By Bryan Hyde
In our day, the answer to that question would most likely consist of what Gilbert Ryle referred to as the bogus or unspecified predicate as a means of silencing dissent.
The bogus predicate usually takes the form of an accusation of “hate” or “racism” being leveled against the targeted group or individual. Supporting superlatives like “radical” or “extremist” or “bigot” are often used to reinforce the illusion that the accusation contains a measure of substance.
For instance, how many media reports or commentaries on the Tea Parties have centered on accusations of underlying racism or radicalism? How many of those accusations have sought to paint the entire movement with the same broad brush?
There are a couple of glaring problems with this approach.
First, simple logic dictates that broad generalizations are questionable at best when trying to make the exception appear to be the rule. But the real breakdown in validity occurs when such thundering accusations are put forth without specific, quantifiable content to define them.
The late Joseph Sobran put it like this:
Such charges — sexism, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and the generic all-purpose hate and bigotry — are what the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle called “bogus predicates.” They sound as if they mean something, but they have no specifiable content. The listener is invited to fill them out with his own emotional associations. Murder implies that someone has killed someone else. What does bigotry imply?
When such a charge is made without defining the offense in clear and concise language, simply being accused can prove as effective as a conviction in the minds of the uninformed public.
This deliberate lack of clarity actually works in the favor of the accuser much as the catch-all accusation of “anti-Soviet activities” was used by those individuals tasked with keeping the Soviet gulags fully stocked with political prisoners.
Sobran once rightly observed that had the Soviets ever clearly defined what the term “anti-Soviet activities” actually meant, it would have ceased to be a useful tool in their hands.
Those who direct accusations of racism and extremism at Tea Partiers or any other peaceful but politically active group of dissenters are engaging in similar rhetorical sleight-of-hand by leveling vague charges that are not easily proved or disproved.
How exactly does one prove that they aren’t guilty of an offense which, lacking specifiable content, could mean wildly different things to different people? By using a bogus predicate, the burden of proof is wrongly placed on the accused.
Meanwhile, the accuser can smugly stand by without having actually proven anything except his or her ability to level accusations.
None of these observations should be taken as an unqualified endorsement of the Tea Parties or their participants as the saints-that-walk-among-us; they simply serve as a handy example of how language can be perverted for the purpose of manipulating the unthinking masses.
The political right has also been guilty of using similar bogus predicate tactics like the accusation of “terrorist activities” in order to sway public opinion and to stifle dissent.
It’s an intellectually bankrupt tactic that allows misinformation to flourish and serves to cloud the already murky waters of public discourse even further.
One of the greatest challenges we face as a society today is that of cutting through the propaganda and being able to see the world as it really is. Denying scoundrels their refuge in unspecified predicates would be a good start.
Bryan blogs at Hydeologue.com. He and his wife Becky are raising their six children in Cedar City, Utah.