I’m an Idiot


es, I am officially and perhaps even legally idiotic. Why? Because I believe that words are unstable and meanings can be easily displaced. I have mentioned this many times, here and elsewhere. Words and texts can change given different contexts and circumstances. I’ve done this before, I think, but just for the heck of it, let’s do it again. Read the following sentence:

For goodness sake.

Look at the word “sake”. It consists of four different letters, S-A-K-E. Pretty easy, right? Now consider the following list:

Beer, wine, sake.

I’m pretty sure that most of you pronounced the last word, “sake”, differently, as in the Japanese rice wine. You will note that the word is spelled exactly the same as it did in the first sentence. And yet, you probably pronounced it differently. Think about it. Did the word itself change? No. Did you change? No. Did the words around it change? Yes. But that isn’t why you pronounced it differently. What changed is the context.

But don’t the different words provide the different context?

No, Little Grasshopper, it is not the words that provides the context. It is you, the reader. Let’s say there is a hick who lives in the sticks who thinks that Japan is a province of China and has never heard of rice wine. Do you think he would know how to read and understand the word “sake” in the list of beverages? Of course not. He’d be scratching his head wondering, What the heck is this word doing here. He is unable to provide the appropriate context.

The upshot of this is that you, the reader, are providing the context. Or in a larger context, people–conscious, experienced people–provide the context. And if people are the constituents of a society–any society–then it is the greater society that determines how to read and interpret the meaning of all texts. And as society changes, as the collective experience of society at large changes, then the interpretation of texts will change as well. And texts include all manner of documents, literary, political, legal. That’s why words such as “All men are created equal” meant one thing to a slave owner such as Thomas Jefferson than it would to us today. Same words, different context, new interpretation. (Note: This is not a knock on Jefferson, who was, afterall, a product of his own time.)

Unfortunately, not everyone holds to this very simple, very basic, very obvious concept. Take Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He criticized those who believe in what he refers to as the “living Constitution.”

“That’s the argument of flexibility and it goes something like this: The Constitution is over 200 years old and societies change. It has to change with society, like a living organism, or it will become brittle and break.”

“But you would have to be an idiot to believe that,” Scalia said. “The Constitution is not a living organism, it is a legal document. It says something and doesn’t say other things.”

I am not about to contradict a Supreme Court Justice. I think I’ll just accept his ruling and leave it at that.

I am an idiot.

But I’d rather be an idiot than be like him.

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