Loughner’s wordplay

I have to confess, as I read through some descriptions of the mental state of Arizona assassin Jared Loughner, I see some parallels between his thoughts and mine. For instance, take this passage.

“By the time he was 19 or 20, he was really fascinated with semantics and how the world is really nothing—illusion,” Tierney says.

I think everyone’s picked up that Loughner had some strange fascination with words and grammar. And I find myself contemplating certain themes when thinking about language and the mind. We tend to think of words as being absolute descriptions of something — “this is a bird!, This is a frog!, this is a shovel!” — with no gray areas. Words are markedly useful tools for describing the world around us, but they’re not absolute. When is a glass not a cup? When is a bush not a shrub? There may well be answers to these questions — that’s what the whole discipline of semantics is about — but I don’t know them.

Ludvig Wittgenstein made a similar point while trying to define what a “game” is. We call Scrabble a game, and poker, and we also have the Olympic Games. What do they have in common? You might say you play games against other people, but you can play solitaire. How can football and Scrabble fall into the same category?

A similar point has been made in regards to terms for colors. Take a look at this color range. As everyone knows, colors gradually morph into other colors, like in a rainbow. Red morphs into orange which morphs into yellow which morphs into green etc. As humans, we’ve somewhat arbitrarily drawn lines at certain points of these gradations and assigned everything within those barriers to a certain label. Everything from orange-ish yellow to greenish yellow is considered yellow. Of course, orange-ish yellow is actually closer on the color spectrum to orange than it is to greenish yellow, yet we refer to all gradations of yellow as yellow.

This might seem like pointless semantics when discussing things like cups or bushes or colors. But what about concepts like “justice” or “consciousness” or “legality?” If we’re not absolutely clear on what we’re talking about in those cases — and we seldom are — we’re in trouble.

How can this kind of deconstruction of semantics lead someone to shoot people? Well, I don’t get it either, but consider this.

Tierney, who’s also 22, recalls Loughner complaining about a Giffords event he attended during that period. He’s unsure whether it was the same one mentioned in the charges—Loughner “might have gone to some other rallies,” he says—but Tierney notes it was a significant moment for Loughner: “He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, ‘What is government if words have no meaning?’”

Of course, complaints about grammatical obfuscations on the part of the government are commonplace and understandable. Have you ever tried to read the tax code? What does “collateral damage” really mean? But government words are the law of the land — if you misunderstand them, you can end up in jail. Suddenly esoteric discussions about semantics take on added gravity.

You can see how, if you think this through, the only logical thing to do is shoot your congressperson.

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