Words, Words, Words

Many people unintentionally allow themselves to be fooled. Perhaps the most common and traditional way is simply by holding the pervasive belief that words stand for precise things out there, and that the relationship between word and thing is eternally unambiguously clear if we use language ‘correctly’. —— -If it only were!

The Age newspaper (May 5) provides a sample problem when it announces the new trial in America of five terrorists who have been in custody for some time. Billed as the “trial of the century”.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the deemed master-mind behind 9/11, is the most notorious of the five – but for more than one reason. It has been officially confirmed that he was ‘water-boarded’ 183 times in the first four weeks of his capture.
No information has been made available on his carceration during the following several months.

This intensive treatment is but a tip of the iceberg. The article fails to remind readers that American authorities officially deny that ‘water-boarding’ is ‘torture’. So, to them, Khalid has never been tortured. He never will be – we will be officially reminded of this from time to time. He has experienced only “enhanced interrogation technique”.

The article also fails to tell its readers that American authorities remain unwilling, unlike most other countries, to officially define ‘torture’. This refusal extends as far as the special international committee commissioned to reach some universal consensus on the term. TheAmerican position is firm: ‘we would all recognise it if ‘torture’ was ever used anywhere; and we would all agree then to condemn it’.

[ This stand allows America the freedom to use any technique any time it wishes, and whatever that is, it can never be shown by others to be ‘torture’. By definition – permanently undefined.]

So a “reformed war crimes tribunal” is due to begin, after an earlier version had been found ‘unconstitutional’ by the US Supreme Court.

The new prosecutor, General Martin, is confident about the unblemished status of the upcoming trial. He insists that any army officer selected to serve on the jury from a pre-determined selection of 230,000 serving officers, will be ‘impartial’ even if that soldier had been fighting in Afghanistan for the last ten years. As he says, the military can be trusted to be “just”; it has “proven so in the past”.

So there we are. Officially, the five terrorists have never been tortured and, whatever the outcome, we are reassured the trail will be a just one. There is nothing to be concerned about; the entire process is one of trust. Everyone, even terrorists, will get a “fair-trial”. Someone like Khalid, however, will not be allowed to use the occasion “as an opportunity to grandstand; that would be too dangerous” it is said. [That is why the US Congress stopped the earlier New York Federal Court trial].

To many observers the process has been dismissed as a legal sham; any confession by Klalid, they argue, cannot be accepted as valid after the treatment he has received. A ‘second-tier justice’ normally associated with the ‘show-trials’ of China and North Korea is the harsh judgment of many legal observers.
Indeed this trial has been characterised by the previous chief prosecutor, Colonel Morris Davis, who resigned from the position in 2008, as the equivalent to “putting lipstick on a pig”.

But the public, anywhere, can be understandably confused about what to believe. Is ‘water-boarding’ torture of not? Would senior American officials lie about such a thing? What proof do critics have to support their accusations of torture?

Can we, late in the day, learn to realise that words are words are words – and can never become ‘facts’ even if they look as if they are? We know that in certain cases; just because someone says “I love you” it does not necessarily mean (s)he does, or if (s)he does mean it, what does ‘mean’ mean; and when (s)he acts in some way or other is it an act of love or not? These questions are unanswerable – because words can never be pinned down like that. There is no one meaning of ‘love’; there never can be and nothing can ever be proven one way or the other.

Most people probably realise that in some way, but they tend to forget that the same rule applies to any word we can utter – it cannot be otherwise. ‘Smart’ people knowingly exploit that reality; and innocent even reasonable people get fooled.

‘Terrorist’, ‘just’, ‘fair’, ‘impartial’, ‘torture’ are words. Language can only be language. We can say anything with words but as one leading philosopher of the twentieth century said: “A use of language is also an abuse of language”. We can’t do much without language, but it can never settle anything scientifically, rationality. It is always ambiguous – and that can’t be reformed.

Intellectual argument is of little value. We cannot prove the current American position on torture, terrorists, justice and fairness to be wrong and, likewise we cannot prove that we are right. It is in every case a matter of belief and moral intuition.
Which in every way, however, is both more important and more profound.

I believe water-boarding to be torture. I believe that the American government has with full awareness behaved reprehensively ever since 9/11 in the broad arena of terrorism, torture, justice, honesty, decency. What they do, and don’t do (cf refusal to concede any benchmark on ‘torture’) is utterly immoral and done in a conscious political process of immediate vindictive punishment of anything or anyone deemed an enemy – even though what they do clearly aggravates not ameliorates the international situation. And this is why they feel they have to deceive the world (as best they can) by linguistic chicanery.

Because a judgment like this, or any other, can never be proven right, it must not deter anyone from making a judgment. We should never let words, words deliberately chosen to politically deceive people, trick us into silence and confusion. That applies all the time – and everywhere.

Postscript: the trial has begun. But after one day of ‘mayhem’ it has been postponed. Justice, in this case injustice, may eventually be served by other means of current American-style
‘law and order’ – it seems pre-determined.

Don Miller

May 17, 2012


Hard Science and Soft Science

Those practising the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy et.al. know (or believe) they are being rigorous, rational, thorough and patient in their pursuit of truth. A goal reached only now and then to scientists – it is hard won, but practitioners are not deterred. They know science calls for such dedication; they are proud of themselves. By and large the public holds a similar picture of scientists; it respects them (ill-tempers over the proof of global warning notwithstanding). They are the experts after all. Only they represent Science and its dedicated search for knowledge. It is interesting to think that the word ‘scientist’ automatically carries with it the word ‘expert’. We do not conceive of a scientist being an inexpert or amateur.

On the other hand, those engaged in human and social studies, such as history, anthropology, psychology, literature, philosophy are seen and labelled differently. This separation is based on the view that they are not sciences, as we know the word. Nor do practitioners ‘appear’ rigorous, testing, patient, objective researchers of the truth. Rather they are seen as amateurs, speculative, imaginative. To be enjoyed – surely at times; to be taken seriously as purveyors of knowledge and truth – infrequently. At best they are artists. They may be deemed to represent the ‘soft sciences’ – an ambivalence – both pejorative and charitable a judgment surely.

But an alternative vision is possible. ‘Scientists’ by their own admission follow strict procedures. This may be their strength – it provides a clear guideline for young scientists, to begin with. It can also be their weakness. A formula, a standard, a rule which restricts, inhibits, controls – all features limiting new, yet to be considered possibilities. Imagination, speculation, sudden inspiration are absent, disallowed. Research under restraint. It is only the exceptional scientist (usually renowned and retired) who concedes that speculation and imagination play an important role in the best scientific research.

But science can’t have it both ways: its formula is the ‘scientific method’; its (occasional) imaginative behaviour is not. Is it an aberration, which sometimes pays off?

Consider the humanities scholar: provided one does not try to ape the stereotype of the hard scientist, she is wracked with problems all the time. Beginning with language itself, with all its ambiguities, allusions, and hidden implications. None of which can be solved or resolved before you proceed; and they haunt you always.

Their studies target, in one way or other, the human condition, whether the subject matter is history and its wars, cities and their rise and fall, the quest for political power, women’s repression, and economic cycles. Human beings are always, no matter how implicitly, the subject matter. And humans change yet remain the same; they are knowable yet remain a mystery. In all, they are full of contradictions, denials, deceptions – to others and to themselves. How do we make these fitful, capricious beings an object of rigorous study? Let alone an object of ‘scientific’
study’? [The effort to square the circle may be the cause of psychology’s poor repute, and its retreat into a ‘testing’ institution].

How do we ever ‘know’ human beings in all their machinations and manoeuvres ? Can we ever ‘understand the truth’ of love, hate, fear, joy – in all their guises ? Surely these studies are the real ‘hard sciences’. And there can never be the ‘last word’ on any element of the work. In comparison the exciting subjects of physics, astronomy and hydraulics pale into ‘softness’ – there the scientist has her ‘marching orders’, they know what they have to do, and they get on with the job, in a certain pure innocence.

Pity the poor poet or ‘student’ of politics (note we never say the ‘student of the galaxies’); they rely on little helpful directions on how to manage their work. Nothing instructs them; everything obstructs them. They grope and struggle for every insight in their practice of ‘hard science’.

Don Miller


Class: language reveals and conceals

The word ‘class’ has declined in usage in Australia over the years, but most Australians I suspect would have a classification loosely in mind: the upper class, and if not, the upper middle class; then there would be the middle class, or in certain contexts it would be broken down into the professional class and the business class. Then there is the working class, and maybe the lower working class or the poor. In other words, the common belief is of some form of a hierarchical ‘class system’.

In England the relevant language is more complex and certainly more pronounced – England being generally recognised as an extremely class conscious culture. From the top there probably would be seen a descending order from the aristocracy, landed aristocracy, the landed gentry and the urban upper class, middle class, lower middle class, upper working class, and lower working class.

America provides the great contrast. From its origins as a white settlement it has always, most consciously, identified itself, as Exceptional – in all ways – distinct from Europe’s tradition-bound social hierarchies. And this, uniquely God-given and blessed. And because the land being so fertile and open/available to all newcomers ( the eradication or domestication of the native Indians was taken for granted), there existed a unique situation – a perfect opportunity for every person to make his mark. An equality in potential. This all embracing exceptionalism has driven the entire history of the USA – for good, as Americans naturally insist and culturally impose (any other consideration being akin to national heresy). For bad, as others would feel obliged to say.

I have done no careful survey of the speeches/texts of the current presidential Primaries campaign, but I have been struck in sensing my expectations are sound.

The very word ‘class’ is still a dishonorable word in America. More than one Republican Congressman has attacked Obama for introducing ‘class-war’ into American politics when he has talked of taxing the ‘very rich’. The idea is considered unAmerican and its very mention was a risky thing for Obana to do. The idea of ‘redistribution’ of wealth is also anathema: offensive and unneeded. When Obama attempted (not that vigorously) to introduce a new Health policy two years ago, a policy that would have marginally helped the very poor, a common response from ‘middle America’ was “ I don’t object to the poor having better health care, but my God I’m not giving them any of my money towards that”.

Consistent with that entrenched cultural position, the language available to describe American society is extremely narrow – and quite vague. All America seems composed of one broad mass – ‘the American middle class/ middle classes’. Above them is ‘the very rich’ – to most people a badge of success. That optimistic image has received more attention and criticism in the past few years than it has for a long time. The language of the recent ‘occupation’ movement’ is dramatically new. Then there is something below ‘the middle class’ – the ‘poor’ – again getting more attention now than anytime since the Depression of 1930.

There is an old joke till circulating which announces the results of some survey akin to “there are 80% above average’. The parallel here is ‘we Americans are all middle class”, that is, we are all pretty equal; there are no classes and no class system in America.

There is a second, parallel linguistic system operating buttressing and policing the above. It is the description of political positions. The dominant schema for a long time has been a simple two-part division between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. A fringe, ‘mad lefty’, was deemed irrelevant. And, at the moment, some concede a ‘mad rightwing’ which is also irrelevant and already allegedly disappearing.

Between the two systems of language and thinking, legitimate political activity is tightly constrained.

In the current, and very critical financial environment, and in a more likely than not worsening future, one senses the possibility of a radical seismic change. Whether it will manage to create an organisational presence is a critical problem. The American ‘establishment’ with arms in both major political parties, will oppose such a movement strenuously. Such a confrontation will inevitably operate at the very time that the nation will have lost forever for ever its dominant global power. A complex crisis.

Language will change, in unforeseeable ways, with unforeseeable consequences. Many different scenarios are feasible; some hypothetical developments are unsavoury. America will continue to be Exceptional.

Don Miller


Anders Breivik: sane or insane?


Talk soon turns to a discussion of the probable state of mind of a murderer whenever the crime is extreme in form or size. It was inevitable that the tragic mass slaughter of Norwegian youth would be no exception. Within a week, before we know much at all about the young man, debate had started. ‘He has to be mad or insane to perpetrate such a heinous act’ was likely to be the initial stance – and the evidence seems obvious. To be quickly followed by a seemingly wiser observation. ‘The man had to be sane – think of the months of detailed preparation Breivik undertook to become perfectly prepared to execute his plan – that can only the work of a sane person’.

As material grows over coming months, with written extracts from his voluminous ‘manifesto’, and verbal assertions and defences from his court appearances, people around the world will consolidate their position, or make a dramatic conversion from one to another camp. And whichever position one is in, everyone will be armed with more and more ‘conclusive’ evidence that the man was sane, or insane, as the case may be. Dictionaries are likely to be consulted to buttress a case; experts in the area will be seized upon or ignored

according to their supportive usefulness. Nothing is likely to be settled before public interest in the issue will begin to fail or until it is usurped by another horrendous, violent tragedy.

Some people will eventually question the debate. They will begin to challenge the framing of the issue and the silent assumptions behind the two opinions. ‘Perhaps an otherwise ‘sane’ person can carry some ‘insane’ qualities as well? Perhaps we should not assume mental states or qualities as ‘pure’ entities (like billiard balls for example) – here, of something labelled ‘insanity’ and ‘sanity’ which by definition are mutually exclusive, any co-existence being inconceivable, inexpressible’. Perhaps we have been tricked by our language: we have two opposing words which make us think they represent two opposing ‘realities’. But are there two things? Could we be composed of different complex mixtures; after all, many writers stress the complexity, disharmony, inconsistency, contrariness of any human psyche – such as the observation of Peter Steele when he says: “Show me a person and I will show you a labyrinth”. And if so, why only two names/ two words? Why do we so easily talk as if everything comes in two’s? And then we could change the imagery of concrete billiard balls bouncing off each other to something more like varieties of clouds moving in and out and between each other. We may need to enrich our vocabulary; to search for different complexities and avoid the temptation to simplify everything. Why do we always descend into crude pairs of opposing things, about which we assume we must make a clean choice: is it right or wrong, yes or no, black or white, good or bad, with us or against us?’

Why do we feel obliged to make judgments? To defend a position and attack another? Why do we get satisfaction from reaching a conclusion, better still, of winning some battle. Are we capable of appreciating another default game – of leaving open-ended an exploration of human behaviour about which we are happy to admit we know and will continue to know little, and that an exhibition of certainty is not a sign of strength but a weakness. And to agree that the discussion was enjoyable and valuable to all parties.

NOTE to readers. You may be interested to read my blog titled  “Going Sane” on the website, and also an article on ‘lessons’ from the Norwegian massacre in the current, July, issue on MCI enewsletter.

Don Miller, 28 July 2011



Thinking, Language, Beyond Language

In ‘Thinking about thinking’ I urged a greater use of ‘why’ questions – the challenging, threatening, subversive question – not only  towards others, to ourselves as well.

I now want to suggest that, as you delve into the ‘why’ you think this rather than that, you are likely, eventually, to sense the limitations of language, perhaps for the first time. In all its richness it can never go quite far enough, or deep enough, or precise enough to fully satisfy your questions.

At this stage, you could chuck it all in, and take up lawn bowls; or take up a god which we are told is ineffable and that we therefore have no need to understand.

Or you can begin, for the first time, to really come to grips with thinking, but with a language that you acknowledge is inevitably inadequate. Words can never be facts; and words can undermine us just as much as they aid us in exploring  the impossible but wonderful, exciting and essential task of thinking seriously about anything. The final word will always elude you; you have to accept that everything is incomplete. But to feel ‘really human’ and worthwhile, you stick at it. Your rewards are without limits.



Language is ideal for imagination, speculation and creative thinking. Its inherent ambiguity makes it restless; it is    always going places, several places. It can never be fettered. Language allows us to dream; it is always and only allusive. Language is ideally made to play with the future, to where we want to go, for what purpose. But is only suggests, hints at, alludes to. It uses a broad brush. It has no sharp point.

Language is not made for regulation, jurisdictional disputes, precision. It cannot clearly, firmly rule because it can never be pinned down; it is too elusive. Law is there, less to help maintain  law, more to debate what the law  can be made to say and mean. Language is not made to firmly run the state of affairs ­ it is too controversial, prickly, open-ended.

Its strength is its weakness. Its weakness  its strength.