Word and Image of Vermont
The Moral Influence of Abstraction in Social and Political Debate

Remarks for the Boston Ethical Society  -  March 19, 2006

I must say at the beginning that I understand we can't get along without abstractions. Tocqueville is famous for having said that God has no need of them but since we are not God then we do. They are embedded into our speech patterns and into our very processes of thought. That's exactly why they are so potent and so dangerous. They delude us into assigning reality to things that are not real and into believing that actions are something different from what they are.

To give an example of what I mean, I'll start with the most blatant set of abstract euphemisms now being used in the United States. When one of our state governments seizes a person, renders him completely helpless and kills him in cold blood we don't speak of killing. We say "the sentence was carried out," or "Mr. Doe was executed," or "Mr. Doe was pronounced dead," or "justice was meted out." You might argue that no deception is intended by these phrases. Everybody knows what's being said. That's true. But, I'm convinced that if all the media began to report events of this sort by saying simply "Officials of Texas, or California, or wherever, took John Doe into a small room and killed him at 6:47 this morning," capital punishment -- another odious abstraction -- would soon come to an end in this nation. Such is the power of language and the connotations that reverberate out from it.

It's no accident that war is the most prominent creator of abstractions. In war, every nation, regardless of the evil it is combatting or the purity of its motives, commits acts it would rather not acknowledge. We get so used to these evasive verbal tactics they pass almost without notice. Here, for example, is a section of a report issued by the U.S. Army's Joint Strategic Survey Committee in the summer of 1942, when a cross channel invasion of Europe was being debated, and Great Britain's traditional balance of power diplomacy was being taken into account:
It would be in strict accord with that policy, however, to delay Germany's defeat until
military attrition and civilian famine had materially reduced Russia's potential towards
dominance in Europe.

This "attrition" suggested, and perhaps accomplished,  the death of at least a million Russian soldiers, a sacrifice which Josef Stalin and the Soviet government never forgot and never forgave. One can argue of course that the cross channel invasion of France was delayed until June of 1944 because of logistics difficulties. But that would fly in the face of the arguments being advanced passionately at the time by one of America's most respected military figures, George Marshall, the U.S. Chief of Staff. In any case, we can be pretty sure that if military position papers had been couched in different language, the invasion would have happened earlier. Suppose U.S. planners had said:
It might be a good idea to let the Nazis kill at least another million Russian troops before
we try to pull any German divisions away from the Eastern front by launching an invasion
of France. That way, the Russians will be so weakened by their losses we'll have a large
advantage over them once the war with Germany is over.

The two passages say more or less the same thing, but the rhetorical difference between them would lead to vastly different action. Military language tends to be opaque because the people using it don't want to admit to themselves or to anyone else what they are actually planning. They know that if they did, their plans might have to change.

Given the propensity of war to breed abstractions it's not surprising that "war" itself should have become the most gargantuan abstraction of all. Over the past decades in America we have had -- to name just a few:

  • a war on AIDS.
  • a war to control legal culture.
  • a war on rats, in Chicago and a war on fear in New York, proclaimed by the mayors of those fine cities.
  • a war on hate.
  • a war on tobacco.
  • a war on poverty.
  • a war on crime.
  • a war against the "inhumanity of man to his neighbor and the injustice of nature to her children" to be waged with unremitting aggressiveness, according to Lyndon Johnson, by the Peace Corps.
  • a war on "three killer diseases."
  • a war on drugs -- or at least on certain kinds of drugs which are to be distinguished from other kinds of drugs by criteria no one has yet been able to enunciate.
  • a war on hunger. 
  • a war on terror.
  • and, finally, a war on evil itself, which will be fought, according to the current president of the United States, until we -- another mysterious abstraction -- are victorious.

If you would like to read a fascinating analysis of these various metaphorical wars, I refer you to Michael S. Sherry's In the Shadow of War, a wonderful history of the ways of war in the United States since the 1930s.

The more one relies on abstraction and consequently avoids explicit diction, the more he or she will descend into emotivism, which decrees that so far as moral discourse is concerned the purpose of words is not to convey meaning but rather to persuade others to feel and act in certain ways. There's a great philosophical controversy over whether moral speech can be anything other than emotivism. You can find a provocative discussion of the issue in Alasdair MacIntyre's famous treatise After Virtue, published in 1981. But regardless of how one comes out on that question, it's clear that abstraction is often used more for manipulation than for enlightenment. Therefore, people who would prefer not to be manipulated would do well to activate their skepticism when they encounter words which provide a happy feeling without conveying clear ideas of what they mean.

In American political discourse now, the two terms that most powerfully produce that effect are "freedom" and "democracy"

It would be an interesting exercise to examine the various contexts in which the president of the United States has used the word "freedom" to see if a a coherent definition of the term could be derived from them. Admittedly, it's very hard to sort out what's going on in Mr. Bush's mind. Yet it seems certain that his concept of freedom -- if, indeed, he has one -- differs sharply from the vision most people have in mind when they use the word. There's little evidence to indicate that the president thinks much about the ability of ordinary citizens to say what they want, go where they will, believe what their own thought processes have recommended to them, live in a healthy environment, or pursue and support scientific discovery. Though he speaks much of freedom, it generally seems to be associated with the movement and use of money. He wants to remove restraints from people who have a lot of money so they can acquire more.  As the New York Daily News, not a particularly liberal publication, said of Mr. Bush's modification of the national policy on mercury emissions:

This rule change is a direct assault on the environment. Bush is putting Big Business
ahead of clean air. Let's at least be honest about it, Mr. President. Admit that EPA now
stands for Environmental Pollution Agency.

Is putting big business ahead of clean air an avenue to freedom? It may be in Mr. Bush's thinking. A child's ability to grow up with an unstunted mind may not be seen as important to freedom as an industrialist's ability to maximize profits and accumulate wealth. But a precise way to make that argument would be to say that untrammeled market capitalism is the best instrument, overall, for regulating human affairs. The president has every right to present that case. Yet, for the most part, he doesn't choose to present it that way. He retreats back into abstraction and says simply that he's for freedom, leaving it for analysis to show that he's conflating freedom with market capitalism.

Certainly, he and his advisors know that's not the case most of his audience has in mind when they hear him praise freedom. The Bushites are counting on the average citizen's saying to himself, or herself, "Well, the president's for freedom and I'm for freedom too. So, he'll get my vote." And a dismayingly large percentage of the American electorate thinks in just that way. If a politician is not required to say precisely what he thinks freedom is, then it becomes a wonderful rhetorical device for winning voters to his side. Freedom always sounds good, whether it means anything, or not.

"Democracy" occupies about the same position in American political discourse as "freedom" does. Everybody is for democracy. Everybody wants to promote and protect it here at home. Everybody wants to spread it among the benighted people of the earth. Scarcely anybody wants to say what it is. You could listen to the Sunday morning talk shows for months and never once get the sense that democracy is a fiercely complicated abstraction which has been used in so many ways over the past several years that standing by itself, without a host of qualifiers, it means nothing at all. Does "democracy" mean pure majority rule, regardless of how bigoted the majority may be?  Does it imply anything about minority rights? Does it require a certain level and knowledge among an electorate? Do certain mechanisms of government, such as representative rule, best bring it into being? Can democracy be consistent with tyranny so long as the tyrant is voted into office? Does it necessarily demand a sense of human rights? All these question have to be addressed before we can know whether anyone is an advocate of the kind of democracy we ourselves would support. And almost none of them are ever addressed by leading American politicians. The unqualified abstraction is safer than any specific definition, and so long as it remains safer it will always crowd serious political thought off the stage.

We shouldn't delude ourselves with the notion that manipulative abstract thought is merely an aberration of politics. In order for it to function in politics as it does, it has to be diffused throughout the culture, it has to constitute, so to speak, the collective mind. There is no area of public discourse where you won't find it powerfully at work.

Occasionally a particular professional discourse will get so radically abstract it singles itself out for attention and becomes an object of ridicule and jokes. Then we start to consider it something outside the mainstream of practical life. That's a mistake. In most cases it's actually just a heightened example of how most people in our culture think.

The two fields that come most readily to mind in this respect are psychology and pedagogy. They are widely thought to be maniacally laden with jargon, which they are. But we don't often go past that criticism to recognize that jargon is often no more than a specialized form of abstraction. Take, for example, the term "closure" which you can often hear employed on the Oprah show or on Dr. Phil. It has become a norm to say that people need closure or that they have to get closure. If they don't have it, they can't move on (another obnoxious abstraction which reminds us of politics). We don't ever know exactly what closure is, what happens in the mind when closure is attained. The implication is that though it doesn't involve forgetting it does function as a kind of narcotic which permits people either to put thoughts out of mind or to entertain them with only a minor degree of discomfort. The fuzziness about what closure is, however, pales compared to what has to happen in order for somebody to get it. A variety of necessities are regularly proclaimed. Frequently we hear that the government has to punish someone severely in order for the victim of his crime to get closure, a thing which, as a victim, is his due. This is completely separate from recompense. It's not like forcing a thief to repay the money he has stolen Instead it involves a psychological payoff, which clearly will differ from victim to victim and which may not be expressible. Even so, on the basis of this opaque abstraction, specific, forceful, and highly punitive action is demanded.

In the field of educational psychology, highly abstract diagnoses are regularly employed to trigger expensive and invasive actions.  Large numbers of school children are designated as having "attention deficit disorder" or ADD which means, at the very least, in many districts that they are required to be dealt with differently than are so-called normal children. This diagnosis, for which there are no clear pathological markers, often results in a kind of labeling which transforms the identity of the person so labeled. It has become common for both staff members and students at a school to refer to a child as "an ADD." This shows us that speech patterns which rely on abstract entities diverge from those that deal with specifics. If a person has diphtheria nobody speaks of him or her as "a diphtheria." That would sound ridiculous. Yet it's a fairly common thing in schools to hear that Johnny Jones or Susan Smith is an ADD.

My point, which I hope is obvious, is that speech habits have consequences. The more we employ abstractions, the more likely we are to treat specific events and persons in ways that either have unintended consequences or that mask the motives of the people carrying out the actions. In either case, the moral implications are significant. Both impose unfair consequences.

Perhaps I can make my argument most forcefully by saying a bit about the abstraction that has been most openly recognized as an engine for immorality -- the stereotype. Stereotypes function like all abstractions by drawing into them a variety of connotations that may have nothing to do with the object being discussed. When the great physicist Enrico Fermi went on March 17, 1939 to the Bureau of Ordinance and Naval Research Laboratory to brief officials there about research going on around the world designed to make a powerful explosive out of uranium, the person at the desk announced his presence by sticking her head into one of the inner offices and saying, "There's a wop outside." Presumably, that denigrative abstraction was the main thing she thought the officialdom inside needed to know about their visitor. And in the event, they treated him as though she were right, dismissing his warning as a thing of no consequence.

Stereotypes always work to divert attention from reality and to advance someone's view of another group of people, whether that perspective is viciously bigoted or simply mistaken. When I was eight years old, my great grandfather, who was born in 1856, came to spend the night with us in Decatur, Georgia. I had met him on several occasions earlier, but always at family gatherings where I was merely one of the horde of grandchildren and great grandchildren swirling around him. But now I was going to meet him in a way to allow him to know who I was.
My mother sent me to his room to ask if he would like a glass of iced tea. I found him seated on the side of the bed, holding a pistol in his non-too-steady hand. He saw me looking at it and told me that he always kept his pistol with him.

"How come?" I asked.

"So's if I see a Yankee I can shoot him."      

So then I asked him why he hated the Yankees so much. And he told me a story about how, when he was just one year older than I was a squad of Union cavalrymen from Sherman's army had come riding up into his front yard. The sergeant in command asked his mother if she had anything in the house, and when she said they didn't, he got off his horse, knocked his mother down and kicked her in the stomach. Then the soldiers went through the house and shed and stole everything they could find.

He reached out and grasped my wrist and asked, "You tell me? What kind of man kicks a woman down in her own front yard? The Yankees are all like that. They're not civilized. Don't you ever go among them."

A little more than a year later my father came home to say he had invited one of his coworkers for Sunday dinner. The man had been transferred to Atlanta in the middle of the school year and his wife and daughters had decided to wait till the term was over before they moved. He was simply staying in a rented room downtown.

"Where's he from?" my mother asked.

"Boston," my father replied.

I almost choked. A man from Boston was going to come right into our house, sit down at our table and eat with us! I figured my father must have gone out of his mind.

All the rest of that week, I worried. I tried to think of a way I could get out of there on Sunday. But I couldn't find a good excuse. So, finally Sunday morning arrived and I resolved that I would just have to endure it.

About 12:30, Carroll Brown came. He brought my mother flowers and he brought me two books, the most expensive books I had ever had, from the Le Grand series about the boy Augustus and his adventures on the Mississippi River. I had seen these books in Rich's downtown and had wanted them. But they cost $4.00 each and so I knew I could never have them.

Mr. Brown stayed until early evening. He went out in the yard with me and played catch. He told me jokes I had never heard before. By the time he left, I regarded him as the most charming man I had ever met, even though he did talk a little funny.

His visit planted a seed in my little brain. When it sprouted it proclaimed that if Mr. Brown was a nice guy and he was from Boston that maybe there might be other nice guys in Boston. He was no longer merely a Yankee; he was now a person I knew and liked, the Mr. Brown who brought me the Augustus books.

It was a simple lesson, not very hard to learn and, yet, it's one many of our fellow citizens still have trouble with. We're so full of Red State/Blue State foolishness and ethnic prejudices it's a wonder we don't explode. This is not to say that there aren't national characteristics, or regional characteristics, or ethnic characteristics. Obviously, there are. Yet, with respect to individuals, they are so much less controlling than we tend to believe they don't begin to deserve the prominence they receive in public debate. It's because our minds have been trained to think in abstractions that we absurdly emphasize these easy tags, seldom stopping to reflect on what lazy-minded devices they are.

Ten days ago, the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen began his semiweekly essay with the statement, "the Bush administration is intellectually corrupt." He may well be right about that. Certainly, the current administration has relied on intellectual corruption to maintain its influence. But saying so doesn't tell us a great deal about exactly what is meant. "Intellectual corruption" is, itself, an abstraction. For a long time now, historians have been writing about the anti-intellectualism of the American people. They have tended to concentrate on the popular reluctance in America to pay much attention to abstruse theories or to respect the people who deal in them. This has been seen by some as an element of American strength. David Kennedy in his study of the American people during the Second World War says that the United States was able to out-produce Germany and Japan because it concentrated on techniques which were designed for an ill-educated workforce and this, in turn, led to a "preference for high-volume output over specially engineered, high-performance armaments." Or to put it more bluntly, American ships, tanks, and airplanes weren't as good as the German variety, but there were a lot more of them.

It's almost as though this ability to do without thinking too much about it has become an element of American pride. In the deafening proclamation of a war on terror over the past five years there has been a conscious refusal by the government and by most elements of the press to inquire into the motives of our opponents. To ask why they do what they do or why they pursue policies of violence has been seen almost as an act of disloyalty. The TV personality Bill O'Reilly has proclaimed repeatedly, "I don't care what they think!" The president has suggested that they have no motives other than hatred and that there is no conscious analysis behind the emotion. They're terrorists and that's all we need to know about them. If there has ever been a more empty abstraction than the term "terrorist" it's hard to think what it is.

In denouncing this impulse towards abstraction which has become such a marked element of American public discourse, I bring down on myself an obligation to say in greater detail what I think its sources are. Otherwise, I become guilty of the very offense I'm inveighing against. And I have to confess it's not an easy task. The reasons why people think in abstractions -- think in a way opposite to the way Tocqueville's god thinks -- are multiple and complex. One reason, obviously, is the universal human inclination to be lazy-minded. It's a lot easier simply to slap a term on something and then forget about the actuality it's supposed to be pointing toward than it is to dig into the nature of that actuality. It's a lot easier to say that somebody is a wop, or a cracker, or a wetback than it is to examine a complicated personal history. And ease has become a near-official element of the American dream.

Another element of that self-congratulatory ideal has come to be termed "American exceptionalism." In his interesting study of American unilateralism, Clyde Prestowitz says, "From the start Americans saw themselves as an exception to the normal run of nations." This sense of superiority lends itself to quick, fast and loose definitions of all things inferior. After all, it's not for the superior to study the inferior. The natural course is the other way around.

An additional ingrained habit amongst us is impatience. We have been a culture that wants to keep moving, no matter what. This we call progress. We don't have time for a detailed examination of anything. We're too busy to look at all sides. "On the other hand" is an anti-American phrase. Busyness is valued far more than repose or retrospection. The sound byte is an American invention.

I recognize there are positive aspects to all these characteristics, but it may be that in our propensity to label something, and then move on, we have become unbalanced. It's true that words have emotional import which can be used for a variety of effects. But it's also true that words remain our principal instruments of meaning. And when we allow our meaning to become imprecise, viciousness and injustice invariably follow.  Thinking overmuch in abstractions creates a kind of spell in which the world becomes anything our own egotism wants it to be. In his annual message to Congress, in 1862, Mr. Lincoln said, "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." It was the best piece of advice we have ever received from one of our chief executives.

©John R. Turner

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