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In our culture, words like “Freedom” and “Justice” and “America” and “Country” are brandished about with certain emotions attached to them. These words are cited to justify actions that span the scale of social acceptability from one end to the other but how often do we really stop to think about what the words actually mean?
One of the tricky aspects of language is that words are not static; they constantly evolve. For example, the word “Silly” at one time in history, meant “Blessed” and the phrase “Silly Mary, mother of Jesus” made perfect sense. The meaning of the word slowly changed to innocent and then the innocence of a child and then child-like and finally acting like a child. Now, it would be considered blasphemous to say “Silly Mary, mother of Jesus”.
Freedom is one of those words that has so many different meanings to so many people that it has almost become useless and yet few words elicit a more patriotic visceral response. Ask a young soldier why he risks his life and you will invariably get “To protect our freedom” as a response. Never any details about protecting it from what or who or how our freedom is so constantly in jeopardy. Ask what freedom means and usually you will get some vague portion of the first or second amendment but seldom anything beyond that. Shouldn’t a word so powerful that people are willing to fight and die for be better understood than that?
Sometimes, the word freedom is used to justify limiting or denying the freedom of others like the freedom to own slaves or the freedom to prevent two people from getting married. I am always amazed how people can be so oblivious to these types of contradictions but it is equally amazing how common these beliefs are.
The word “Justice” 250 years ago, meant “Fairness” and for the most part, you could replace the word Justice with the word Fairness in most of our founding documents and it would mean the exact same thing. Somehow, over the last couple centuries, the word has changed from “Fairness” to “Revenge”. America sought JUSTICE after 9/11, a murder victim’s family seeks JUSTICE, after a death penalty has been carried out, they say “JUSTICE has been served”. I’ve never heard of someone “Serving” fairness.
People often say they “Love our Country”. But what does that mean? Do they love our government? Do they love our physical borders? Do they love the population of this country? I guess most of them mean they love some kind of ideal this country supposedly represents but whose ideal? The ideal that we are a country of immigrants? That ALL people are created equal? The ideal that there should be “freedom” and “justice” for all?
Words are important. If we want to truly communicate with our fellow human beings, we need to make sure that we not only understand the words we use but also strive to understand what others mean by the words they use. When I say that I am in favor of Democratic Socialism, I am thinking of Sweden and Canada and England but many of my friends hear USSR and China and Hitler. How can we have an honest conversation when we hold such different meanings of the words we use? We have to take the time to clarify our meanings and actually listen to those who we are talking to so that we understand their meanings. I have found that when I make this effort, we are usually not as far apart as it once seemed.