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Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Words spoken and written are what make ideas public.  And as some linguists have suggested, they are what make ideas at all. And ideas make mind. And mind makes homo sapiens sapiens.

Words make public space possible and public space makes human speech and action possible and effective. So it is important to listen to the words in public discourse that move to the public policy that will shape our future.

So tonight let's listen to the words of the candidates for political office and especially those who would occupy the bully pulpit. Yet the creators of dictionaries know that, depending on context and intentionality, the same word can take on far different meanings, express far different ideas, shape far different mentalities and policies.

Korten identified three words whose meanings may be vital to our future: Wealth, God, Humanity. (See my earlier blog.)

Let's look at some others.

Liberty often means freedom-from oppression, regulation, government, land owners, corporations, parents, kids. But there is also freedom-to engage, speak and act, participate.  The latter is political freedom which is not unlimited, but requires boundaries in order to exist, the boundaries of public space, freed from oppression and violence and necessity, but not from law, regulation, government which are the walls of the polis or the space of freedom that shapes, extends, and decorates the walls but does not remove them. So liberty is a condition of freedom but should not be equated with it. That is the fallacy of libertarians and free market fundamentalists. 

Power can mean power over, e.g. control or force, which Weber meant when he defined the State as a monopoly of the means of violence. Power-over can also be authority which invested in leaders through law or custom that may or may not be enforced. Or power can mean power-with.  This is the "ability to act in concert" and is identified with political freedom as defined above. Power-with is ultimately the basis of power over whether for good or evil. Power-with can even allow for the destruction of political space and freedom through force and authority as we see in oppressive societies and their governments. The only way of restoring power in these societies is by uniting with others on their own initiative and authority and developing new spaces of freedom. 

Justice often is seen as a system of reciprocity or quid pro quo where good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished or where if someone loses by another person's action, the perpetrator must lose proportionately. Justice gets back from or at the person. Laws (whether from authority or from consensus) determine what is good and bad for a society. Crime is breaking the law which is enforced through punishment. But the purpose of criminal justice is social order--the social order that citizens determine is right. So a more fundamental meaning of justice is the character of the social order. When Joaquim de Fiori was burnt at the stake, when the founders of the US were charged with treason, when Ghandi and Martin Luther King went to jail, the justness of the social order is called in question. In that sense there is a higher sense of justice, whether from god or human nature, than criminal justice.

Democracy in the root sense is rule by the demos, which Greeks considered the "mob" and this is commonly equated today with populism of the right or left. Such democracy can be an aristocracy under the sway of those who are "well-born" or a plutocracy under the sway of the rich or even a dictatorship under the sway of a forceful leader. Democracy can also be equated with republicanism where a republic is considered a public or many interacting publics where free persons (no longer under the sway of necessity or force or household concerns, i.e. economy) shape the public sphere. 

Capitalism (or simply economy) is often identified with commerce and financial wealth accumulation through a market under the control of the major economic players. But capitalism can also be seen to mean as including other types of capital--social, educational, spiritual, ecological. This is in tune with Korten's two definitions of wealth and two criteria of national preeminence: Gross National Product vs Gross National Happiness.

Leadership takes on different meanings in different systems of political order, justice, freedom. One type of leadership is forceful, showing the strength of power over others, other factions, other nations and has to demonstrate its exceptional quality and it usually called "True Leadership." Another type of leadership promotes others as leaders, power with others including factions and nations, and is sometimes called "Servant Leadership." Leadership in economy (e.g. corporations and household) is more top down and forceful. Leadership in politics (e.g. in republics) is collaborative and persuasive.

So listening to the debates tonight, let's consider the meanings of these terms that the candidates are using. They will talk about freedom, power, justice, democracy, capitalism (or economy), and leadership. Let's reflect on their words in their context and see if we like what we hear.