Semantic Traps: A Few Samples

by Kurt R. Leube*

The wisdom that people lose their freedom as soon as words begin to lose their meaning can be traced back at least to Confucius (551-479BC). As reality becomes intelligible only through clear and uncorrupted words, more than 2,000 years later Thomas Hobbes observed that the direct cause of most political discords and other disagreements is the “anarchy of meanings”. However, it was George Orwell who bluntly forewarned us that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” and consequently will render words or popular phrases open to all forms of Semantic Traps. And in his masterpiece 1984, which in times of Covid-19 is acutely relevant, Orwell emphatically concluded, that above all “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

And yet, no more than gradually we begin to comprehend that “fake news” or the intentional alteration of the meaning of words not only have grave political implications for a democracy grounded on the Rule of Law. They also critically jeopardize the sovereignty of citizens and their trust in institutions.

One of the most evident Semantic Traps is the transformation of the almost sacred word social. During the past 160 years or so, its original value-neutral connotation as society related has assumed the meaning and substance of terms like good, ethical, generous, fair, moral, responsible, benevolent or even just, to name but a few. Shrouded in mystery, over time this ubiquitous term more than others has corrupted the fantasies of social scientists and resulted in giving this term “an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Used in certain pervasive word arrangements such as Social Justice or Social Democracy they are either employed to hint at feelings of envy, of guilt or of revenge. Time and again these terms are not only utilized to effectively disguise true political ambitions, objectives or strategies. With unmistakable collectivist undertones, often the word social also bears strong resentments against individual freedom, private property or the market economy in general.

Environmental Policy is one more subject badly riddled with Semantic Traps. Based on the rather naive assumption of a perfectly balanced and static ecological system, Environmental Policy not only is loaded with all sorts of conjectures, it also ignores reality by omitting the perpetual presence of the unconsciously intervening humans. Unlike this rather innocent statement our environment is dynamic, never constant in form, structure, or proportion, but changes at every scale of time and space. The politically motivated alteration of the current climate debate from Global Warming to Climate Change is a living proof of a widespread Semantic Trap.

Scientists distinguish clearly between the two, referring to the former as a long-term trend in global temperatures that can be measured, and the latter as more general changes such as precipitation, humidity, or droughts that are impossible to aggregate. Although, researchers might debate the most suitable way to measure global temperature, only after a scientific measurement technique is specified, they can gather data to determine whether the globe is warming. However, around the beginning of the new millennium, the slogan Global Warming was intentionally dropped in favor of Climate Change. This alarming phrase has since taken on a nearly religious tone and thus shifted the important consideration away from proven scientific methodology where hypotheses can be refuted. As a consequence, Global Warming lost its relevance in political debates and changed from exact measurements to arbitrary uncertainties paired with terrifying and unscientific statements. Once again, political language outmaneuvered science by giving to Climate Change “an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Popular traps in environmental policy debates include The New Deal for Nature, Biodiversity or Sustainability. Due to their obscurity these terms have become utterly meaningless and hazardous. The blurred concept of Biodiversity is mostly used by governments to justify centrally directed resource management policies on the grounds that the ecological goal is to optimize or maximize the diversity of species. The term Sustainability on the other hand is not much more than an ambiguous and immeasurable objective that can be interpreted at will.

Sustainability emanates from biological models from which it is possible to define a sustained yield given parameters for reproduction and harvest rates. Hence, there can be a sustained yield of lumber or fish, even a maximum sustained yield. However, taking the term out of the biological stock-flow context, will render it empty. And regarding carbon, there may well be a trade-off between carbon levels and global temperatures, but there is no way to say what the optimal trade-off is or to specify a sustainable level of carbon in the atmosphere. Trying to add credibility and responsibility to their actions and programs, environmental groups, government agencies, corporations or even whole nations are busy to label everything from coffee harvests, printer cartridges, or electric cars and buildings as sustainable by giving their agendas an “appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The newly imposed status of a New Normal (whatever that may be) could be the beginning.

Another classic Semantic Trap ought to be mentioned here: The hijacking of the conversant term liberal. According to Joseph A. Schumpeter, the original word liberal meant “being free” and only after the Enlightenment the term became used to identify a vibrant political philosophy that implied such central humanistic topics as individual freedom, private property, self-responsibility, the Rule of Law or human dignity. However, mainly in the United States at least since the 1930s the word has metamorphosed into meaning the exact opposite: During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal the term quickly came to denote something closer to the content of public policy perspectives that insist that an ever-growing, invasive central government must take on a paternalist all- embracing and controlling role in society. Consequently, in today’s US political landscape being liberal indicates that one is favoring Socialism by pretending to be progressive. And even worse, today the term suggests that being in support of individual liberty, an open society or free markets is not only extremely regressive. Being liberal is also widely discredited as an anti-social behavior and a lost and outdated case.

In conclusion, Orwell’s warning of some 80 years ago is still ringing: “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.


*Kurt R. Leube ist Academic Director der ECAEF (European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation) mit Sitz in Vaduz (FL).