Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Language and Logic

I've been getting a little peeved by the endless Tweets of this kind:

Even Senator Sir Philip Bailhache acknowledges Option B is less democratic. Why does @philipozouf patronise public by saying the opposite?

That's because there is an inference being made there which is false. Sir Philip has in fact said nothing of the sort, which is hardly surprising. It would be very strange if he had said "I think Option B is less democratic". What he has said is to do with voter equity, and a statement which reflects his position on this (from Hansard) would be:

"The Deputy's approach seems to be that there is no voter equity in reform option B and, therefore, reform option B should go.  But as the commission has made it clear in its report, the question of voter equity is not the only consideration.  Option A offers the public voter equity, whereas option B offers something quite different.  It offers voter equity in terms of the 30 Deputies, but it also offers a continuation of the direct constitutional link between the States and the Parishes, which many people believe to be of fundamental importance."

Now you might define democracy in terms of voter equity, but it is clear from this that is not the only consideration that Sir Philip has. To say he wants a States that is less democratic is to make that equation, but to say that he says Option B is less democratic is to make an inference about his beliefs which is clearly untrue.

To be precise, a correct position would be to say: "Even Senator Sir Philip Bailhache acknowledges Option B is less democratic by my understanding of democracy". Now that might be a common understanding of democracy, but that is far from saying it is a universal understanding of democracy. There's a lot of sloppy logic around here, which irks the mathematician in me.

While the argument for Option A is about voter equity and the fairness of a system which only has voter equity, it is surely not fair to misrepresent Sir Philip by selectively quoting what he has said, and missing the thrust of his argument, which balances voter equity against the direct constitutional link. Option A may be about fairness; some of the arguments like this are not.

Karl Popper, for example, defines the term "democracy" this way:

You can choose whatever name you like for the two types of government. I personally call the type of government which can be removed without violence "democracy", and the other "tyranny".

Under Sir Philip's consideration, all positions in the States which carry voting power are elected by the people, and can be contested. He balances two methods of representation, much as the United States does with their two houses (and is a democracy). But they can all be voted out.

Popper's definition also rules out the People's Democratic Republic of Congo, or the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea as not being democracies but dictatorships:

Sir Humphrey Appleby: East Yemen, isn't that a democracy?
Sir Richard Wharton: Its full name is the Peoples' Democratic Republic of East Yemen.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Ah I see, so it's a communist dictatorship.

And incidentally, it also rules out the House of Lords, something for the UK to chew over when considering if Option B is undemocratic, not that they are likely to, according to Dr Renouf, an Option A speaker last Friday.

George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language" notes that: "In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning."

Which is why you get some people saying "It certainly is democracy to be able to chose any one the three options but a little strange to celebrate that principle by choosing something undemocratic." A classic example of how vague the term is. The fact is that the term has become very vague, just as Orwell noted.

But that still doesn't stop Sam Mezec from doing counts of how many times the word "democracy" is used by people in meetings supporting Option B and Option C, as if that shows some hidden dark unconscious avoidance of the term. Or Christine Vibert in her summation for Option A on Friday saying that her opponents had not used the term 'democracy' - they had, she just hadn't listened.

Yet if they had not used the term "democracy", it may just mean that the term has become, as Orwell notes, so sloppy in its meaning that people try to avoid using it, in much the same way that Charles Darwin didn't use the term "evolution" in his ground breaking book "Origin of Species". At the time, and even now, the word "evolution" carried baggage about progress and directionality, which Darwin wished to avoid. Does anyone believe that the Darwin's Theory of Evolution was thereby deficient because he didn't use the word "evolution"?

And it will do no good, as some people have said, going to the dictionary or the etymology, to see what "democracy" means. All that etymology does is to trace the origins of the word, not how its meaning mutates over time. "Persona" as used in the Classical period, was the Latin for "mask". By the 4th century, it meant "person". The same is true of words in English.

What the dictionary does is to look at the roots of the word, and some current meanings; it gives two snapshots. One of the origins of the word, and one on what the word means in contemporary usage. And of course that can be country specific. A Democrat in the USA is rather different from someone described as a democrat in England. Here are four different examples of the word, with meanings that it has had or has today.

1836: T. P. Thompson Exercises (1842) IV. 191   Democracy means the community's governing through its representatives for its own benefit.

1794:  S. Williams Nat. & Civil Hist. Vermont 342   In the ancient democracies the public business was transacted in the assemblies of the people.

1652   J. Smith Select Disc. (1821) ix. xi. 410   In wicked men there is a democracy of wild lusts and passions.

1891   Lowell's Poems, Biglow P., Note 301   One of the leaders of the Northern Democracy during the war, and the presidential nominee against Lincoln in 1864.

Words do not have "essential" meanings, and a good modern linguistic understanding of how a dictionary works is as follows (from S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action):

The writing of a dictionary . . . is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the 'true meanings' of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one's ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver. If, for example, we had been writing a dictionary in 1890, or even as late as 1919, we could have said that the word 'broadcast' means 'to scatter' (seed, for example), but we could not have decreed that from 1921 on, the most common meaning of the word should become 'to disseminate audible messages, etc., by radio transmission.' To regard the dictionary as an 'authority,' therefore, is to credit the dictionary writer with gifts of prophecy which neither he nor anyone else possesses. In choosing our words when we speak or write, we can be guided by the historical record afforded us by the dictionary, but we cannot be bound by it. Looking under a 'hood,' we should ordinarily have found, five hundred years ago, a monk; today, we find a motorcar engine."

So when words change meanings, or get sloppy in meaning - and democratic is becoming almost synonymous with "good" as Orwell noted, perhaps it would be good to drop it, and speak with greater clarity because we are forced to think about matters, not just tack together adjectives and phrases without thinking about that.

To quote Orwell again: "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse."



Nick Palmer said...

Tony. Voter equity outranks by a long way all other "considerations".

To rank other considerations as equally important democratically, as Bailhache was doing, is indeed the "Jersey Way" crystallised.

TonyTheProf said...

That's an assumption, and it doesn't apply in the USA, for example.

You are perfectly at liberty to make that assumption in terms of ranking, but that's your assumption, it is not universal.

The USA ranks two different considerations as important.

TonyTheProf said...

I don't mind anyone saying "I understand democracy to mean voter equity" as long as they don't believe that exhausts the meanings of the word; if they do that, I'd suggest a course in comparative linguistics.

Nick Le Cornu said...

70% of tonights St Helier Parish Assembly have voted for OPTION A. Augers well for Referendum Day when St Helier comes in for A.

Low turnout for the meeting, but those there were genuine residents unaligned to one option or the other.

Time for the Constables to bow out gracefull and do what they do best in their Parish?

TonyTheProf said...

Huge manipulation of statistics, Nick. You should do headlines for the JEP.

The result of tonight's St Helier vote on referendum was: A 13, B 4,C 2.

Which comes to around 70%, but with such small numbers, this can hardly be taken as a representative sample.

Indeed, if it is an indicator of anything, it indicates extreme voter apathy, and maybe a turnout of 15%.

Augers very badly for Referendum day if St Helier produces that kind of result!