like ‘manhole’ and ‘chairman’? The answer is that they were purged in a wash of political correctness along with many other so called offensive terms.

 

Semantics is a game for many people as they try to leap on top of words and demand that people accept their definition of them. This is not new because there is an inherent vagueness that makes language wonderfully poetic but also leads to imprecision. Unlike mathematics where the language is very precise, people speak in rambling terms that often require the listener to interrupt and ask for more details. Even in professionally written reports where precision is of the essence you will find managers going back to author for more information and clarification of what they were saying and what they meant. In words there is rarely a QED or a finality in what was said. If we have any doubts over that matter then just look at how the courts interpret laws over the years. What is the actual meaning of statutes with 50 word long sentences? Ask a lawyer in support of a proposal and the answer is one way, but ask the lawyer against and the answer is the other way. What can be missing in this word game is original intention of the law. Why was it made and who was it meant to protect? By focusing solely on the words we have in front of us today we can ignore the reasoning behind such words.

 

Context changes everything.

It may sound like a simple rule but for unscrupulous methods of quoting, context changes nothing. Context is important because any sentence taken out of context can make a good person look like a monster and bad person look like a saint. A book of electronics when quoted out of context can be made look misogynistic and oppressive. Even plumbing has greater pit falls when you consider terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ pipe connectors. Conversely people who favour Hitler will quote all the positive sounding quotes from Mien Kampf. All the issues about his pure contempt of the masses is brushed over with a few inverted commas around ‘strength’ and ‘willpower’. Quoting politicians out of context seems to be a sport these days where even television ads use inverted commas around half sentences to condemn a candidate. Should we be surprised when people who wish to attack any book selectively choose the passages that support whatever warped mentality that they have in their head? Even the Bible has been quoted to ‘Wrack and Ruin’ by those that have less than honourable intentions. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin also interpreted the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu holy book) purely in a way that justified his act of murder. The context of what he was reading was lost in haze of pure rage and self serving hatred. Good words suddenly became twisted to the opposite of their intention.

 

Substance is the Key

So the real problem is not what words a person can find to fling at another in an argument but what the actual substance of those words are. The substance of any text is what it all about, rather than some petty little quotes flung by a person with an axe to grind.

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