It’s a couple days past the 4th of July, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on why I think people struggle with patriotism and civic engagement. And it all has to do with words.
Though I can’t imagine this would come as much of a surprise, I have a bit of a problem with police.
What I now only just realized about why I believe we clash so much might come as a surprise. And it all starts on a bus in Costa Rica–from a train of thought perspective anyhow.
On that bus, I met a bright-eyed young lady who told me she was on her way to go volunteer at a turtle conservation facility, which sounded pretty awesome. Volunteers spent the days working to find and protect turtle nests and spent evenings col-chillin’ in a tropical paradise.
“It’s a great deal,” she said. “Only $15 a day.”
“Wait, I thought you were volunteering,” I asked.
“I am,” she said.
“But you just said it is costing you $15 a day. That’s paying them, not volunteering,” I said. “They should use a different word.”
“They’re doing good work,” she said as if I was made of swastikas.
And that was that.
I like turtles. I like saving them in the wild even more. I think many people would feel similarly and be glad to surrender $15 a day to help cover the costs of taking part in a facility dedicated to saving them. But that’s a different word, participation or sponsorship, one that doesn’t arouse as much in the fuzzy feelings department, and therefore one that isn’t used.
Though this mystery lady appeared to feel otherwise, my issue was with the improper use of the word volunteer, and not just in the oblique and creative manner that a cunning linguist twists words into new meanings and contexts, but in one that actually just means something else altogether. It’s like pointing at a tree and calling it a car.
This may seem like an arbitrary issue to most sensible people that don’t wish to spend their lives in constant frustration as they are bombarded with abstract advertising slogans and nonsense political talking points. But to me, that largely feels why the world is such a mess. We have laws that allow more pollution called “The Clear Skies Act,” and laws to allow more logging called “The Healthy Forests Restoration Act.” Their names are chosen by linguists that do polling to see what words resonate best with people on an emotional level, not by what words actually best describe what they are or what they do. I don’t like to go too far down the rabbit hole of Orwellian paranoia, but his essay Politics and the English Language was quite astute in this matter. Words represent ideas and when the ideas are unpalatable, changing the words does not actually change the ideas, it simply misrepresents them, something which drives me bonkers.
Which is why I found myself in yet another argument with the police last week.
Three police officers arrived to alert me of a complaint made about my busking as Iconoplasty in downtown Boise, and as I saw them approach, I stopped playing and told them not to worry, I understood and that I would pack up and leave. In the strictest sense of things, I was probably breaking the law, though breaking very ill-conceived and subjectively enforced laws.
The lead officer told me they weren’t telling me to leave.
I told him I didn’t want to play semantic games with him, that we both know why they were there and that I would prefer not to make a thing out of it. I was stopping, and leaving and would be glad to do so without it being an issue.
He then told me he wasn’t playing semantic games with me and things escalated from there. I was nearly fined and/or arrested over the ensuing conversation.
Police are trained to defuse situations with non-offensive or challenging language and or tactics. But those are often also implicitly dishonest tactics. For three officers to tell me that they weren’t there to tell me to stop playing or go home was a flat out lie. Trying to spin it by saying that I could continue to sit where I was, possessing but not playing a guitar is not a different concept. I was out that night to busk, and their stopping me from that end may not literally have been saying, “you must leave this place immediately,” but that was the gist of it. And had I chosen to stay, there was then the possibility of being charged with loitering, which would be spun as saying “you will get a ticket for standing here,” instead of “you can’t stand here.”
As Voltaire said, “those that can convince you of absurdities can force you to commit atrocities.” He was talking about the whoppers told by religious institutions. But fluid meanings of words can bring on the same end.
Though the internet has brought people into more contact with one another than ever before, we are becoming more divided than ever, largely because we keep using words that mean different things to different people as ways to manipulate them rather than communicate with them. It matters especially with police because they are one of the most common sources of civic engagement for the average citizen. You are more likely to get pulled over for speeding than you are to stop by the Mayor’s office or lobby Congress. And if that leaves a bad taste in your mouth because of the implicit dishonesty of the situation that you are subconsciously attuned to, not only do people not trust police, but they become more distrustful on the whole, especially of civic institutions. Why should you take part in a civic society that lies to you constantly to achieve its own ends? If the cop on the street lies to your face, then how could you possibly expect your elected representatives or business leaders to be any different? And when so many citizens are themselves parrots for the same lies, then how can you trust them as voters?
A preference for honesty is hard-wired into us through evolution. It helps us survive, even when the truth is hard or unappealing. Telling someone that they have cancer or that climate change has the potential to wipe out the human race seems like a bad thing on the surface. But it’s worse to say otherwise, to do nothing and then be blindsided by the truth later on.
Phillip K. Dick said that “reality is that which when ignored, does not go away.” Had I ignored the police on the street, I would have been arrested. Instead I tried to help them achieve their ends, to just do their jobs, without incident. But they had been so thoroughly trained to be dishonest that it nearly ended in a much larger incident, and makes me less likely to call the police should a legitimate safety threat arise or try to lobby for change, since there is little perception from the top that anything was mishandled so long as in the end I stopped busking. That’s no way to run a democracy, and people know it.