My office has one of those awfully convenient single-cup coffee makers. While you’re waiting for your drink a helpful screen on the front of the machine assures you that it’s “Preparing your fresh ground coffee!”. But I personally inserted the little pouch of grounds into the machine and, judging from the volume I’ve seen in our storeroom, I’d charitably estimate that it’s been at least six weeks since that coffee saw a grinder.
My girlfriend, one of the more intelligent people I’ve ever met, likes to order off the gluten-free menu because “the fresher ingredients just make her feel better”. But being gluten free has nothing to do with freshness. Three week old roadkill possum is gluten free.
While getting my oil changed yesterday I overheard a couple of people talking about how awful it is that, high-power, large-caliber weapons like “AR-16s” (sic) are available for sale right down the street to anyone with a credit card. Now, while reasonable people my disagree on what constitutes “high powered” or “large caliber” I don’t know anyone who draws the line for either all the way down at .223 / 5.56.
What these seemingly disconnected things have in common is this: words are losing their meaning and far too many people seem to care.
The description “fresh ground” should be used to denote that coffee has been, you know, freshly ground. But this machine is using it simply as a synonym for “good”. Gluten refers to a specific protein found in specific grains and yet somehow my girlfriend thinks that has some bearing on her egg whites and asparagus. And a cartridge that is routinely dismissed as unsuitable (and arguably cruel) to use on whitetail deer cannot be called “high-powered”, but a high-powered rifle is scarier than a plain old rifle and so the appellation sticks.
We’re living in an age where voters get their information from media platforms that are specifically designed to deliver mindless sound bites rather than reasoned argumentation. Convenient? Yes… plus I love cat pictures as much as the next guy. But there’s a price to be paid for this: we, as a nation, are losing the capacity to use language. Millions upon millions of people refer to things they like as progressive, inclusive, diverse, constitutional and brilliant when they demonstrably are not. At the same time they dismiss things they don’t like as racist, unconstitutional, stupid or misogynistic when, again, they clearly are not. Because these words are stripped of any actual meaning it becomes impossible to have any discussion around them, because the people with whom you are trying to speak literally cannot understand you. They don’t have any notion of the fundamental concepts behind your words.
It’s as Glenn Reynolds so often says, our political opponents read 1984 and see it not as a cautionary tale but as a how-to manual.
This inability to use language and discuss concepts has very real, tangible consequences. It resulted in the election of Barack Obama and is driving the candidacies of Clinton and Sanders. Its equally destructive mirror image is driving the ascendency of Donald Trump.
The US Constitution is the finest bit of political work ever accomplished by Man but it has one crippling weakness: it requires a literate, engaged electorate in order to make it work. We lack that now, and what’s worse we lack the means to create one.
If you’ve read this far waiting for my prescription to turn things around I humbly thank you. Alas, I have no such suggestion to give. I think we’re doomed.