Languages are made up of words, and words have meanings. This fact is so obvious that we seldom pay attention to it. Parents are filled with joy when a toddler makes the connection between the sound of a word and the meaning of a word. “Blue” is not just a sound, but also a color, an attribute of something. Yet when they go to work or turn on the television, these same parents are oblivious to the way the meanings of words are shifted and changed. It happens at their place of work, it happens on the radio and television, it happens in the so-called “corridors of power” in which decisions are made affecting their lives and their children’s lives.
If some scholar where to study this issue, no doubt he would discover that those who hold political power (let’s call them “politicians” for lack of a better word) were the first to do this. For most of human history it did not matter whether a politician called said that blue meant red and that red meant blue. The vast majority of people were common laborers, scratching out a living on some small scrap of land. Only with the liberalization politics did the importance of what politicians said and what they meant become significant to the common man.
Liberal politics, in its broadest sense, began to take root in the late seventeenth century. Over the course of two hundred years constitutions were written, the rule of law was established, the franchise was extended to every adult, and various rights – such as freedom of speech, assembly and religion – were guaranteed. Every liberal gain meant the defeat of aristocratic, racial, religious and sexist forms of government. In most of North America, Europe and a scattering of republics throughout the rest of the globe, we take now take liberal government for granted. So much so, in fact, that we willingly allow it to be questioned, willingly allow it to be eroded from under our feet.
How is this possible? It happens because the liberal democracies have willingly ceded their birthright. In exchange for one commodity or another – oil, gold, wheat, bandwidth, the inviolability of corporate logos, votes – liberal democracies (or at least their leading politicians) have allowed the most illiberal political philosophies to gain a foothold in our language. Astonishingly enough, the very people elected to uphold, preserve and protect democracy are often the first to put out the “For Sale” sign. In order to hide what amounts to a betrayal of freedom, politicians shift and change the meanings of words.
Politicians tell us that “our democracy is strong enough to survive any challenge.” Whether the language is Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese or Spanish, the same sentenced is uttered over and over again. With this logic in hand, it is easy to say that new citizens who have immigrated from a non-democratic society must be given “the right” to maintain their cultural identity. Of course, those awaiting citizenship must be given the same rights as those who already have attained it by birth or naturalization. And so it goes on and on, with rights and liberties being handed out as if they were peanuts.
What are your responsibilities? What responsibilities do you, as a citizen of a liberal democracy, have to uphold and sustain? Perhaps, first and foremost, is defending the language – the words – of democracy. If this battle is lost, concepts dear to us such as truth, justice, life and liberty will become only so much gibberish.