Staff & Sling

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078


Language is a very powerful thing. I mean this literally, and by "literally" I actually mean "literally" as opposed to those who use the word "literally" when they actually mean "metaphorically," which is in fact the opposite of "literally."

Are you beginning to understand why definitions are so important. Words mean things, and we should take care to actually say what we mean because language is literally very powerful. And I don't just mean in the sense that a soft answer can turn away wrath (Proverbs 15: 1). Indeed, it may well have been better said that the word is mightier than the sword.

In the Genesis account of creation we read that God literally spoke everything into existence. And later, in Genesis 11: 6, we read that God said as long as people spoke one language they could accomplish anything they could imagine. It was for this reason that God confounded their languages, and the place was called Babel.

Think about that for a moment. It was God Himself that said as long as we spoke one language we could accomplish anything we could imagine. This wasn't just the vain boastings of some overly confident man. This was God speaking. And He didn't say "practically anything we could imagine," but an unqualified "anything." And like Hans Solo, we can imagine a lot. So, as I said, language is a very powerful thing.

But as important as definitions are, to the extent they enable you to actually say what you mean, they are perhaps even more important in order for you to understand what others say. Otherwise, you'll be easily deceived.

Obfuscation and confusion are the tools with which deception is wrought. So when people set out to deceive they use words ambiguously, or they overtly try to confuse definitions. Can you say "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is?"

But perhaps one of the most insidious attacks on the language happens when others try to assert that a particular word defies definition. Inevitably they mean that the word doesn't mean what they want it to, so they want to ignore the meaning.

Anyway, I've thought up a couple of examples of this to discuss, in an effort to demonstrate that they are in fact not only well definable, but that by being aware of the definition we can more clearly see the deceit of those who say otherwise.

For example, you've probably heard it said that one man's terrorist is another man's patriot. Oddly enough I agree, but when I hear others make that statement it is usually a predicate to asserting that the word "terrorist" cannot be objectively defined. With that I disagree.

Terrorism: A military tactic wherein non-military, non-combatant and otherwise uninvolved personnel are targeted.

Terrorist: One who employs terrorism.

Of course, this doesn't address whether the terrorist is a hero or villain. That will no doubt be determined by whoever wins the fight. History is, after all, written by the victor. But you will note that this definition succinctly dismisses the silly notion that all soldiers and militia are terrorists, or that all combat is terrorism. Even if soldiers or militia collaterally kill civilians, unless they were targeting them it's not terrorism.

You might also note that the definition makes no assertion as to the morality of terrorism. I can imagine there might be times when terrorism would be an effective tactic. But effective or cowardly, legitimate or evil, it is not an ambiguous term given to subjective interpretation. It is well-defined. Whether that definition suits the terrorists' supporters is another matter.

What about "art?" I've heard it said that art is anything that evokes a visceral response in the viewer. Of course, this was said by someone trying to expand the definition sufficiently to encompass their own (lack of?) abilities and activities. But note that all they really did was to make the word so all-encompassing that it actually means nothing. And given their objective, that makes sense. After all, no reasonable definition of art could possibly extend to include smearing feces over something, or simply tossing your furniture out of a window. These things simply are not art.

Art: The manifestation of knowledge through the application of skill and technique for the purpose of improving the human condition.

Notice first that this definition encompasses all that is truly art. It includes things colloquially thought of as art such as musical and theatrical performances, paintings, statues and sculptures, but also things traditionally considered art (though recently forgotten) such as buildings and architecture, medicine, science and technology, engineering, computer programming, etc..

And indeed all of these things are art. In fact, at Harvard its called the College of Arts and Sciences, "science" meaning knowledge and "art" being its application.

Also note that this definition not only objectively defines art such that it encompasses all that is truly art, but that it also restores meaning to the word by disabusing the talentless of any notion that throwing up on someone's shoes could be called performance art.

And you can't think about peoples rationalizations about art without thinking about pornography. The word is derived from the Greek "B@D<,LT (porneo)," meaning "fornication," and "(D"NT (grapho)," meaning "write," and given man's general disposition toward rationalizing his own desires it's no wonder that this is an oft obscured word.

Pornography: Any recorded depiction, textual, audible or visual, of the human form or of activity that arouses or incites sexual desire.

Notice that a naked woman is not pornography, but a picture of her is. And before you ask, yes, Ruben, Boticelli and Michaelangelo were just as much pornographers as Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Did you also notice that while nudity is pornography, all pornography isn't necessarily nudity. I think most can see that the Frederick's of Hollywood and Victoria's Secret catalogs are pornography, but so is the lingerie section of the Montgomery Ward catalog. And yes, those issues of National Geographic (you know the ones) are also pornography. If you don't believe me, just ask anyone who was a ten year old boy in the 1940s.

The final example I thought of is the word "cult." Most people think the word "cult" describes a group bound by a type of religious belief, but one that is distinct from established religion. That being the case, I submit the following.

Cult: An organization or group of followers devoted to the teachings, beliefs and/or philosophies of a living human being.

Some people tend to use the word "cult" to describe any religion to which they do not subscribe. For example, I've heard Mormonism and Islam both referred to as cults. But I believe this is a political rather than definitive, and an errant, use of the word. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely believe that Mormonism and Islam are both false religions, each teaching heresy as doctrine (albeit co-mingled with large portions of truth) derived from the teachings of false prophets. But a false religion is still a religion, and I don't believe that Mormonism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or Atheism are what anyone had in mind when they coined the term "cult."

Note that some cults involve what would be considered religious beliefs, but not all. Heaven's Gate and Jim Jones come to mind as religious cults. And indeed it is possible that some cults grow into full blown religions after the death of the founder. When Joseph Smith and Mohammed were alive, their followers could have been legitimately called cults. I am also reminded of the Seventh Day Adventists. But in reality, I don't think most cults ever become actual religions. The vision of the producers and writers of Futurama notwithstanding, I doubt seriously there'll ever be any such thing as Oprahism.

In fact, you will also note that there is no religious requirement for a group to be a cult. One could say that Jim Cramer on CNBC has a cult following, and there's nothing religious about his teachings, beliefs and/or philosophies. Similarly, you could say that Rush Limbaugh (of whom I am a huge fan) has a cult following. So there is no reason to think that just because a group is a cult that they're in any way religious.

So if you disagree with the Muslims, formulate your reasons and articulate them, but don't resort to calling them a cult. It's just an ad hominem attack. And I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not to repent of any of those album covers in your collection, just don't try and tell me they're not porn. In fact, if you really think those pictures in your girly magazine are artistic, tell me how they improve the human condition. And finally, if you want to call your terrorists heroes you'll need to win the fight first. Even then, don't try and tell me that my soldiers are terrorists.

In conclusion, if you think of any words that I didn't, I'd like to hear them. If you come up with any I'd be happy to expand this post to include them.