Literally, Socialism, and the Need for a Dictionary in American Discourse

Oxford-English-Dictionary-001

A recent article by the Economist magazine has exposed Bernie Sanders for what any of us familiar with the meanings of words is: NOT a socialist. Despite the obvious reasons why Sanders is not a socialist, there are many who – despite the clarification in the article – still insist that Sanders is, indeed, a socialist in the proper sense of the word. What follows is a delineation of terms (including “socialism”), a look at this phenomenon of semantic confusion, and a prescription for correcting it and, ultimately, improving not only linguistic precision but political discourse.

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A few years ago, I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the word “literally,” defined as, “in the literal or strict sense,” has come to mean its exact opposite: “in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.” This means that the word “literally” now literally means “figuratively!” Why? No doubt it is because it has been largely and continuously misused over time as a filler word in the conversations of most people. If it is in the nature of language to change, why is a semantic shift (a reversal) like this so irksome – and dangerous?

The most obvious problem with a reversal like this the confusion it creates. What does a person mean when they use a word like “literally” in a conversation? While context and common sense can go a long way in determining which meaning is intended, there are other instances where this is not so. The most recent example is the use of the word “socialism” vis-a-vis Bernie Sanders’ political stance.

Socialism is defined as, “a theory or system of social organism that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.” The key feature of economic -isms is who controls the means of production: in socialism, it is society as a whole; in capitalism, it is private individuals/corporations. While it is difficult to distill comprehensive and variable economic systems in a sentence, these are the essential features of those words and so anyone who claims to endorse the philosophies which those words represent must, at least, meet such basic criteria.

So, do the policies Sanders’ propose meet these basic criteria? The answer is a resounding “no,” even according to Sanders himself. In an interview with Amy Goodman, Sanders was asked to define what he meant by “socialism.” Sanders replied,

Well, I think it [socialism] means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.

What Sanders describes is not socialism, proper – where society controls the means of production – but a more fair and equitable form of democratic capitalism. In fact, he has said outright that, “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production.” So, Sanders is not a socialist according to the original meaning of the word; he is, in fact, a capitalist. The problem, though, is that he gives his own definition of the word, “socialism,” and if we accept and use it the way he does then, technically, Sanders is a “socialist,” but only according to this new definition.

Back to the confusion of contradictory definitions: is Sanders a socialist or not? According to traditional socialist philosophy in which society owns the means of production, “no, Sanders is not a socialist.” However, if we take his Jeffersonian-esque interpretation of democracy as a definition, then, “yes, he is.” But are the electorate making this significant distinction between socialism proper and Sanders’ version of it when “debating” his presidential bid and the policies he advocates? There are plenty of indications that the vast majority of Americans are not. But, ultimately, does this matter?

In short, yes. First, words have meaning, and when those meanings change so much that they no longer mean what they originally did, or worse: the exact opposite, then effective communication becomes all but impossible. Second, semantic shifts of the type that have occurred to “literally” and “socialism,” can be used in ways that can confuse, mislead, and deceive. A perfect example is the negative labelling of Sanders as a “socialist.” Such a label turns off many potential supporters because of the connotation the word has received due to the history of the Cold War. That said, the word “socialism” underscores the major political shift Sanders does endorse, so it does indicates a “revolution” in political goings-on that Sanders’ promises if elected. In this way, the obfuscation is strategic, even if somewhat disingenuous. In these ways, political discourse becomes double speak and there is a real danger that, if we’re not vigilant, it devolves into duckspeak.

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In conclusion: Sanders is not a socialist in any meaningful sense; he is a democrat and a capitalist, by his own admissions. Furthermore, words have meaning and we who use language have the responsibility to protect the integrity of those meanings. Though, we must allow for – and adapt to – the inevitable evolution of language when those changes do not degrade communication. The best way to do this is to know the meanings of words and to insist upon clarification and discipline when using language. And the best way to know these meanings is to read the dictionary, regularly. Look up words not known; refresh understanding of words that are known; and build vocabularies on a daily basis (David Foster Wallace went so far as to call the dictionary one of the, “great bathroom books of all times”). In this way, human communication, thought, and socio-political processes can improve in ways that will benefit us all.

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