Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


Stage-level rights?

Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen, quoted in today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on the state’s soon-to-be-implemented concealed-carry law:

“One of the oldest arguments out there is that the criminals – the ones who aren’t entitled to have firearms – are carrying concealed already. They’re the ones we’re worried about, not the ones who are going to be abiding by the law.

[…]

“I’m a proponent of concealed carry for law-abiding citizens… because there’s just not this pile of anecdotal cases where law-abiding citizens are abusing firearms to the detriment of the public.”

Of interest here is Van Hollen’s use of the adjective law-abiding and the noun criminals. Both of these terms are typically used to denote stable, unchanging properties. They differ in this respect from adjectives like hungry or asleep, which denote changeable properties that last a comparatively short time. In linguistic parlance, the former are individual-level properties, the latter stage-level properties.

A handy linguistic test for diagnosing the individual- vs. stage-level distinction is the whenever test. Stage-level adjectives like hungry can happily occur in a whenever clause: Whenever I’m hungry, I eat a hamburger. Individual-level adjectives like tall cannot: consider the awkwardness of Whenever I’m tall, I eat a hamburger. By this test, law-abiding clearly qualifies as an individual-level adjective: it is highly awkward to say, e.g., Whenever I’m law-abiding, I leave my gun at home.

By behaving grammatically as an individual-level adjective, law-abiding enjoys some prototypical individual-level connotations that it does not properly denote. Individual-level adjectives typically denote properties that are stable through time and over which the subject has little or no control: tall, smart, brown-eyed, Swiss, etc. Inherent properties of individuals (if such properties exist) are individual-level properties. In literal terms, law-abiding can at best denote a tendency or propensity toward obeying the law; far from being an inherent property of an individual, it is one that requires continual acts of compliance in order to apply to someone. Put more simply, unlike with tall, you’re law-abiding until you’re not. This is, of course, to say nothing of the complications arising from one’s possibly variable degree of adherence to the plethora of laws in our society: is a habitual jaywalker who steals his neighbors’ wifi, but also pays his taxes and gets the requisite concealed-carry training, a law-abiding person?

In literal terms, then, Van Hollen is saying something close to a tautology: a law-abiding citizen, by definition, cannot be abusing firearms to the detriment of the public. By way of inference from its individual-level status, however, the term law-abiding (like criminals) unhelpfully encourages us to partition the set of citizens into two non-overlapping classes: the law-abiding and the criminals. Instead of addressing the real complexity of the situation, this usage deliberately blurs it, leaving little conceptual space for the changeable, often unstable nature of abiding by the law and the dire consequences that can ensue when an armed citizen suddenly exits a law-abiding stage.


Facts and theories

In Salon today, Michael Lind writes:

…two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination debated whether it is a fact or a theory that humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons descend from a common ancestor.

Lind’s phrasing illustrates the perils of not attending to the distinction between the popular understanding of the word theory and its scientific and philosophical meaning. In the excerpt above, Lind perhaps unwittingly echoes the anti-scientific right in using theory pejoratively, as a term of abuse, even as he attempts to discuss its application to scientific reasoning. Failure to identify and insist on the distinction between the two meanings, whether through ignorance, carelessness, or deliberate conflation, only more deeply entrenches the anti-scientific rhetoric that is so prevalent in American politics.

Theories are attempts to form a coherent and systematic understanding of disparate facts. Facts are inert; theories are useful. Almost anything that you understand or believe is based on some theory or other. Imagine, as social scientists like to do, that you are in a prehistoric jungle. Your companion eats the fruit of a tree and dies. You might sensibly conclude that, if you ate the same fruit, you would also die. But that is just a theory, not a fact. The only fact at our disposal is that the companion died after eating the fruit.

To take a more interesting example, consider gravity. It is hard to imagine any serious contemporary politician disputing the theory of gravity. But gravity is just a theory. To be sure, it is an extremely good theory: it relates such disparate phenomena as the fact that you don’t float off the ground, the fact that the moon and planets follow the particular paths that they do in the night sky, the fact that our communications satellites stay in the positions we expect them to so we can talk to our friends in faraway places while we watch Andy Reid waste timeouts on another coast, and so on. But it is still just a theory; it has, as Rick Perry might put it, some gaps. It is perfectly conceivable that the theory of gravity may at some point be supplanted by a better and more comprehensive theory (indeed, this has been a major project of theoretical physics for decades), and that future generations might look back at us and say, “Can you imagine? They believed in gravity!”

Appreciating the distinction between facts and theories is central to any rational discussion of science, in politics or elsewhere. Lind asks whether the descent of the great apes from a common ancestor is a fact or a theory, but this is a category mistake. The relevant facts include the existence of the various hominids and hominid fossils, the details of their genetic code, and so on. Any hypothesis, positive or negative, about their relationship now or in the past is a theory. Indeed, the conviction that we come from somewhere, that things happened before the start of recorded history, is a theory. It may be a theory with no plausible alternative—i.e., a very elegant and compelling theory—but it is a theory all the same. If journalists and public intellectuals paid more careful attention to the very different senses of the word theory in popular and scientific usage, politicians and others might have more trouble dressing up anti-scientific rhetoric in respectable lexical clothing.


Suitable and common

A recently publicized dispute in Oak Park, Mich., pits a homeowner who has planted a vegetable garden in her front yard against her neighbors and the city (which initially dug up the spot in question for sewer repairs). City code stipulates that front-yard vegetation consist of “suitable live plant material”. The city’s Technical and Planning Director maintains that “suitable means common”, and, citing the fact that front-yard vegetable gardens are uncommon in Oak Park, finds the homeowner in violation of city code. The homeowner and the city have vowed to fight the matter out in court, with the homeowner facing up to 93 days in jail if convicted.

The city’s position apparently rests on the claim that suitable and common are near-synonyms. In fact, it is a simple and instructive exercise in linguistic semantics to show that suitable and common have markedly different meanings. The point can be demonstrated in at least two ways: by considering the basic truth conditions of the adjectives, and by considering the different ways in which their meanings involve judgment or opinion.

First, the basics: suitable and common fail the most fundamental test for synonymy. It is possible for something to be suitable without being common, and vice versa. To illustrate, imagine two different kinds of front-yard vegetation: (i) a rare and exotic varietal of grass, and (ii) dandelions. The special grass requires less water than ordinary grass but is otherwise indistinguishable from it; it is non-invasive, carries no exotic plant illnesses, etc. Dandelions are just ordinary dandelions, provoking the standard prescriptivist lawn-care anxiety and ire. Now assume, for the sake of argument, that just one home in Oak Park has the special grass, but that 35% of the city’s homes have dandelions in their front yards. In this scenario, we would say that the special grass is suitable but not common; conversely, we would say that dandelions are common (assuming that 35% saturation meets the relevant threshold; if not, adjust it upward as you see fit) but not suitable. Clearly, then, suitable and common have different truth conditions: they make different claims about what the world must be like in order for a sentence containing them to be true.

Beyond this basic truth-conditional difference, the meaning of suitable depends on personal judgment and opinion in a way that the meaning of common does not. To be sure, some opinion is required in the ordinary (or, in linguistic terminology, “positive”) use of common: as alluded to above, speakers may disagree on just how widespread something must be in order to count as common. But this is a very different sort of disagreement from that involved in the use of suitable. To see this, we must look at these adjectives’ behavior in the comparative degree. Though speakers’ opinions may vary about what counts as common, statements of relative commonness should be stable across speakers. Imagine as above that 35% of front yards have dandelions; now imagine that John believes that something counts as common if it is found in a third of the city’s front yards, but Mary believes that it must be found in at least half of the city’s front yards to count as common. In this scenario, John will judge dandelions to be common in Oak Park, and Mary will not. But they will both agree that dandelions are more common than the special grass. Unlike plain commonness, relative commonness does not require the speaker to have a particular subjective threshold in mind; rather, it involves an objective comparison. The same cannot be said for suitable. Even in the comparative degree, judgments will vary across speakers: since suitability is fundamentally a matter of personal judgment and opinion, people can disagree about whether one thing is more suitable for a particular purpose than another. Informally speaking, common is subjective, but more common is objective; by contrast, suitable is subjective, and more suitable is also subjective.

All of this is not to say that there isn’t a grain of truth in the city’s argument. In a law-abiding society, things that are unsuitable will be uncommon. And, on one reading of the sentence, things that are suitable will be common. Crucially, though, this means that one will commonly encounter things that are suitable; as I have attempted to illustrate above, it does not necessarily mean that all suitable things will be common. Unfortunately, specious linguistic arguments like those offered by the city of Oak Park, though not suitable, are all too common.