Ban “Honest Discussions”!

I think we’ve reached the time when we should ban the phrase “honest discussion” or related phrases, e.g. “talk honestly”, etc., from public discourse for one reason: it’s threatening to turn “honest” into an auto-antonym.

An auto-antonym is a word that means something and the opposite of that thing. The most obvious example is “inflammable” which both means some that burns and something that doesn’t burn. Other words I’ve seen used to mean both something and its opposite include “content”, “bias”, and “conversation”. I think that “liberal” and “conservative”, too, are now auto-antonyms.

What prompts me to make this plea is Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post column in which he makes a pitch for gun control without once mentioning that there are 300 million guns in the United States and something between 30% and 40% of American households have firearms. The reasons that no politician, Democratic or Republican, is willing to expend political capital on gun control are that it’s an unpopular subject and it’s obvious that no “commonsense reforms” will do much to end gun violence. That’s especially true when you take into account that any reasonably well-equipped machine shop can produce a very efficient firearm—it’s easier to make a gun that it is to grow pot or cook meth.

I’m in favor of enforcing the laws that are already on the books more strenuously, closing some loopholes in the laws that we have, and a few other reforms. Enacting more unenforced, unenforceable, or irrelevant laws are ways of signalling concern rather than ways of addressing the problems. And “honest conversations” that don’t take into account the basic realities of the situation are far from honest.

So, by all means let’s have an honest conversation. But let’s not have any more “honest conversations”. As Confucius said:

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

3 comments… add one
  • CStanley Link

    Interesting though, President Obama recently made the case that one word that has become an auto antonym should be returned to it’s root meaning: politicize. The only problem is that he wasn’t honestly seeking the kind of political discussion that we should be having.

    The egregious part of his politicization of the recent shooting, and the calls that always come from Democrats after mass shootings, is that no one ever asks what gun control law could have had a preventative effect. I always see reports afterward of whether or not the shooter had obtained guns legally (usually, yes.) either answer to that question just raises additional questions: if yes, then what law could have prevented that particular individual from obtaining lethal weapons (how can future action be predicted?) and if no, then why weren’t the existing laws enforced properly?

  • sam Link

    It’s interesting that you reference that famous passage from the Analects as an antidote to our condition. Confucius and Plato were near contemporaries, both living through turbulent political eras, Confucius during the period of the Warring States and Plato, the Peloponnesian War . I’ve heard it argued that Plato’s politico-linguistic concerns (to “rectify” political speech) were traceable to the situation of the Greeks described in this passage from Thucydides:

    Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. [Thucydides: III 69-85, The Revolt at Cocyra]

  • Andy Link

    Yeah, the whole notion of “honest” discussion annoys me too because it’s used as a pretext to demand the acceptance of certain preconditions. “Oh, you don’t accept my assumptions? Well then obviously you’re not honest!”

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