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What's in a name?

To people with an understanding of general semantics, polarized thinking qualifies as simplistic, even counter-productive. The use of labeling falls into the same category. Political terms that suffer from both shortcomings warrant some changes, therefore, or some clarification at least.

The labels "conservative" and "liberal" are generally considered to lie along the political spectrum, where "reactionary" and "radical" represent the respective far ends. These terms are not definitive, however, what are their limits, and how can they be measured? Answers to these questions can only be subjective. Most people want to conserve some things, and we all react strongly to some ideas or events. We may lean towards the liberal, even radical, about other matters. "Liberal" connotes to many an unrestricted appetite for the unattainable, a freewheeling tolerance, even a wishy-washy stance. "Radical" can refer to the political right or the left. Even those terms, left and right, are relative to where one stands--or sits, since they come from the seating orientation of the French National Assembly. "Libertarian," whether used as a formal political party name or as an adjective, is also open-ended. Things get worse when we add "neo" or "ultra" to conservative, for example. "Independent" though, seems safely neutral.

In the United States, "Democrat" and "Republican" typically imply opposing political tendencies in very general ways for most people; but again, the terms involve overlaps. Where does a moderate Republican end and a moderate Democrat start? (For that matter, we believe we live in a democratic republic!)

Operational terms for spots along the political spectrum would be more meaningful. They would eliminate the possibility of absolute, discrete end-points. I propose "progressive" and "retrogressive." To me, these are simply descriptions of the two opposing trends. The mid-point in this spectrum would be "mainstream," a word that connotes the flow of events. Quantitative modifiers would suggest how far left or right one is under any political moniker because each term implies movement in time. Since they represent a continuum, these labels are only relative and still subjective, of course; but because they describe actions rather than attributes, they could be used more descriptively than the formal names of political parties. (Though there was a viable Progressive Party in the last century, "Retrogressive" would not do as a name for a political party!)

"Progressive" has a positive connotation, implying working towards a solution; "regressive" connotes a reversal to some earlier stage of development. Some say that if one is not part of the solution, one can only be part of the problem; in light of these proposed terms, those who are not moving ahead essentially force society to go backward at that point in time.

Apart from descriptive clarity, my proposal fulfills another goal. Contemporary modes of evaluation, when done intelligently, follow a scientific approach. That is, they involve analysis of verifiable evidence proceeding to a synthesis based on realistic probability. The scientific mind set, which underpins general semantics, applies labels only operationally. They must answer, "What does the item DO?" Good thinkers and good writers adopt this practice. The terms I propose are functional and dynamic, and that is consistent with the game of politics.

Because scientific thinking is primarily inductive, it lends itself to flexibility from constantly produced new evidence. This is consistent with progressive thinking. Those we call conservative or reactionary tend to be more deductive: they start from rules, principles, or dogmas established in the past, and choose their behaviors accordingly. Though science, too, must depend on established principles and theories, these are based in physical reality. Ideas held by doctrinaire political groups, even on the political left, are very apt to be unproven assumptions, stereotypes, myths or abstractions. The scientist accepts that even theories may be overthrown by new evidence.

Is all of this just bandying words? Why should it be worth considering? I contend that in the realm of politics we need to give more consideration to movement than to stasis, and this should be reflected in the designations we give to political sectors. Neither "retrogressive" nor "progressive" should be seen as pejorative. Inevitably, though, people in either camp will use the term for the opposite one in a negative way. This is because values are involved. Conservatives may value stability, regardless of problems in the status quo. Liberals put more value on solving human problems, regardless of upsetting apple carts. Social, economic or moral issues, however, can trump a thrust for change. You take your choice!

Unless conditions in a country are unbearable, political dynamics seem to favor those on the right; people prefer to leave things as they are. Supported by a base of established institutions, the right wing becomes more rigid. They can then exert more power than those on the left. Doctrinaire people on the left are venturing into uncertain, and therefore unsettling territory; so it can be much harder for them to bring about change. Since the potential need for change is my political touchstone, I opt for forward movement.

If people framed evaluation of political issues and candidates along these operational lines, political discourse and evaluation of political candidates might operate more effectively.


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Author:Brooks, Allan L.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:Political conventions, images, and spin.
Next Article:Semantics and the 2004 election.

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