“Must We Mean What We Say?”
Tibor R. Machan
The tile of this column is the title of an early book and the title essay in it by Harvard University philosopher Stanley Cavell. Cavell’s work was to me fascinating because it argued, putting it very roughly, that when one uses words with widely understood meaning, one may not expect that one’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the words should override the former. And there is pretty plain evidence of the acceptance of this in how we treat each other’s utterances. If someone calls you a fool and you take offense, it is no good for the person to say, “But what I mean by ‘fool’ is ‘wise and sensible’.” When one says “fool,” one must mean what “fool” means. If one fails to realize this, that is a failure indeed and no one can escape the consequences by pleading ignorance.
In a recent column I made the point that explaining what Osama bin Laden and his cohorts did on September 11, 2001, by reference solely to the American government’s Middle East misguided, even very possibly immoral, foreign policy, served to suggest that the deed, the attacks of 9/11, was justified. Several people said to me that I am mistaken, some even claimed I was being outrageous in my suggestion and that it constituted a smear against Ron Paul who advanced the explanation in his comments during the South Carolina Republican presidential hopefuls’ recent debate. Others simply expressed polite disagreement with me, while yet others thought I was right. Given that my comment took up two columns of roughly 700 words, I didn’t have the chance to make fully evident my reasons for taking such an explanation to appear to amount to an implicit justification.
Now it is true enough that many times when people explain the conduct of others, they do not mean to justify this conduct. However, it is also true that whenever one does offer an explanation of another’s conduct, conduct that is normally blameworthy, there is the implication that the person involved isn’t really culpable—it is the factors that explain what he or she did that caused what ensued. In other words, in offering an explanation one is pretty much suggesting that the person is not responsible and even allows that inference that the action may have been justified (or made sense).
Consider that in a criminal trial if a psychologist or psychiatrists can explain someone’s unlawful conduct, this most often is done so as to exculpate the accused. “He killed his wife because he was insane” or “He rammed the car because the sun blinded him and he couldn’t see.” These do amount to explanations which are offered to as to eliminate or at least reduce guilt.
So when Representative Ron Paul stated during the debate that “They [bin Laden and others charged with the 9/11 terrorism] attack us because we've been over there, we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We've been in the Middle East,” arguably he was at least suggesting that the conduct of those individuals is explainable by reference to what we, that is, the United States government, has been doing in the Middle East. And that, if we must mean what we say, implies that the terrorists themselves acted because of what the U. S. government has been doing and are, accordingly, not culpable.
It is, of course, very likely that what Representative Paul wanted to say or would have liked to have said is that the U. S. government’s Middle East foreign policy plays a significant role in making sense of much of the motivation behind 9/11. He would probably agree that there is a lot more to it, as well, such as the barbaric way bin Laden & Co. went about reacting to that foreign policy, namely, to murder 3000 innocent human beings. In other words, part of what explains 9/11 is bin Laden & Co.’s viciousness in believing that killing 3000 innocent people is what one should do when one considers the American government’s foreign policy ill advised, immoral, wrongful, and injurious.
Nevertheless, what I was commenting upon is what Representative Paul said, in the spirit of Cavell’s thesis in “Must We Mean What We Say.” Saying that they attacked us because we’ve been over there means that is why they attacked us and leaves a great deal that needed to be said unsaid. But I was myself wrong to suggest that this amounted to saying bin Laden & Co. were justified in perpetrating 9/11.