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Empty Enough for a Battlefield
When I was in High School, an administrator pointed out to my class that our mission statement was printed, framed, and put up in every class. But most of us had never read it. The silence that followed mocked us: “How could we be so uncultured and ignorant?” Of course, he really had to go in on the drama, because on the surface, it’s not surprising that none of the students read the mission statement. What good was it to them?
If a student went against the the mission statement, would they be punished? No, though there’s an attempt to gaslight this into reality by referencing it when punishments are meted out for especially controversial issues.
If a student felt they were wronged in a way that goes against the mission statement by a teacher, could they seek recourse? No, though it would help if they wanted to convince parents to make a fuss—which they very rarely want, as that usually ends up getting out of hand and against their interests.
If they spend a lot of energy trying to abide by the essential goals of the mission statement, will they be given a gold star? Hmm…
Most of this is, however, is besides the point. Because the mission statement was vague and frivolous. It used such lofty language that it could hardly be held against anyone for anything, unless you enforced it so strictly as to hold it against everyone for not achieving some fake platonic standard of Justice.
That is not an accident, as Napolean’s statement that such documents should be “short and obscure” might suggest to us. A system acts in its interests, and systems of control seek control.
But there’s something more interesting here. It’s the fact that people trend to traffic in lofty ideals, because such lofty ideals are considered the “Ultimate Ends” that justify all action. The emergent effect is rather strange: lofty ideals are the meeting grounds of discussion, because they’re what everyone agrees we want: peace, freedom, justice, and the rest. But they are empty enough to be employed as a battlefield for social/cultural/political wars.
This reminds me a lot of Scott Alexander’s conjecture that borderline cases tend to becoming defining [https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/12/17/the-toxoplasma-of-rage/]. In that case, I view it as contested territory, in which different lenses cause significant disagreement about reality. In the case of vacuity, however, I think the issue is mostly about a lack of anchoring.
In school, there were certain virtues that were incessantly praised, like saying something when something “bad” happened. Except if you did that when your teacher did something “bad” (by your definition) you were often punished. Some of your peers might say that was unfair to you in private, but others might say you had it coming. Where your definition of bad ends up depends on a lot of variables, but it’s not fixed in place by recourse to an obvious usage or definition. That means that disagreements can arise naturally when your usage, as has been imprinted in you over countless experiences, conflicts with the person you’re talking to.
It also means that someone who wants to convince a lot of people of something, can co-opt the term, which people have emotional attachment to, and convince people that their cause is under its natural definition. The most obvious example of this is overused, but I’ll use it anyway: Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. We all like life and we certainly want choice, but it should be pretty obvious to anyone who has heard 5 minutes from both sides that whatever stance you’re choosing is not a direct consequence of our preferences for life or choices.
When concepts are highly valued but somewhat emptier of intrinsic use, they are naturally used more like currency because currency is highly valued but totally empty of intrinsic use. I don’t think there’s any meaningful way to avoid this, because its these concepts that we use to store our worldviews and compare across worldviews: we all want to be happy, but it’s clear that our interpretation of what counts as “happy” is constructed. The dangerous bit of this is that these words can have totally different places across different groups, which is why I tend to be highly skeptical about multilingual surveys.
When people are thoughtful and open, empty enough phrases are also meeting grounds. More on that another time.