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10 February 2012

The perils of American-style lawyerly language

Perhaps the solution to Mr Rogozin’s problem—see previous post, below—is to take a leaf out of PETA’s book. PETA, otherwise People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, appears to have the opposite language problem to the Russian Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Rogozin uses words as a form of “mood music”, where precise meaning is sacrificed for rhetorical effect, a common practice with Russian politicians. PETA, on the other hand, has succumbed to the disease of many American lawyers, which is treating words as if they were concrete thought blocks, independent of the understanding of the speaker and the listener. Such people are inclined to take meaning too literally. They expect more of language than it can give.
     All language, as I said in the first post in this blog, and will probably have occasion to say again many more times before Russia’s population reaches the 500 million that Dmitri Rogozin wants, is a set of conventions for the evocation of intended sense. Notice the word “evoke”. That means that it calls forth in the receiver’s mind the sense which the communicator hopes to convey. We can communicate only if we share a view of what words mean. There is no such thing, outside mathematics, as language in the abstract. To think otherwise invites absurdity. Let me give an example.
     PETA recently filed suit in the US Federal Court in San Diego against a marine park there called SeaWorld. PETA argued that the five killer whales (Orcinus orca) who live at SeaWorld are “enslaved” in the meaning of the term as used in the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution. The animals were caught in the wild and have, PETA argues, a “right” to be free. They asked Judge Jeffrey Miller to rule that the definition of slavery does not exclude any species.
     Last Wednesday, Judge Miller ruled that the US Constitution applies only to human beings (Homo sapiens sapiens). It is well known that it did not even apply to all of those until the end of the American Civil War. Negroes were judged by the Supreme Court, in Dred Scott v Sandford (1857), not to be citizens of the United States in terms of the Constitution. The Court ruled they were not included in “We the people…” when the Constitution was framed in 1787. This meant that Negroes in those days enjoyed the status only of property, as killer whales do today, along with dogs, budgerigars, silkworms and other captured or domesticated creatures.
     Russia has 140 million people and, according to Mr Rogozin, needs many, many more, citing amongst other reasons for the low reproduction rate, poor housing. The PETA case offers a possible solution. If brown bears (Ursus arctus) were elevated to the status of “people”, in the same way as Negroes were in the United States in 1865, then Russia would suddenly have a substantially larger population. Of course, the increase would be nowhere near Mr Rogozin’s “missing” 360 million, but if Russians can be persuaded to breed more often by being given better living conditions, then perhaps the Russian bear population could likewise be increased by making forests more homely and comfortable. It is really just a question of rural planning and woodland design. So long as the bears did not eat the humans, the two effects would reinforce each other.
     If that did not produce a big enough increase, the principle could be extended. Dogs could be emancipated, then squirrels, which would certainly bring the numbers up. Perhaps, one day, even wolves could be given full civil rights, including a state pension when their teeth fall out.
     The only downside that occurs to me is that any organism (or machine; let us not exclude intelligent robots from the Rogozination process) which acquires the rights of humans must also acquire the corresponding duties. The greatest duty imposed on members of civil society is not to kill each other. Had PETA won their case, and killer whales been adjudged to be citizens of the United States, then Tilikum, one of the San Diego Five, would now be standing trial for murder since he drowned his trainer in the SeaWorld whale pool in 2010.
     But mounting such an action would raise many difficulties. The docks in American court rooms are generally not big enough to accommodate killer whales. Furthermore, they are dry. The accused would die of asphyxiation long before the DA had even finished reading the indictment. On the other side, judges, lawyers and court marshals are not aquatic creatures, even in southern California. If the court were to sit underwater for the convenience of the accused, they too would die, and even more quickly than the whales might in Judge Miller’s court. In neither case would the ends of justice be served.
     Though bears, dogs, squirrels, wolves, silkworms and the like could all be tried in “dry” courts, the problems would not end there. Try administering the oath to a bear: “I swear by Almighty God…” It might work with budgies or parrots but, being small and relatively harmless, they rarely commit indictable crimes. Apart from not being able to say the words, a particularly hungry bear in the early spring might, instead of putting his paw reverently on the Bible, pick it up and try to eat it.
     This is a small illustration of the wider difficulties that arise when people try to take language too literally, as a society which has more lawyers than brown bears is inclined to do. Mr Rogozin may have a different problem from PETA, but they are both are in the same boat to the extent that they appear to misunderstand the possibilities and limitations of language. In that respect, killer whales, which can communicate under water across vast distances, and in securely encrypted code, are much better off.
     Perhaps the best solution would be not to turn whales into people, but to turn people into whales. PETA complain that “enslaved” whales “live and die in barren cramped cement tanks”. But how different is that from humans in Rogozin’s Russia and, I suspect, large parts of San Diego? How much nicer to live free in the ocean, swimming about all day, gobbling up water-resistant pizzas and breeding like sardines—while jauntily singing Yellow Submarine to the still-enslaved Chinese (Home sapiens industriens) as they fan out into the apparently deserted forests of Siberia looking for freedom, only to find they are eaten by patriotic Russian bears (Homo ursus partisans).