What It Is Is What It Is Not
“Semantics is always a bitch.”
- Gil Scott-Heron
Rui Umezawa-Toronto: Any complaints Preston Manning makes about volatile political discourse might easily be interpreted as a loss of heart – the dissatisfaction of a former leader of a now defunct federal political party who since his retirement from public office has grown weary of battle. But the observations the founder of the Reform Party of Canada expressed in an Oct. 14 op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail are those undoubtedly shared by many among a public increasing distrusting of the democratic process. At the same time, however, Manning’s reason for lament – the knee-jerk polarization of political debate by virtually all stakeholders – is something which the public practically demands of its politicians.
The process he describes is painfully familiar: “Candidate Jones declares that she favours national health-care standards enforced by the federal government – a reasonable position, whether or not you agree with it,” Manning puts forward as an example. “Candidate Smith, however, reacts in mock horror to this suggestion. ‘I can’t believe it! Jones wants to trample on the constitutional rights of the provinces and establish a federal dictatorship over health care.’”
Candidate Jones to retaliate will then push some statement by Candidate Smith to the extreme. And so it goes.
No one could dispute Manning’s portrayal of what now has become a reflexive reaction to any position taken by a political opponent. He suggests, however, this strategy is founded on the middle-of-the-road worldview commonly ascribed to the electorate of this country: “Canadians are generally a moderate and tolerant people – thus the quickest way to publicly discredit a political opponent in debating an important issue is to characterize that opponent’s position as ‘extreme.’”
Manning clearly has not spoken to Barack Obama about how the American president is also routinely depicted in extreme terms by the paradoxically twisted yet simplistic Tea Party. In truth, the strategy to polarize debate intentionally is not so much a reaction to moderation as an aversion to complexity. Moreover, this strategy is firmly supported by communication theory as one which presents the most concrete, well-defined message for your side – the message, namely, that you are not the other side.
Semiotics, put simply, is the study of signs and how they operate – signs as defined in their widest sense as any representations of information. The observation of the behaviour of signs (ie. – the various ways in which we process information) dates back to the days of Plato and Aristotle, but the discipline was formalized as a distinct branch of philosophy in the mid-19th to early 20th century with the advent of such semioticians as Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes. The late 20th century saw a greater awareness of semiotics within the general populace with the attention garnered by the works of the iconic scholar and novelist Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose).
The semiotic process requires a signifier (the sign) and the signified (what is represented by the sign). According to the branch of semiotics known commonly as semantics, a symbol is a sign that has no concrete relationship with its signifier. For example, a realistic painting of a dog is a sign that depicts various characteristics of the animal in concrete ways – if the dog’s eyes are brown, they also shall be so in the painting. In contrast, the letters D-O-G together also signify a dog, but these letters have no physical characteristics that relate to what they signify. The word “dog” is therefore a symbol by definition, and language is a system composed of symbols and the rules governing their uses.
A central tenet in semiotics – one that is illustrated clearly by polarized political discourse – is that symbols have no inherent meaning; rather, they are defined by their relative position to other symbols within the linguistic system. In other words, things are defined not by what they are, but, rather, what they are not. It is difficult to list unique characteristics that make a dog a dog. Other animals have fur, four legs and can be humanity’s best friend. Meanwhile, a dog with no fur, just three legs and unfriendly to humans is still a dog. No set of characteristics can produce the quintessence of a dog. A dog, however, is definitely not a cat or a horse or a table.
Thus we get the most clear and definite idea of what something is when we are told what it is not. Candidate Smith in Manning’s example takes advantage of this simple rule by pushing Candidate Jones’s platform to its extreme then spending the rest of his time arguing that he is not Candidate Jones. This is not to say this strategy is all one needs in order to succeed in politics. At the risk of oversimplification, Mayor-elect Rob Ford succeeded in defining himself with the message that he is not the spendthrift status quo at Toronto’s city hall. The other candidates’ subsequent message that they are not Rob Ford, however, clearly did not capture the favours of voters.
Moreover, saying simply that the given situation fits longstanding philosophical tenets is far from saying all is as it should be. Rules of semiotics are being used to the advantage of politicians as well as the media, but not of the general public. We, however, cannot expect them to abandon what clearly works so well for them. What we can and must do, on the other hand, is not facilitate the process. When we become aware that we are being drawn to the “what is not” worldview – virtually demanding it from our politicians – we must turn vigilant to draw out the “what is and can be” message. For what is sorely lacking in today’s political process, as Manning would certainly agree, is opportunity as well as willingness among much of the electorate to weigh and clearly assess the constructive viewpoints of our potential leaders and officials.
Or, to borrow further from of a branch of postmodern philosophy that directly descends from semiotics, we do not need any more deconstructionists, unless it is to deconstruct deconstruction.