by Jay Johansen | Jul 4, 2011
If you ask an American where he stands on the political spectrum, you usually get one of three answers:
I'm tempted to ask why it is that conservatives will proudly say, "Yes, I'm a conservative," while liberals are apparently ashamed to admit being liberals. But let's skip over the motivation and discuss the assertion seriously.
Are generalizations and classification inherently useless and misleading?
For example, is it absurd to call something a "chair"? After all, there are many differences between all those things that we call "chairs". A thing with four legs and a padded seat, another with three legs that is all wood, and yet another that has no legs and is made entirely of foam, are all called "chairs". Does the fact that chairs are different make the word "chair" meaningless?
No. The word "chair" identifies an object as meeting certain criteria, like "intended for a person to sit on". There are many variations within this idea, but it is still quite useful to call all these things "chairs". Like, when you go to a furniture store, it is useful to be able to say, "I am looking for a chair" versus "I am looking for a sofa" versus "I am looking for a bed". You and the salesman then know exactly what you mean. Of course from there you will have to identify just what kind of chair you want. But you save wasting time looking at sofas and beds and picture frames.
If we abandon generalizations, we would have to abandon all nouns except proper nouns. Is it really true that the only meaningful identification of a person is to say, "Fred Stover"? That if we say, "lawyer" or "soccer fan" or "liberal", that these words are meaningless gibberish that convey no information?
Is it really true that the only meaningful identification of a piece of furniture is to say, "XYZ Furniture Company model B-12 serial number 12949802"? That if we say, "chair" or "wooden" or "Colonial", that these words are meaningless gibberish that convey no information?
OF COURSE not all liberals think exactly alike, and not all conservatives think exactly alike. Just like all chairs are not exactly alike. But "liberal" and "conservative" are still useful, meaningful words. They help us to rationally discuss a person's political position. Most obviously, if you are trying to decide which candidate to vote for, it is routinely helpful to start with, "Is this candidate liberal or conservative?" OF COURSE that is not the end of the discussion. But simple classifications save a lot of trouble going through a maze of detail.
Sure, we could eliminate use of the terms "liberal" and "conservative". Then any time you wanted to discuss a candidate or a policy proposal, you could go through all the details.
Just like, we could eliminate use of the word "chair". Suppose by some magic spell you could make every English-speaking person in the world forget the word "chair". Then when you go to the furniture store, instead of saying, "I want to buy a chair,", you could say, "I'm looking for a piece of furniture." Then the salesman shows you a desk, and you say, "No something that a person could sit on." So he shows you a bed, and you say, "No, not to lie down on, but to sit on." "Oh, the salesman says, "How about this?" and he shows you a sofa. "I was thinking of something made for just one person at a time." Etc.
I bet within a few weeks, people would be inventing a new word that means "chair".
© 2011 by Jay Johansen