Thursday, July 8, 2010

Subtle Distinctions

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." - US Declaration of Independence
Common language is never as concrete in its meaning as the writer would like. Simply because you know what you're saying, and you have a deep understanding of words, doesn't mean your reader will take your meaning.

Recently, I posted "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of stuff..." to Twitter and Facebook, as a reference to the above quote from the Declaration of Independence. My intention was to point out the fallacy of the consumeristic idea that stuff = happiness, which pervades our culture and media.

My friend Matt, however, pointed out an historical distinction which I was aware of, but did not consider when writing the post. He observed that philosophers like John Locke had stressed "property" as an important right in place of "happiness." There are two subtle distinctions in language here. The first is my intention with the word "stuff." The second is Matt's understanding of the word "property."

In using the word "stuff," I was intending it in the George Carlin sense of trinkets or possessions which we pile up as a measure of status. Stuff, in this sense, is empty and does not lead to happiness, but to the pursuit of more stuff in the name of seeking happiness. Matt seems to have missed my meaning—which is entirely my fault, because I created the post. As is indicated by his assertion, he took "stuff" to merely be an informal word for "property."

By my understanding, however, "property" in 18th century philosophy referred not to individual things like candlesticks and washbasins, but to those things owned as a means to do business. These things include [chiefly] land and all that is on the land to add to its value. Property is a tool to generate an independent lifestyle, and therefore, happiness in whatever manner a free citizen might define it. I could, of course, be wrong in my understanding.

All-in-all this example illustrates the challenge with contemporary bite-sized media blasts, such as are found on Twitter, banner ads, magazine covers, etc. While it might be a benefit forcing people to condense their thoughts into 140 characters, each of us has a different experience with the depth of our words' meanings. We must be cautious when loading words with meaning that we are understood.

As always, I differ to Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: "Habit 5 - Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
FEATURED MEDIA: Lost in Translation - An aging actor whose life is empty meets the young wife of a celebrity photographer in a Tokyo hotel where they are staying on business. Removed from those around them by cultural and language barriers, the two bond in an unlikely friendship.

No comments:

Post a Comment