Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Meanings of Words

I am back on the edges of this tax-protestor thing again – from a different direction and partly my own fault. Ah well.

One of their arguments is that the tax system is “voluntary.” They interpret this according to the everyday meaning of voluntary, as in a voluntary contribution to a charity, or enlisting in the armed services rather than being drafted. It’s easy to see why this would be the first definition that would occur to anyone seeing it in print. “Hey! Voluntary! I never knew that; this is great! I’m not going to volunteer anymore.” As is usual, things that look too good to be true usually aren’t. Voluntary has a specific legal meaning in this case, in that you are allowed to figure out and submit the data yourself, rather than the government sending you a bill.

People don’t like that. It seems like some sort of trick or playing with words to them. The plain meaning of a word should be what wins the day, in their eyes.

But this happens with words all the time. Everyday words have specific meanings in context. I argued with my high school English teacher that such-and-such a character couldn’t be the “hero” of the book because he was so unheroic. To me, it seemed that the word hero required some sort of heroic behavior. It doesn’t. It’s a technical term. We use the word “depression” in an everyday sense, but medically it has a specific meaning; in the case of an agitated depression, it might even look quite different from the usual picture in our minds of a depressed person. Force has a specific meaning in physics. Culture has a specific meaning in anthropology. There are other meanings to those words, but those are irrelevant to the physics or anthropology discussion.

Words can even have dramatically different meanings in different contexts. To a probate court, both biological and adopted children are your descendants. To a genetecist, only biological ones are. Who you call your children might be a third thing: she’s no daughter of mine – she cut herself off from the rest of us years ago.

One more example and I’m done. In my long twilight political arguments with my liberal uncle, he objects to my using the word “liberals” to describe people who subscribe to certain political ideas: belief in using government as a force for good, a fondness for transnationalism, a preference for more redistribution of wealth. He wishes to use the term “liberal” to mean open-mindedness, considering many options. It could mean that in some contexts, I suppose. But in current political discussion it simply doesn’t. We might argue about what the precise meaning of the word is, but it is a word about beliefs, and not attitudes in that context. None of us gets to veto the meaning in context. Refusing to be convinced doesn’t change the reality.


jpearson said...

Having some considerable experience directly with tax protestors (and the related nonsense generally lumped under the category of 'posse commitatus'), most of it is an exercise in Lewis Carroll's maxim "Words mean what I say they mean." The tax protestors tend to focus on a particular phrase or word in the tax law and leverage that into their conclusions. They define the word so they define the result.

Woody said...

We have a voluntary tax system. But, if you don't "voluntarily" file your return and pay your taxes, then the IRS will volunteer to prepare a non-filer return for you and levy your bank account and wages to help you pay.