A Janus word is one that means one thing but also its opposite. Example: sanction. There are word-pairs that sound like they mean the opposite but don’t, like flammable and inflammable. And then there are word-pairs that sound like they mean the same thing but mean the opposite. Example: disgruntled and gruntled. Who’d have thought that by “I’m feeling rather gruntled today!” I mean that I’m happy?
And, finally, then there are words that are used by rhetoricians, words that pretend to mean a great deal – so much, in fact, that they’re actually capable of carrying the day – but they mean nothing at all. How is this possible?
George Orwell had more than an inkling. If a word can be emptied of any cognitive content, but at the same time rendered rich in emotion, it cannot be parsed without the parser being judged churlish. Or if not churlish, then obviously ignorant of what everyone else clearly knows, even if they can’t exactly, or even inexactly, articulate what they know. What’s coercion? “It’s … you know.” What’s racism? “It’s … you know.”
To be fair, sometimes the best we can do is ostend to what we’re talking about. What’s pornography? “I don’t know what it is,” admits the judge, “but I know it when I see it.” But ostension won’t work for words like ‘coercion’ and ‘racism’. This is because to coerce is to wrongfully incentivize. To ‘discriminate’ – as in “She has discriminating tastes!” – is to simply ascertain a difference and act accordingly, whereas racism is wrongful discrimination. Fair enough. But wrongfulness is not a property to which one can simply point. So by deploying the word ‘coercion’ or ‘racism’, the rhetorician is seeking to do an end-run around any need to make her case for this wrongfulness by pretending that case is a res judicata. But the moment the rhetorician is called out on this ploy – the moment she accedes to the demand to make that case – her high dudgeon dies the death of a thousand qualifications.
This is not to say there’s no such thing as a wrongful incentive or wrongful discrimination. It’s to say only that those judgments will be embedded in an ethical theory, a theory which, because it is a theory, is always open to debate.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, philosophy the science of getting clear about our ideas. And though the two enterprises are often at odds, both are among the sine qua non of civil society.
So the rhetorician has her work and I have mine. In my work I don’t use words like ‘coercion’ and ‘racism’. But if I’m to analyze how they are being used, I have to mention them, as I just have.
I tell my students not to be conned by these cognitively empty but emotionally charged words. But there are so many of them – what’s a right? what’s ownership? – that were we to be unstinting in calling them out, no such typically ‘useless’ conversations could get off the ground. But if they’re useless, what would be the loss?! Social lubrication. Rights-talk is bleating. And we need to be able to bleat to each other, since otherwise there could be no interpersonal solidarity.
The trick is not to confuse this lubrication with discourse. The grammar school teacher who gets a love letter from his pre-pubescent student and corrects it for spelling is an asshole. But the philosophy professor who gets a paper riddled with undefined rights-talk and doesn’t send it back for a rewrite is worse than an asshole. He’s not doing his job.