UNCOMMON COMMON SENSE

By Bill Frayer

Ambiguity and Democracy

 

When George W. Bush led the United States into war against Iraq in 2003, he made claims about the danger Iraq posed to the United States. He, and his surrogates, stated that, “Sadaam is reconstituting a nuclear weapons program,” labeled Iraq “an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,” and declared that Iraq’s regime presented an “immediate threat” to the United States. Less than two years after September 11, 2001, these words understandably frightened the public, drumming up support for the war.

If we closely examine these words, however, they are not precise. Their ambiguity makes them essentially meaningless. For example, what does “reconstituting” mean? What is “an outlaw regime,” exactly? (Ironically, Bush’s opponents characterized his administration in a similar fashion.) And, most importantly, how do we assess the precise degree of “immediate threat” clearly enough to justify the loss of thousands of American soldiers?

The members of the Bush Administration knew these words were ambiguous; that’s why they chose them. Precise claims can be refuted. General, imprecise statements cannot be. That’s why politicians use them so much. They understand two principles:

People hear what they want to hear and rarely ask probing follow-up questions. (Neither does the press.)

By being vague, a politician can sound authoritative without being specific. This allows them to avoid offending groups of voters.

Let’s look at some other examples:

Bill Clinton chose his words carefully when he denied “having sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky. Of course, he was equivocating. He did not consider oral sex in the Oval Office as constituting “sexual relations.”

One of Barack Obama’s campaign slogans was, “Change You Can Believe In.” What’s not to like about that? It’s like a Rorschach test. People see what they like in such a platitude. Essentially it means whatever the audience wants it to. In other words, it’s a perfect political slogan.

In the recent Supreme Court confirmation process for Sonia Sotomayor, there was considerable discussion, among both Republicans and Democrats, about her “judicial temperament.” Republicans claimed it was dangerous and suspect. Democrats claimed it was one of her primary assets. In reality, “judicial temperament” is a sufficiently vague term to carry no clear meaning.

Here are other vague phrases that have been entered into the public lexicon: “The recession is over,” “Tax reform,” “Tax Relief,” “Strong Sanctions” against a “Rogue Nation” and finally, “Government Run Health Care.” People react strongly to such words because they attach their own (usually emotional) meaning to them. It is safe for politicians to use them because no one can prove them wrong. You can’t prove that Barack Obama is an “effective” president until you adequately define what you mean by the word “effective.” And you can bet his supporters and detractors will disagree about how “effective” should be defined!

So, where does this leave us? Any democratic system of government presupposes that the voters will understand the arguments being offered for and against specific proposals. This is clearly not happening. The media has failed to demand precision from the politicians, so they promulgate this ambiguous language. Most voters are satisfied with this vague language. They chose to watch the news networks which conform to their own biases, and are not really interested in learning about their opponents’ reasoning.

Only when our citizens learn to listen carefully to what our leaders are saying and demand more specific detail can we begin to have the genuine debates that democracy requires. I am not optimistic.

Next month, I’ll examine the role of assumptions.

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