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

GENERAL SEMANTICS VIEWS Most terms as over/under defined: "They are over-defined (over-limited) by intension, 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 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 than the term "illegal alien" would.

While arguments can be made both for and against loosening up restrictions on illegal immigration, 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" in the United States 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," 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 (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 Diderot favored a "constitutional monarchy." 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 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 to abide by 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 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 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 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," 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. 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 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

Congress passed the USA Patriot Act (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," 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 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 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, 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 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 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, 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 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 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," "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, 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 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, 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, Carl and James P. Sterba. Affirmative Action and Racial Preference: A Debate (Point/Counterpoint). New York: 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, 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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