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Examining five "over/under-defined" terms used in American political discourse.

GENERAL SEMANTICS gen·er·al semantics  
n. (used with a sing. verb)
A discipline developed by Alfred Korzybski that proposes to improve human behavioral responses through a more critical use of words and symbols.
 VIEWS Most terms as over/under defined: "They are over-defined (over-limited) by intension in·ten·sion  
1. The state or quality of being intense; intensity.

2. The act of becoming intense or more intense; intensification.

3. Logic The sum of the attributes contained in a term.
, or verbal definition, because of our belief in the definition; and are hopelessly under-defined by extension or facts ...." (1) Over/under-defined terms are indeterminate in extensional meaning until they can be specified extensionally through hard data.

This article will examine five over/under-defined terms that are commonly used in American political discourse. In the process we will see evidence of another GS formulation. Specifically, when it comes to language--and most things in life, the map is not the territory.

1. Undocumented immigrant

There are an estimated 12 million illegal Mexican aliens in the U.S. and their presence here has become a major political issue. (2) Some assert that these people are doing jobs that Americans won't do and they should be welcomed into the country. Others say they are taking jobs from Americans and pose a serious security threat.

In arguing this immigration immigration, entrance of a person (an alien) into a new country for the purpose of establishing permanent residence. Motives for immigration, like those for migration generally, are often economic, although religious or political factors may be very important.  issue, the term "undocumented immigrant" has been used to advance the case that favors relaxing restrictions on illegal immigrants coming from Mexico. The idea behind using this term is that it focuses on the bureaucratic aspect of the problem rather than on the criminal one, and so it is more likely to gain sympathy from the public and legislators to ease immigration rules The Immigration Rules of the United Kingdom are laid down by Parliament and provide the framework within which entry to the United Kingdom is administered. The requirements for Leave to Enter or Leave to Remain under different categories of the Rules are provided as well as  than the term "illegal alien" would.

While arguments can be made both for and against loosening up restrictions on illegal immigration "Illegal alien" and "Illegal aliens" redirect here. For other uses, see Illegal aliens (disambiguation).
Illegal immigration refers to immigration across national borders in a way that violates the immigration laws of the destination country.
, nebulous language does not help in promoting a rational discussion of the issue. The fact is sneaking across the border is illegal. Hiring those who come here like that is also illegal. And, while we are certainly "a nation of immigrants," we are not a nation of illegal immigrants.

Many illegal aliens work "off the books not recorded in the official financial records of a business; - usually used of payments made in cash to fraudulently avoid payment of taxes or of employment benefits.

See also: Book
" in the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area.  in low level jobs. They risk being caught, detained, and deported; they often live in fear; and labor laws do not protect their rights. To remedy these, and other problems, President Bush and some members of Congress have recently proposed new immigration legislation. Whether one is for or against this program, it seems reasonable to talk and think "straight" about the issue of illegal immigration. One way to do that is to carefully examine the terms that are being used to describe people who are unlawfully coming into the United States.

2. Democracy

The word "democracy" is frequently in the news these days. (3) But that word is not so easily defined.

Historically, the term "democracy" has a checkered past going back to the Greek city-states. The Greeks defined democracy differently than we do now. For example, the citizens of Athens, the "demos," consisted of a privileged class that excluded women, slaves, farmers, and those who worked by the sweat of their brow.

The Romans did not particularly care for "democracy" due to its suggestion of direct participation by the people. They used the word "republic" to describe a method of having senators, who were not indifferent to the "vox populi vox populi Voice of the people Sociology A language, as spoken, which includes slang and jargon. See Jargon, Slang. ," elect consuls. The term "democracy" languished for many centuries but was revived in the 1600s when questions concerning the nature and foundation of the state assumed renewed importance. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan leviathan (lēvī`əthən), in the Bible, aquatic monster, presumably the crocodile, the whale, or a dragon. It was a symbol of evil to be ultimately defeated by the power of good.  (1651), wrote that democracy in any form would eventually lead to anarchy. John Locke disagreed. In Two Treatises on Government (1689, 1690), Locke condemned hereditary power and advanced an idea that has remained attached to the word "democracy" to this day--the notion that "the beginning of politic society depends upon the consent of the individuals to join into and make one society."

In the eighteenth century, Locke's thoughts on what might be called a "democratic polity" were debated in Europe. Voltaire preferred an "enlightened monarchy." Denis Denis, king of Portugal: see Diniz.  Diderot favored a "constitutional monarchy constitutional monarchy

System of government in which a monarch (see monarchy) shares power with a constitutionally organized government. The monarch may be the de facto head of state or a purely ceremonial leader.
." When the discussion about democracy traveled from Europe to America, the word was not accorded the respect we have for it today. Our nation's founders were divided over its meaning.

The word "democracy" does not appear in either the Declaration of Independence or the federal Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, said "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists;" he did not say, "We are all democrats." Alexander Hamilton and John Adams used the term in a pejorative pejorative Medtalk Bad…real bad  sense. The Founders preferred a Roman conception of republicanism to the Greek "democracy." (In America's beginnings, citizens did not directly vote for president, vice-president, or members of the Senate. It should also be remembered that blacks and women did not receive suffrage rights when the Constitution was adopted.)

In the twentieth century, despots like Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Josef Stalin, used the word "democracy" to praise the tyrannies they headed. Today, other dictators use the term to describe their regimes. But, for those of us in the developed world, the word "democracy" has taken on a more or less settled meaning. Its key aspect is the freely given consent of the governed "Consent of the governed" is a political theory stating that a government's legitimacy and moral right to use state power is, or ought to be, derived from the people or society over which that power is exercised.  to abide by To stand to; to adhere; to maintain.

See also: Abide
 the laws and policies of those agencies whose activities control the life of a community. (How that consent is expressed and by whom is usually defined by a constitution, which is usually subject to amendment.) To ensure that those who have given consent have done so without duress and in a considered manner, the modern view deems that freedom of thought and speech must be given the widest latitude.

President Bush believes that "democracy," in the way we use that term, can move the Iraqi people to have happier and more productive lives. Maybe it can. But maybe people who have been conditioned to accept orders from authorities such as clerics have a different conception of democracy. Maybe they believe, like America's founding fathers and the citizens of ancient Athens, that it is within proper democratic bounds to restrict the rights of women and other groups. Time will tell which definition of democracy will prevail.

3. War on Drugs

The phrase "War on Drugs" oversimplifies the "drug problem" by suggesting that all drugs can be divided into two mutually exclusive Adj. 1. mutually exclusive - unable to be both true at the same time

incompatible - not compatible; "incompatible personalities"; "incompatible colors"
 categories, "good and bad" or "safe and dangerous." We have a tendency to view all drugs in either of these categories as similar if not equivalent, and to make policy based A decision made by any software application that is based on the policy (rules and regulations) of the organization. See policy and COPS.  on that idea. Drugs labeled as dangerous and whose use has been declared illegal are grouped together as "bad drugs," and distinctions among them are minimized, despite the fact that they almost always include substances that are diametrically di·a·met·ri·cal   also di·a·met·ric
1. Of, relating to, or along a diameter.

2. Exactly opposite; contrary.

 opposite in their action. (Note that alcohol and tobacco, two substances that are legal in many countries, often escape serious scrutiny because they are not even thought of as drugs, despite ample evidence of dependency and the potential for abuse.)

The term "War on Drugs" obfuscates the three basic elements in the use of any drug, legal or illegal, medical or non-medical: (a) the substance; (b) the individual who uses it; and (c) the social and cultural context in which the use occurs. Most drug-problem analysts agree that any effective approach to the drug problem needs to take in all three factors. Action based exclusively on one is likely to fail. Also, each of the elements is complex and the relative degree of complexity with which it is perceived usually depends on the experience, background, training, and personal or professional investment of the viewer.

Individuals who work in drug prevention, treatment, law enforcement, and drug policy roles tend to agree that ignoring or distorting any one of the three basic elements greatly reduces the effectiveness of efforts to modify drug-using behavior. But such intricate thinking goes against a human tendency to define problems in ways that make them amenable to easy solutions, especially solutions that a given

group is willing to provide.

H.L. Mencken said, "There is a solution to every problem, quick, simple, and wrong." (4) Perhaps a more wide-ranging approach to solving the drug problem than the one we are currently using might get this bio-psycho-social dilemma "right."

4. Affirmative Action affirmative action, in the United States, programs to overcome the effects of past societal discrimination by allocating jobs and resources to members of specific groups, such as minorities and women.  

"Affirmative action," a policy that generally means giving preferential treatment to minorities in admission to universities or employment in government and businesses, was originally developed to correct decades of discrimination and to give "disadvantaged minorities" a boost. The diversity of our current society, as opposed to that of 50 years ago, seems to indicate this policy has been a success and many currently think affirmative action is no longer needed and that it leads to more problems than it solves.

One notable example is a case recently argued in the Supreme Court concerning admission to the University of Michigan (body, education) University of Michigan - A large cosmopolitan university in the Midwest USA. Over 50000 students are enrolled at the University of Michigan's three campuses. The students come from 50 states and over 100 foreign countries. . The school had a procedure of rating potential applicants on a point system. Being a minority student earned you more than twice as many points as achieving a perfect SAT score. Three white students sued, citing this as race-based discrimination. School officials said that diversity is desirable and affirmative action is the only way to achieve true diversity. Several other cases involving affirmative action have followed similar lines of reasoning.

Those who favor affirmative action say that diversity is desirable and won't always occur if left to chance; students starting at a disadvantage need a boost; affirmative action draws people to areas of study and work they might not consider otherwise; affirmative action is needed to compensate minorities for centuries of slavery or oppression; and some stereotypes may never be broken down without affirmative action.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that it leads to reverse discrimination; it lowers standards of accountability needed to push students to perform better; students admitted on this basis are often not equipped to handle the schools to which they've been admitted; getting rid of affirmative action would help lead to a truly color-blind col·or·blind or col·or-blind  
1. Partially or totally unable to distinguish certain colors.

a. Not subject to racial prejudices.

 society; and success is labeled a result of affirmative action rather than hard work and ability.

Those who favor affirmative action see it as a virtuous, optimistic, forward-moving program. Those opposed to it view in an opposite way. So, is affirmative action a "positive" policy? The answer to that question would seem to depend on how one chooses to characterize it.

5. The Patriot Act Patriot Act: see USA PATRIOT Act.  

Congress passed the USA Patriot Act USA PATRIOT Act [Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorists], 2001, U.S.  (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) in 2001 just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, with the intention of helping law enforcement act more effectively in investigating potential terrorists.

The legislation's acronym, "USA Patriot USA PATRIOT Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (US legislation) ," suggests that the act is about being patriotic, that is, about being devoted to and protecting America. But some patriots oppose the legislation. (The American Heritage American Heritage can refer to:
  • American Heritage (magazine)
  • American Heritage (band)
  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
  • American Heritage Rivers
  • American Heritage School, a small private school in Broward County, Florida
 Dictionary defines "patriot" as one who loves, supports, and defends one's country.) They maintain that the Patriot Act does more harm than good. To get a better handle on the legislation, let's go Let's Go may refer to: Television
  • Let's Go (Philippine TV series), a teen Philippine sitcom on ABS-CBN
  • Let's Go (New Zealand TV series), a New Zealand television music show
  • Let's Go
 beyond its label and look at some of the arguments that have been made for and against the law.

Arguments In Favor of the Patriot Act

A number of Americans favor the Patriot Act because they believe it has increased national security in perilous times. More specifically, they say the Act reduces terrorists' ability to operate within the United States by allowing law enforcement to access information such as bank statements, library records, and emails without notifying individuals of the search. Supporters further claim that the Patriot Act facilitates cooperation between the FBI and CIA CIA: see Central Intelligence Agency.

(1) (Confidentiality Integrity Authentication) The three important concerns with regards to information security. Encryption is used to provide confidentiality (privacy, secrecy).
, allowing officials to more easily obtain information about individuals suspected to be threats to national security. This allows the two organizations to work together more effectively to thwart criminal activity, including terrorist plots.

Patriot Act backers also argue that the Act's implementation has proved successful, as there have been no large-scale terrorist attacks in the United States since September 11. Although the Patriot Act does limit some freedoms, its supporters argue that the Act is essential for our country's betterment and survival.

Arguments Against the Patriot Act

Opponents of the Patriot Act, such as the American Association American Association refers to one of the following professional baseball leagues:
  • American Association (19th century), active from 1882 to 1891.
  • American Association (20th century), active from 1902 to 1962 and 1969 to 1997.
 of Research Libraries, say that the legislation undermines the confidentiality that is crucial for the flow of information needed for the vitality of our democracy. They contend that people will refrain from obtaining information from some research resources out of fear that such action could lead to trouble.

Other foes of the Patriot Act, such as the American Civil Liberties Union American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), nonpartisan organization devoted to the preservation and extension of the basic rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution.  and former conservative Republican congressman Bob Barr, argue that the law threatens rights guaranteed to American citizens in the Fourth Amendment, which states that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause Apparent facts discovered through logical inquiry that would lead a reasonably intelligent and prudent person to believe that an accused person has committed a crime, thereby warranting his or her prosecution, or that a Cause of Action has accrued, justifying a civil lawsuit. , supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized." Patriot Act opponents are particularly worried that the Act will encourage the authorities to go on "fishing expeditions" to locate incriminating in·crim·i·nate  
tr.v. in·crim·i·nat·ed, in·crim·i·nat·ing, in·crim·i·nates
1. To accuse of a crime or other wrongful act.

 information from "average citizens."

To be for the Patriot Act does not make one a "patriot" and to be against it does not make one a "traitor." Such labeling merely retards cogent analysis of the legislation by solidifying feelings of righteousness and rectitude in one's particular position. A more reasonable approach to discuss the usefulness of the Act is to focus on the merits on the merits adj. referring to a judgment, decision or ruling of a court based upon the facts presented in evidence and the law applied to that evidence. A judge decides a case "on the merits" when he/she bases the decision on the fundamental issues and considers  of the arguments made for and against it without resorting to name-calling.


American political discourse is rife with over/under defined terms. Besides the ones discussed here, some others include, "the war on terror This article is about U.S. actions, and those of other states, after September 11, 2001. For other conflicts, see Terrorism.

The War on Terror (also known as the War on Terrorism
," "the American people," "bipartisanship," and "family values." To bring such language down to earth requires critical evaluation. Otherwise, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are saying something meaningful when we are just uttering high-level abstractions that have no "real" substance.


(1.) Alfred Korzybski. Science and Sanity, Fifth Edition. (Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics The Institute of General Semantics is a not-for-profit corporation established in 1938 by Alfred Korzybski, located in Fort Worth, Texas. Its membership roles include members from 30 different countries. , 1994), lxiv.

(2.) The information and arguments in this section come from Leonard R.N. Ashley's excellent article titled "Bordering on the Impossible," ETC ETC - ExTendible Compiler. Fortran-like, macro extendible. "ETC - An Extendible Macro-Based Compiler", B.N. Dickman, Proc SJCC 38 (1971).  61, No. 2 (April 2004), 343-348.

(3.) The information and arguments in this section come from an article I wrote titled "Democracy Here is Not Necessarily Democracy There," ETC 63, No. 2 (April 2006), 215, 216.

(4.) Helen Nowlis, Drugs Demystified (Paris, UNESCO UNESCO: see United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
 in full United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
, 1975), 12.


Ashley, Leonard R.N. "Bordering on the Impossible." ETC 61, No. 2 (April 2004): 343-348.

Ball, Howard and Vasan, Mildred. (Eds.). The USA Patriot Act: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Cohen cohen
 or kohen

(Hebrew: “priest”) Jewish priest descended from Zadok (a descendant of Aaron), priest at the First Temple of Jerusalem. The biblical priesthood was hereditary and male.
, Carl and James P. Sterba. Affirmative Action and Racial Preference: A Debate (Point/Counterpoint). New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: Oxford, 2003.

Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce I. Kodish. Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics. Revised Second Edition. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing, 2001.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. Fifth Edition. Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics, 1994.

Levinson, Martin H. The Drug Problem: A New View Using the General Semantics Approach. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Levinson, Martin H. "Democracy Here is Not Necessarily Democracy There." ETC 63, No. 2 (April 2006): 215,216.

Levinson, Martin H. Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006.

Nowlis, Helen. Drugs Demystified. Paris: UNESCO, 1975.

If by relativism one means a cast of mind that renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that's what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger.

But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary's shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end, because it is simply another name for serious thought.

- Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago This article is about the University of Illinois at Chicago. For other uses, see University of Illinois at Chicago (disambiguation).

UIC participates in NCAA Division I Horizon League competition as the UIC Flames in several sports, most notably Basketball.
, author of "How Milton Works."
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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Previous Article:Why Johnny has difficulty making his point: general semantics, critical thinking, and student writing.
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