Lexical Warfare

This essay, which uses the suicide of Aaron Swartz as a jumping off point for how the term “hactivist” has been manipulated by various powers, has this to say about “lexical warfare”:

I believe the debate itself is far broader than the specifics of this unhappy case, for if there was prosecutorial overreach it raises the question of whether we as a society created the enabling condition for this sort of overreach by letting the demonization of hacktivists go unanswered. Prosecutors do not work in a vacuum, after all; they are more apt to pursue cases where public discourse supports their actions. The debate thus raises an issue that, as philosopher of language, I have spent time considering: the impact of how words and terms are defined in the public sphere.

“Lexical Warfare” is a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood. Our political discourse is full of such battles; it is pretty routine to find discussions of who gets to be called “Republican” (as opposed to RINO – Republican in Name Only), what “freedom” should mean, what legitimately gets to be called “rape”—and the list goes on.

Lexical warfare is important because it can be a device to marginalize individuals within their self-identified political affiliation (for example, branding RINO’s defines them as something other than true Republicans), or it can beguile us into ignoring true threats to freedom (focusing on threats from government while being blind to threats from corporations, religion and custom), and in cases in which the word in question is “rape,” the definition can have far reaching consequences for the rights of women and social policy.

Lexical warfare is not exclusively concerned with changing the definitions of words and terms—it can also work to attach either a negative or positive affect to a term. Ronald Reagan and other conservatives successfully loaded the word “liberal” with negative connotations, while enhancing the positive aura of terms like “patriot” (few today would reject the label “patriotic,” but rather argue for why they are entitled to it).

Posted on January 15, 2013 at 6:10 AM66 Comments


Winter January 15, 2013 6:40 AM

I have long been curious about why this “lexical warfare” is so much more pronounced in the USA than on (continental) Europe?

In Europe, we see more Realos versus Fundis debates, much less about the labels (words).

Anonymo January 15, 2013 7:19 AM

Because it’s effective and legal. You have business-like politicians refer to the process as “branding”. Specifically, how can you harm your opponent’s brand?

Really though, it’s largely due to the frequent use of “throw everything at the opponent and see what sticks.” This just happened to stick the most often.

A prime example in U.S. politics is the discussion of entitlements. Entitlement as it was originally being used was simply the economic definition of “a service or good that a beneficiary has a legal right to.” Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are all entitlements under that definition.

Those proficient in the lexical war have continuously (and for the most part successfully) changed public discourse of entitlements from its appropriate definition in relation to the aforementioned programs to one of self-entitlement. Anyone living in the U.S. who pays attention to politics would be hard pressed to disagree with this.

Craig January 15, 2013 7:30 AM

In Australia a dictionary has changed the meaning of the word Misogyny, after it was incorrectly used by an unpopular and proven liar (“There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”) Prime Minister.

This is clearly apparent In Australia, not just the USA.

Opinion pieces here have also been published on the misuse of the word “Racism” to refer to any difference (eg: religious), not specifically a racial difference.

Agreeing with the opinion or not there is clearly a lexical move to redefine Racism, away from Race to other differences.

whomever January 15, 2013 7:34 AM

I think every culture engages in these things, if you think you do not then you are likely wrapped up in it.

It is semantics, really, we all have our own personal connotations on words and we have shared, cultural connotations. We live in the same world, speak the same language… yet we have very much our own worlds and our own language.

There are areas of engagement. I am not sure if someone else’s definition of hacker of hactivist matters much to me, at times I use the term “hacker” for some people with some connotation, other times I use it with an entirely different connotation.

One problem is when people take what you say and make it into something else, which is derogatory. Literalists tend to do this a lot. You do tend to see this in religious and political debates quite a bit where there is one person who argues not on substance but on form. There are endless varieties of making one’s opponent’s arguments into a strawman.

It is, in fact, the only true recourse for those who stand on the indefensible. Their argument, their belief behind it, has no merit so they must rely on semantics.

Frankly, one thing I find is people do get what someone means. I find if I use a metaphor and use another name or a symbol for the listener they will understand what I am saying.

Though, another problem is losing the original value of words entirely so much so that there remains no words left to express what one wishes to say.

In that case, there must be battleground for words.

Herbert January 15, 2013 7:35 AM

@Winter: we have it everywhere in europe, if you do not see it you should look harder.
Judging from your name you seem to be german – just look at all the fuss about the male/female forms of words. Of course completely ignoring that there is a difference between grammatical and biological sex/gender.

Winter January 15, 2013 7:55 AM

“I think every culture engages in these things, if you think you do not then you are likely wrapped up in it.”

But I feel people are less likely here to fall into traps fighting over the definition of words instead of fighting over how to solve the problem.

“Judging from your name you seem to be german – just look at all the fuss about the male/female forms of words. Of course completely ignoring that there is a difference between grammatical and biological sex/gender.”

Dutch. I am just discussing gender forms with a college. The point is, we do not really care.

There are forms that are inconvenient. The female form for “Secretary” is associated with serving coffee etc, the male form with head of organizations. So we get rid of the female form and use words that better describe the work done, eg, floor manager and personal assistant.

In most other cases, a single (neutral) form is used for both genders.

My point is, there is very little fuss made over this point. And many others. Words do not fit uses anymore, so we adapt the words.

Racism is another point. As there is no sensible definition for human races, not even among racists, all discrimination based on ethnic background or blood ties is considered legally racism (this is actually part of EU law). Discussing what is and is not racism is simply shorted.

Actually, the word “racism” is hardly used in this context anymore in the Netherlands. The phenomenon still exists, but we do not care anymore how they define “races” or “ethnicity”.

neonsignal January 15, 2013 8:03 AM

The problem isn’t just about being aware of changes to meaning; in many cases the terms themselves (such as ‘hacktivism’) were never full of meaning in the first place. They were used because they were cute or for their rhetorical value. As Orwell points out in his essay on politics and the English language, political terms like ‘democratic’ or ‘patriotic’ are mostly only used in dishonest ways anyway. Even the component words in “hacktivist” have broadly contested meanings. One does not resist this by merely being aware of changes in the semantics of these words, but by instead using language that is laser-like – coherent and direct.

piper January 15, 2013 8:45 AM

Kind of related, I’ve always been fascinated by how sometimes terms that are mostly synonymous sometimes get loaded with subtle connotation.

For example, the Bush administration versus the Hussein regime. The use of the word “regime” tells us “this is the bad guy.” If I were to refer to the Bush regime or the Obama regime, somebody somewhere is going to take umbrage.

Another example: here’s a parcel of rural land with a few buildings on it. Until recently it was a farm. Now that it’s surrounded by FBI agents, it’s become a compound.

Whenever I see words like those, I get the uncomfortable feeling of being led by the nose. It makes me want to pull back the curtain and see what’s really going on. The truth is always more complex and nuanced than what you’ll see on the news.

Doug Coulter January 15, 2013 8:52 AM

C.S. Lewis, “The abolition of man”, written way back there in the UK, points out that the easiest way to destroy and corrupt humans is to destroy their means of communication by perverting their language. This has been around awhile, which of course, does not excuse it.

Funny, every generation says the one after is degraded compared to them. That’s been going on for a long time too, so most discount it as mere whinging. But enough of it, for long enough, and you now have people who cannot do what the average person could 1000 years ago as well in basic life skills. Sure, a millennium ago you couldn’t find anyone who could work a computer. Now, there’s still not that many, and quite a few less who could, say, feed themselves with other than pre packaged goods from a store.

It’s difficult to be optimistic about humans after you watch them long enough.

Mailman January 15, 2013 8:52 AM

I have thought about “lexical warfare” before. I find it interesting that “liberal” has a negative connotation in the US to describe left-wing people, while in France for instance, it has a negative connotation to describe right-wing people.

In the US, “liberal” is used to describe someone who wants liberal social policies, while the word “liberal” in France is associated with liberal economical policies.

No One January 15, 2013 9:19 AM

@Mailman: I’m guessing then that in France the parties tend to be about the same on social policies and only differ on economic policies? In the US it’s become that the two major parties are approximately the same on economic policies (except when one or the other makes a big show of being different in order to pander) and differ wildly on social policies.

moo January 15, 2013 9:36 AM

Isn’t this actually “semantic warfare” ?

A lexicon is just a collection of usable words (lexemes). Semantics are what associate meanings to the words. So trying to change the accepted meanings of words is a battle over semantics, not lexemes.

tobias d. robison January 15, 2013 10:02 AM

In 1983 I worked for a rather aggressive director (of software development). This director decided to get rid of one of his direct reports, who was competent but not a team player. That man’s first name was Richard. Our director’s campaign to discredit Richard and get rid of him began with a lexical attack: he started calling the fellow Richie.

George Lowry January 15, 2013 10:16 AM

Almost like a stopped clock, Ayn Rand got one thing right. Attack the meaning of words as the first step in undermining a culture.

Brett January 15, 2013 10:29 AM

I think this is an universal constant (maybe someone can figure out how to use it in physics).

When you speak either to inflame, insite, convert, etc. you tend to put your agenda (slant, tilt, what ever) into your speach. You imply changes to meanings of words, you play on the emotions of the listeners, all to get your agenda across.

I think the biggest problem from this today is that those we look at to be impartial and report unbiased fact, are in fact very partial and “spin” the fact to suit their agenda. This coupled with most people having no drive to find the real truth behind things leads down bad paths.

Kirk January 15, 2013 10:30 AM

Not to distract from the enjoyment of political debate here, but isn’t it obvious that we’re talking about relativism? The idea that there is no absolute truth; an absolute statement in itself. Beauty is all in the eye of the beholder, right? With no standard of reference (absolute truth) you can redefine words to mean whatever you like. Truth is that which corresponds to reality. Words are used to describe real things and the diligent keep a healthy perspective of reality.

Peter Pearson January 15, 2013 10:52 AM

Having the media on your side confers a great advantage. Note that those of us who advocate organizing commerce around voluntary transactions are still stuck with the misleading, centuries-old label used by Karl Marx to disparage us, “capitalist,” while those who advocate organizing commerce around governmental coercion manage to jump from one euphonious label to the next every 20 years or so.

Vles January 15, 2013 11:10 AM

“When you speak either to inflame, insite, convert, etc. you tend to put your agenda (slant, tilt, what ever) into your speach. You imply changes to meanings of words, you play on the emotions of the listeners, all to get your agenda across.”

Musicians do this all the time.

Winter January 15, 2013 11:12 AM

“The idea that there is no absolute truth; an absolute statement in itself.”

That could be a difference across the pond(s). Relativism is much less popular in Europe.

Thor January 15, 2013 11:22 AM

@Peter Pearson
Certainly I agree that having the media helps in the semantic wars. (The comments about semantic wars being the correct term instead of lexical wars were correct in my view.) On the other hand capitalist is a poor term to use as an example, since the definition given in the comment is not necessarily what it means and not how I think Karl Marx used it. He was against the kind of society we have built around corporations. The corporations would like for us to equate them with free enterprise and capitalism but they are actually the antipathy of it. They are given special rights in the courts and are the immortals among us, squashing entrepreneurs at every turn and embracing governmental regulation and interference as a means of eliminating competition. I disagree with Karl Marx’ solution, but his problem definition was basically correct.

Winter January 15, 2013 11:23 AM

Note, US relativism is not so much related to the values, but to whom they apply. I would characterize US relativism as:

“It is less bad when it happens to other people”

Like in:
“Waterboarding non-USA detainees is not torture”
“Non-USA people do not need privacy protection”

Peter Galbavy January 15, 2013 11:30 AM

I have always looked at it as parasitical behaviour – where the (mis)user will seek to take advantage of the popularity of a word or phrase as it already has some traction in a population if listeners/readers.

Kirk January 15, 2013 11:32 AM

Well, “to each his own,” I suppose. 🙂

I know that if we do not all agree on the use of the corect dictionary we should never expect to all have the correct definition of terms.

Peter January 15, 2013 12:07 PM

“pro-life”: anyone who thinks abortion should be legal is opposed to all life

“pro-choice”: anyone who thinks abortion should not be legal is opposed to all forms of choice

Rob K January 15, 2013 12:23 PM

A great example is “assault weapon”. It’s a term made-up by an anti-gun advocate to confuse and conflate full-auto capable military rifles with their semi-auto-only lookalikes. It set a narrative, and made it very hard for the pro-gun side to counter it.

Winter January 15, 2013 12:33 PM

That is the most funny one:

“pro-life”: Pro Death penalty

Every pro-life advocate I have ever heard was in favor of more executions.

So, does anyone actually believes pro-life advocates are defending all human lives?
Say the life of the pregnant mother? Or the child after it is born and gets sick, or commits a crime when grown up?

Anon1 January 15, 2013 12:36 PM


If Europeans don’t like subjectivity please define what makes a person “German”. Certainly not residency, culture, language, citizenship, or ethnicity because any one of these can be overridden or ignored to serve any political purpose. When does a foreigner become an immigrant, when does an immigrant get to call him or herself by the nationality of the country they adopt? What is integration, and what does an integrated African Muslim in the Netherlands look like?

How do you reconcile your statements with the massive problems being had with normalizing law in the EU due to member states dragging their feet or outright resisting. If continental Europe is so well defined why is there no stable definition of the rights of people under the age of 18?

No One January 15, 2013 12:39 PM

Liberal: Someone liberal with other people’s money.

Conservative: Someone conservative with their own money.


GG January 15, 2013 12:45 PM

Words are not truly things unto themselves. They are tools used to communicate a message. Messages are used to communicate ideas.

When people communicate, they often do so to influence. This includes both strengthening your message and weakening the other persons. Part of that communication is defining the words used. Lexical warfare is just an aggressive form of defining the language and therefore the message.

In the end, people will adapt with the language. Many with strong positions will hear what they want to hear. However, definitions change sublty all the time. Nothing wrong with this. It is a very appropriate and effective communication tool for those whose desire or job is to influence.

Zombies Zombies Zombies January 15, 2013 1:55 PM

We see this lexical warfare happening today with the “gun control” debate. “Assault weapon,” “military-style assault rifle,” “high capacity magazine,” “gun violence,” “sensible gun control.” Hardly anybody can agree on the what these terms mean, but there they go flying around. We have the gun control side talking about the, “epidemic of gun violence,” despite the data that no such epidemic exists, that gun crime has been declining for decades.

RoyWW January 15, 2013 2:08 PM

@Pearson: A fine example of lexical wars – contrasting “voluntary transactions” and “government coercion”. This is not the way to begin a balanced discussion of the role of government (representatives of the people) in civilized societies. But those engaged in lexical warfare are not interested in balanced discussions.

Me January 15, 2013 3:04 PM

I’m surprised (and a bit worried) that there’s no reference to 1984 and newspeak in the essay or here in the comments (except one to Orwell, slightly related).

Brett January 15, 2013 3:14 PM


“Musicians do this all the time.”

Maybe that explains why current pop music makes me want to waterboard myself.

Jackie January 15, 2013 3:22 PM

Slander is a political weapon. Some cultures use it more. And some cultures are more susceptible to it. I think people in any culture in which “slander is a weapon” is not well known and commonly discussed will be more susceptible to it.

For example, banking interests have long memories and long agendas of slander against countries. So do political parties (nowadays) against ideas and opposing parties (of all kinds). So do some religions and ethnicities.

Lexical warfare is a better definition in some ways because it is less specifically about a crime and a common understanding that there might be a lie and allow more discussion of all the shades of gray in carrying out warfare.
However, it is less likely to be adopted or well remembered, in common parlance, because it is a two word phrase and most people do not use the word “lexical” enough to immediately understand the phrases meaning.

SJ January 15, 2013 3:22 PM

@George Lowry,

Almost like a stopped clock, Ayn Rand got one thing right. Attack the meaning of words as the first step in undermining a culture.

It appears to be a worry shared by Ayn Rand and George Orwell.

George Orwell’s term, “NewSpeak”, appears to be the more common pejorative for lexical warfare that destroys/alter/confuse meaning.

mark January 15, 2013 3:35 PM

The reason that lexical warfare is so much more prevalent in the US than anywhere else has to do with first, its political-economic structure, and second, that the Republicans decided, about 29 years ago, that 1984 was a prescription for power, rather than a warning.

When the US Constitution was written, it was male landowners and wealthy who could vote. Since then, that group of people morphed into the wealthy upper class have conducted lexical, and frequently physical war against anyone of the lower classes thinking they had the same rights. The war against unions, and socialism, and women’s rights, etc, has been going on for at least a century and a half. The GOP, having long ago become the party of the wealthy and corporations, have used it heavily.

This does, on occasion, result if very odd twists and turns, such as the current bizarre mode of referring to right-wing Republicans as “red”…..


mark January 15, 2013 3:43 PM

Sorry to a) follow up my own post, and b) that the first came out quite that polemical.

Where it ties in is that lexical warfare became the huge tactic of the right in the US is due to the US’s enshrined “freedom of speech”. In the spirit of the quote from Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, “I don’t care who does the electing, as long as I do the nominating”, the right took from that was that let anyone (mostly) say what they want… on streetcorners, on blogs, while the major media outlets, that they own, say what the owners want.

The resulting dynamic is very different than elsewhere.


No One January 15, 2013 3:48 PM

@mark: Not that I have love for the Republican party of the United States, but I don’t think we have to point them out specifically as if they have a monopoly on misuse of lexical warfare. (By its very nature all parties involved will, to some extent, wage lexical warfare.) In fact, it’s been quite the battlefield since the earliest elections in our country, slander and rhetoric exceeding meaning in importance for some time.

-B January 15, 2013 4:22 PM

Lexical Warfare has been going on for decades by those trying to push anti-gun agendas. “Saturday Night Specials”, “Assault Weapons/Pistols/Knives” (bastardization of the Assault Rifle technical term specifically used for a class of fully automatic long gun), and so forth.

Each time it was a choice made to muddy the understanding of the general public and create support for a class of item only cosmetically different than something that had been around since the 1800s.

Clive Robinson January 15, 2013 7:41 PM

@ SJ,

It appears to be a worry shared by Ayn Rand and George Orwell

You forgot to mention George Orwell thought about it and published about it atleast a decade beforr Ayn Rand.

When I was considerably younger I had the misfortune of reading Ayn Rand’s epic (fail) it was to be quite honest an unpleasent read at best, lacking in almost all forms of originality even the plot was a cobble together of unacknowledged borrowings from earlier works by others.

Perhaps the only Ayn Rand originality was the arrogance, disempathy, discordance and utter unbelivability of the characters personalities.

Even L Ron Hubbard (father of Scientology) and his similar unbelievable charecter personalites, managed some kind of limited belivability in the story line that could be just about accepted in the Pulp Magazine SciFi genre of the preceding twenty years.

itgrrl January 15, 2013 8:10 PM

I find it fascinating that on a site so frequently concerned with unmasking security theatre, and teasing out what it is that makes us truly safe from what it is that makes us simply ~feel~ safe, that the people taking this opportunity to reference the issue of gun ownership (in the US) are choosing to characterise the pro-gun lobby as much put-upon and maligned by the anti-gun lobby’s^ use of lexical/semantic warfare…

It’s interesting to see where (some) people draw the line in terms of application of security principles.

^ Or should I play the game and designate them the “pro-killing-things lobby” and “anti-killing-things lobby” respectively…?

Peter January 15, 2013 8:28 PM

@winter, that is a strawman and absolutely false. I doubt you personally know as many pro-lifers as I do, and none of the ones I know fit your description.

In fact, in an effort to keep this on topic, I’d call that another type of warfare — asserting that a group believes one thing simply because they believe another.

I did not intend to hijack this into an abortion debate, and it’s the last I’ll post about it. I was just giving what I think is the most obvious example of lexical warfare.

Fried Ape January 16, 2013 5:13 AM

Words also change meaning through ignorance – see what has happened to jealosy and envy. Even advertisers use jealosy when they mean envy (which reverses the meaning of their ad).

Plus there is also an influence on the choice and use of words that comes from laziness rather than malice – a kind of newspaper headline effect. Why say “FBI surrounds a farm” when “… compound” sells more papers?

But, if you want to consolidate one group at the expense of another, then there is a large historical tradition of demonising the other by the choice of a name and the association of negatives with it. “Benefits cheats” or “Fat Cats” anyone?

Winter January 16, 2013 5:15 AM

“@winter, that is a strawman and absolutely false.”

My experiences are mine. That I have seen only few pro-livers does make me prone for seeing a biased sample. Still, “Pro-Life” does most certainly not mean “Against executions”.

“What is integration, and what does an integrated African Muslim in the Netherlands look like?”

Like this Mayor:

You must distinguish “lexical warfare” from “social conflicts”.

Rusty January 16, 2013 8:17 AM

@Clive Robinson

No, Atlas Shrugged was NOT an “epic fail.” It was a warning about totalitarian governments. Unfortunately, the Obama administration thinks that book was a “how-to” manual, as the idiots in Washington are even going far beyond the dysfunction of the “Thompson administration” of the novel!

I am a gun owner, and I don’t appreciate being slandered by lefties who think I’m a criminal just because I own a firearm. Using their own “logic” would mean that all men are rapists and all women are prostitutes because they have the necessary equipment to engage in those sorts of crimes (although prostitution shouldn’t even be a crime as it is a private contractual agreement between two consenting adults).


freeweev January 16, 2013 8:31 AM

Just look what the prosecutors did to weev in order to hype their case to the jury as near life and death to distort the facts into some heinous crime.

US prosecutors are voted into office so they act like politicians. You can never have justice when the state actor coming after you cares more about image and career and will do anything to keep that image

Winter January 16, 2013 9:26 AM

“US prosecutors are voted into office so they act like politicians.”

In my experience, people get the government they deserve. It is painful, and affects myself, but I am afraid it is true.

* January 16, 2013 9:42 AM

Almost like a stopped clock, Ayn Rand
got one thing right. Attack the meaning
of words as the first step in undermining
a culture.

It appears to be a worry shared by Ayn Rand
and George Orwell.

I don’t know if it was Rand’s intent or not, but her followers have distorted the meaning of “producer” and “looter”.

The modern day disciples of Ayn Rand have elevated vulture capitalists like Mitt Romney (Rick Perry’s description) or currency speculators like George Soros or broadcasters like Bob Costas or fraudulent celebrities like Al Gore to the lofty demi-god status of “producers” and “job creators“, while the working poor (including the lower ranks of the military, many of whom don’t make enough to pay income taxes), are marginalized as “looters” or “the 47%”.

The modern usage of Rand’s terms are no longer accurate descriptions about who actually produces and who actually loots, but is merely a reflection of wealth. Anyone who has a lot of money is celebrated as a “producer” for whom policy should be bent, while anyone who doesn’t have a lot of money is slandered as a “looter”.

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” – National Review, 1957

It’s also funny how many in the Tea Party movement who cite Orwell as a source of inspiration forget that he was a Socialist, and would probably approve of nationalized health care. Something about a “memory hole” and always having been at war with Socialism…

* January 16, 2013 9:48 AM

I am a gun owner

So am I.

While I agree with your point, your knee-jerk response was embarrassing to read. Clive didn’t say anything about guns. Your segue was unnecessary and irrelevant, and doesn’t help our cause.

“Lord protect me from my friends, I can take care of my enemies.”

derp January 16, 2013 12:43 PM

Prosecutorial misconduct is rampant in the Excited States. Just look at Bernard von NotHaus who was slammed with terrorism accusations, Kevin Mitnic held in solitary confinement because the prosecutor claimed he could whistle into the phone and launch nukes, Marc Emery who was accused of subverting the US state and extradited for donating to NORML, the shoeless Somali pirate they caught on a raft who got a life sentence, the drug smuggler caught in international waters outside Colombia on his way to Australia was arrested and deported to the US even though there’s zero evidence he was ever headed there and plenty of evidence he was sailing to Aus. Doesn’t matter, these are just ‘facts’ that can be easily skewed.

DA is just a stepping stone to being governor or some other promotion. The more conviction rates you get the better you look in the press as being ‘tough on crime’. The more serious the state tries to claim the case is the more attention you get as prosecutor, thus more celebrity and votes. Why strike a plea bargain with this guy who broke into MIT’s academic paywall when you can railroad him for the cameras.

derp January 16, 2013 12:52 PM

As for being ontopic for this post (oops) John Ralston Saul wrote extensively about the dictatorship of vocabulary in his trilogy Voltaire’s Bastards which is a critical series of essays on modern technocrats. He traces it back to Loyola and the Jesuits newspeak they enforced to control vocabulary for their own propaganda benefit

Curious January 17, 2013 10:42 AM

Having goofed around on the internet for nearly two decades, I would say I have picked up a thing or two that merits a particular interest as to what ‘meaning’ might be, as far as my interest in anyones expressed opinion goes (not here to be confused with any particular or general idea of ‘relevance’).

One such consideration which I had in mind, is for when making the distinction between ‘a point’ and ‘an explanation’. It should be of importance that a distincion of the two can be made in any case, else any discourse the for sake of being argumentative could be said to imbue so to speak a larger part of a discussion with an undeserved or inappropriate relevance; a notion of something in particular being relevant, in which someone would want to have both confidence in understanding something and to have confidence in relating to something with his/her person. In other words, whenever you think you understand something to be relevant, you should also be aware of that and preferably also being able to remember it later on, if only vaguely, for when you or anyone else is to contest the very considerations you yourself had made, even if having been mere assumptions. What is contested is not so much as any kind of logic, a relevance or a “truth”, but someones opinion. In any discussion being relevant to matters of politics, it is not a trivial problem as to whom had an opinion or whom maybe desired to form an opinion in the first place for any reason or “social” context.

The other consideration which I had in mind (not really, using my intuition I cannot honestly say I had these so called considerations chisled out conceptually, but it was enough being a set of vague ideas or perhaps even only one idea, or so I would like to believe), was the appliance of language in a context where matters concerning society is a debate or any form of talking point, where any so called philosophical knowledge has less of an impact than mere adherence to whatever has been proposed as a talking point. An unfortunate consequence that I tend to easily find disconcerting, in the event of anyones opinion perceived by me as say having succombed to being mere populism or herd mentality (I don’t really qualify for having made such a concrete notion until some time after I intuitively get the urge to contest what I sense has to be an ill conceived opinion off others and write it down), such an unfortunate consequence would be how rhetoric or talking points probably cause an unwarranted interest in someones concept of an idea, and even worse by this interest even lauding said ideas put forth in any given statement and complicating the matter further.

A third consideration could be my interest in how the perception of and ideas for how language simply is understood as being metaphorical and how language as such paradoxially is inadequate at definetely solving/resolving the ‘problem of representation’ known as a peculiar problem in philosophy brough about, so to speak, with ‘postmodern philosophy’. Sign a written statement with a random name other than yours and it is obvious that the name of the signer bear no relevance to the written text as such (wrong person), and more importantly, sign the statement with your own name and it is obvious that the name of the signer infer no relevance to the perceived meaning of the written text AS SUCH (doesn’t matter), and so here is one aspect in attempting to understand the notorious statement with ‘the death of the author’ unless I am terribly mistaken. There is a topic that ought to be of interest in any case where there is a concern for wanting to interpret or extrapolate a particular meaning off anyones statement, insofar as someone expressed words or perhaps signs verbally or in writing; that topic would then be about the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. With a metaphor, you can understand the meaning of it by comparison, but with metonymy you are instead offered a proposition to be understood and accepted as meaningful in ways by merit of the proposed argument itself and not by its description or any given idea/concept, an act of implication in other words, and perhaps a damning one; maybe simply being a self fulfilling idea/concept that merit no association to the life of anyone, or as far as argumentative discourse goes it could be a so called formal fallacy of the kind ‘begging the question’ for anyone to use and abuse. An example I have for such an instance of metonymy, is what I deemed to be an intellectually fraudulent claim having been put forth earlier by someone, of how J.Assange must be considered having been ‘charged’ by the merit alone of having the police/procecutive authority in Sweden taking an interest in him.

I am no laywer and hardly a good philosopher, but as for the particular case of J.A, I wranged out this logical statement that I would say is an example of ‘begging the question’, where a performative statement of “being accused of having been charged” becomes no trivial matter:

Being accused of having been charged makes you a suspect of having commited a crime.
(a performative act, if used as an excuse for willingly confuse the basic idea of prosecution with the basic idea of investigation)
All suspected criminals should be prosecuted.
(the words ‘suspected criminals’ here comes to imply a suspect believed to have comitted a crime, as a “defensive” argument the phrase ‘suspected criminal’ becomes a performative act)
Therefore, anyone accused of having been charged should be prosecuted.
(a fallacy of presumption, a claim for ‘prosecution’ to come mean an investigation when “having been charged” has been simply implied, for assuming the premise for the conclusion)

To make a point, all it takes for this kind of argumentation to work, is to provide it as an opinion and keep on calling the whole process “prosecution”, with the claim that any ‘investigation’ (functioning as a metaphor) is to be understood as ‘prosecution’ (here, functioning as a metonymy).

So, if someone in fact does, or just wants to do something that would involves you with something explained with placeholder words/names like ‘suspect’, ‘charge’, ‘crime’, ‘prosecution’, they are by a body of authority all four easily made to be instances of metonymy in covering for the implications associated with the neutral word/name “investigation”, a word then which should come to bear no consequence if there was really no “investigation” going on to specifically implicate you as being indicted with a criminal offence. ‘Prosecution’ before ‘investiation’, turns investigation into persecution.

Ugh, enough proof reading. 😛

JanJanyson January 18, 2013 12:29 AM

Aaron Swartz is the lion in winter, perpetrator of a victimless crime prosecuted under laws unique to the USA, carefully crafted to match the special interests of “rightsholders’ — i.e., the RIAA and MPAA, long known for supporting prosecutorial overreach, both the paid pocket dust of Democratic politicians of all stripes, including BO and EH, his Attorney General. The tyranny of copyright prosecution shall probably continue unabated until the European Union finds the strength and wisdom to challenge the American plague wherever necessary, stymieing it in The Hauge if need be. Whatever the Eurpoean consequence we must never allow mere EULAs to form the basis of federal prosection, as was seemingly the basis of the instant case. America was once the hope of the world. Today it stands naked as the unclothed emperor of unfettered capitalism, poisoned by arsenic bearing words comforting to some: In God we Trust.

JanJanyson January 18, 2013 12:58 AM

[edit] My misspelling of “prosection” should have been put correctly: prosecution.

Further, in the gloom of this midnight-dreary I must affix blame on an-all prevailing sense of American exceptionalism for our rape of the world. How else to justify what our troops did to unarmed civilians in Iraq (aptly demonstrated by WikiLeaks), if not by the belief that righteous ends explain all means? So very Old Testament! Lexical warfare, indeed.

Yan Ban January 19, 2013 4:21 AM

I do not understand the fuss. A person supposedly was attempting to steal and distribute copyrighted material, and was being prosecuted. That’s a good thing. He unfortunately killed himself. That’s bad. However, any ‘political’ lesson such as ‘do not prosecute people who are suspected of breaking a law is ludicrous.

abc January 19, 2013 8:12 AM

@Yan Ban The world stealing has multiple different meanings. Part of the anger is caused by prosecution attempts to put equal sign between various meanings of stealing.

One is “taking something from its owner without intention of giving it back”. Owner looses something and you gain something.

Steal in this case mean “copying data you have legal access to in amounts larger then expected”. If I simplify it a lot, he broke TOS. It is not stealing as “gaining access to something you should not”. It is not stealing as “the owner will not have access to that thing anymore”.

Another part of the anger is caused by attempt of prosecution to punish act that cause small harm to JSTOR the same way as a huge harm should be punished.

Yet another part of the anger is caused by attempt of prosecution to frame him as huge dangerous cyber-criminal. By their measures, anything a bit out of ordinary can be called hacking.

Some people are scared cause they found out that prosecutor can threaten you with 35 years in order to force you plea guilty for few years. Do not want to plea guilty and think that what you did is legal? Tough luck unless you have few millions of dollars available. (Schwarz killed himself at the point where he run out of money and his parents were about to take mortgage for defense.)

I think that the combination of last two points is what makes people scared the most. At least, it scares me. I’m not engages in any political activities, so my risk is quite low.

But, I did not wrote my real email address into the “Email Address” field on this site. If the site would check that address, I would use mailinator or other similar service. I did that in past.

Can I go to jail for it? Can prosecutor frame it as a felony offense under some computer act and threaten me with years of jail for it? Maybe even make me loose ability to use computers for the rest of my life? By their logic used in Swartz case, they can.

I’m not Swartz. I did not started Reddit. I would run out of money way sooner then him and would have to plead guilty. Or do as he did.

If he would be threaten with a small fine and maybe probation, I could feel safe.

freeweev January 19, 2013 4:14 PM


He breached a paywall to get at academic papers. Stealing knowledge that should be free to most people is not a crime. Certainly MIT you’d think would recognize this, and eventually they did, offering to drop all charges since no dammage was done.

Problem is the prosecutor refused to drop charges and railroaded this guy threatening years in the federal pen. It was more like revenge than justice.

Roger January 20, 2013 1:53 AM

Ironically, it appears as if the whole issue of “lexical warfare” in the Aaron Swartz case is, itself, a smokescreen!

I suggest that anyone interested in the case should read Professor Orin Kerr’s
two part essay at the Volokh Conspiracy:
Part 1 and Part 2.

They’re kind of long, so I offer a 3 point summary for those too busy (or lazy) to read them:

  1. Prof. Kerr agrees that there are some concerning matters in this case — but none of the genuine issues are the ones now being publicly debated, and none of the ones now being publicly debated are real issues.
  2. In particular, Prof. Kerr is troubled by the way plea-bargaining is conducted in Federal cases generally — but seems to feel that in this particular case, far from bullying misconduct, is an especially mild example.
  3. Claims that Swartz faced decades in prison are pure eyewash. He faced at most 6 months in minimum security — but probably less, and stood a fair chance of just getting probation. He must certainly have known this.

Clive Robinson January 20, 2013 2:02 PM

@ Roger,

I suggest that anyone interested in the case should read Professor Orin Kerr’s two part essay…

Whilst your three points are a fair comment of Prof. Kerr’s essays, I would advise anyone reading the essays to do so with quite a degree of caution.

Prof Kerr’s argument is shot from the get and go by his basic assumptions and as such the argument he presents is at best facile and picayunish, at worse faux and seeking to distort peoples opinions with baseless or false argument, bordering on a hatchet job or a desire to push his own agenda.

Whilst I’ll leave each reader to make up their own mind, I will highlight one of several such failings Prof. Kerr has made in his opinions.

In part two of Prof Kerr’s opus he puts forward his opinion that Aaron should be punished and by the way he voices it by criminal prosecution at a level of atleat Fellony.

Which we know from the way the extreamly punitive U.S. Justice system works would irrespective of actual time or fine would make Aaron a life long exile from society, unable to vote and hold any kind of federal or other similar proffesional job, obtain a loan for education etc etc.

So before advocating the equivalent of the destruction of an individual and their rights to live and function as part of society I would assume that a persons reasoning would need to be solid as would the facts they present.

But are they in Prof. Kerr’s case? Personaly I don’t think so, but again I urge people to think carefully and judge for themselvs.

So what basis does Prof. Kerr give for this opinion that Aaron should be made a fellon and cast out from participating in society?

Well I’m not sure Prof. Kerr’s reasoning is sound or some of what he portrays as facts are anything other than supposition. In fact I suspect him of sailing close to the point of being malicious in order to sound off on his view of what aspect of the law should be changed.

First off Prof. Kerr pulls a Cardinal-duc de Richelieu attack which is an even more discredited debating tactic than that of using a Straw Man. As such the Richelieu attack is much beloved by Dictatorships, Kangaroo Court’s and all other repressive regimes, and of recent times supposed democracies such as the US, where “the means justifies the ends” arguments have come to the fore, so much so it is being used to destroy the protected right of “Free Speech”. Something I assume Prof. Kerr is fully cognizant of.

Basicaly what Prof. Kerr does is pull up something that Aaron wrote back in 2008 and put on the Internet at a time he was probably under Federal investigation (it’s not entirely clear from what I’ve seen when the first Federal Investigation started and ended and when Aaron was made aware of it).

Proff Kerr then argues that this is not just the work of a genius but a “serious legal nerd” and thus implies it’s in effect a genius giving “a call to arms” for others to rally behind “to commit criminal acts”. And thus a prima facie argument as to Aaron’s state of mind and behaviour.

Well I’d urge people to read it and whilst doing so remember that Prof. Kerr believes it calls for criminal activity, from a genius who has been successfull in busines. Ask yourself seriously does it actually call for any criminal acivity?

Well no I don’t think it does not, whilst it certainly urges people to think seriously about property they already own (through taxes etc) that has been at best questionably coraled by others for private gain. And as he indicates in some cases illegaly under dures or simple theft (Reed-Elsiver and Google respectivly) by dint of monopolistic force.

Again does it read like a call to others to committ crime?

Well again to me no, it simply reads like the writings of an ordinary persons drawing to the attention of others what is an illegal act by corporate entites who have a monopolistic advantage and highlighting the injustice of it.

And then further highlighting what others HAD done (passsword sharing etc), before indicating what was possible that did not involve or require actual criminal activity [1].

Thus not even close to a Manifesto for committing criminal acts, simply one that seeks to pursuad by reasond and thoughtfull argument that there are other ways[1], that whilst questionable by some are not specificaly codified against in most jurisdictions. Basicaly what you would expect of an intelegent person who has been involved at senior levels in a successful business [4].

So I would argue it is a good country mile from Prof. Kerr’s assesment at best. Thus I do not belive it even remotely portrays a state of mind that has, as a given, that it’s writer has set themselvess on the path of criminal acivity. Let alone one that would result in a felony conviction.

Further you also have to remember that Aaron had already been investigated and not prosecuted for what is arguably a more serious series of actions. So arguably he was already moderating his behaviour in a safer direction so as to avoid criminal activity (as JSTOR and belatedly MIT pointed out to the prosecutor).

But Prof. Kerr has taken the Cardinal’s proverbial “half dozen lines to find evidence enough to hang him”, and worse he has done it knowing full well that neither Aaron or those close to him can argue this was not Aaron’s state of mind in as public a way as Prof. Kerr has. As Shakespear noted “The good that men do is oft intered with their bones”…

From this Prof. Kerr goes on to argue that Aaron’s state of mind was such he was destined to commit “Civil Disobedience”. And Prof. Kerr’s definition of “civil disobedience” mean that Aaron must not only committ to a criminal act, but further to knowingly bring it down upon himself. And thus as what Prof. Kerr called a “serious legal nerd” must have knowingly performed a criminal act in full acceptance of all the potential outcomes.

Well there is a problem with this, firstly “Civil Disobediance” does not of necessity involve breaking the law in a criminal act as Prof. Kerr assumes. It can be as simple as ensuring ones legal rights against those in a position of authority or monoopoly who are actually committing criminal acts (which Aaron mentions in the Manifesto). You only have to look at what went on with denying African American’s the right to register to vote to know this. Something I would assume Prof. Kerr is atleast aware of if not extreamly conversant with.

From Aaron’s previous activities with a Federal DB, you could sensibly argue he was trying to make available publicaly that that the public had already paid for and thus owned. But that this public property had been taken from those who had paid for it by corporate entities that had sort and succeeded in puting a lein on the property by their monopolistic activities. Now as far as I’m aware the US has laws that makes monopolistic activites illegal. Thus arguably Aaron was seaking to break an illegal embargo not to committ a criminal act. The fact of the timing of his activites indicates quite strongly that Aaron’s aim was not to access JSTOR’s DB illegaly (something that JSTOR by their actions of writing to the prosecutor clearly indicated).

It is notable that in his second article Prof. Kerr neatly avoids stating what criminal act he belives Aaron is guilty of, he mearly refers to Aaron supposadly hiding his face and running away when chalenged. And thus uses a version of the “Do you still beat your wife” argument that any one who runs away must be guilty of something. Rather than the more obvious point that someone is avoiding conflict with an unknown assailant who might then committ some crime against their person. Yes some US States have “stand your ground” legislation but only a fool would rely on that as a defence for being involved in some kind of physical altercation that in most cases would be regarded as a criminal act. To put it simply running away when a person unknown to you assaults you in some way — which raising their voice, arms, running towards etc all is, — is sensible and prudent action commensurate with some one wishing not to commit a criminal act, rather than proof somebody knows they have committed a criminal act as Prof. Kerr would have you belive.

It is very unclear from the publicaly available information as to if Aaron did anything that was a tort let alone a criminal act. From what has been written the only realistic charge would be “theft of electricity” with a value of a few cents, on the assumption he actually pluged the laptop into the supply, and that is dubious at best. Now it is possible that Prof. Kerr has other information over and above that which is publicaly available, but if he has he certainly has not said so or even intermated he has.

Now I could go along and kick the other legs out from Prof. Kerr’s various arguments but as I said at the begining I’ll leave that ot others to judge.

[1] Some will regard this as a call to break “terms of service”, but as Aaron ably demonstrated against JSTOR you do not even have to do that. JSTOR was afterall providing free and unfettered access to their DB for a month as part of an offer. They did not say in their TOS or offer documentation there was a limit on how much of the DB you could access.

[2] As has been pointed out by some of the legal brethren in the past, and currently with this occasion, the crime of “theft” requires the demonstratiion of either a loss, or for a monetary gain to be made that can then be shown as a loss [3].

[3] Whilst the “monetary loss” viewpoint is appropriate for tangible “Physical world objects” and thus has been for a thousand yeard or so, as an argument it compleatly breaks down with intangible “Information world objects” we have today. Where the copying of the information has no tangible equivalence to stealing, but considerably more to that of taking a photo.

[4] It has been said that the difference between a bureaucrate and a businessman is that “They both are subject to a book of rules, a bureaucrat who follows the rules without question is safe from all, whilst a businessman that fails to push at the edges will lose to competitors who do”.

[5] Since the times of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, the idea of legal protection for ideas to protect inventors has become enshrined in law. However it went wrong from day one when Good Queen Bess refused a patent on a stocking knitting machine, apparently because it would not work with silk. Since then the lawyers have compleatly mangaled the intent and rather than protecting the originators of ideas it has been of more use to persecute them in one way or another.

Clive Robinson January 22, 2013 4:42 AM

@ Russtopia,

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Agh “Linguistic Relativity”, for which the joke ‘I’m Pink therefore I’m Spam” must have been made for [1] 😉

It is a troubled field of endevor that has little hard fact and much criticism by “strawman” in it.

It is only now getting to the point where other theories of mind are sufficiently developed and technology sufficiently advanced that realistic experiments are begining to be possible, not that I realy expect coonclusive results in my lifetime.

Humans notice things that strike them as odd and link these odd things together and thus start looking for correlation. Unfortunatly such thinking is often a way for the person to express racial or social economic prejudices [2].

It has frequently been argued that nations should be ranked by various measures, and it just so happens that these measures tend to favour those proposing them and their arguments. One such is the industrial development of a nation which tends to favour nations in the northern part of the northern hemisphere that tend to traditionaly have the majority of patents and scientific papers [4]. However by other measures (such as carbon footprint or average expected life or social care etc) these nations can be shown to actually be of a significantly different ranking that their politicians would not like.

Even where such conscious or subconcious prejudices are not the cause it is difficult to distinquish between cause and effect, or the order of events as the old saying has it “the chicken or the egg”.

One such observation is that a language or the people who speak it “are beautiful”. One such case is the “sophistication” of the French [3] (and other romance languages).

However there is some impirical evidence that language does effect genetics, or atleast the early development of the senses. Some languages are more pitch based than others, that is in terms of frequency not the more normal relative frequency. It has been found through music where absolute pitch is more important that the incidence of “Pitch perfect hearing” is an order of magnitude greater in those speakin such languages…

Differentiating between genetics and early life brain development is something else that is somewhat hotly contested. Sometimes it can be fairly easily shown that society or culture has a direct genetic effect on the population (alcohol tolerance) simply because it can be easily experimentaly measured.

And this is where technology rears it’s sometimes ugly head, as we have seen with investment in “mind reading” technology.

[1] Sapir-Whorf is one of those notions that comes and goes with the regularity of comets. And as such each time it’s head pops up above the parapet it gets savaged and chopped to pieces by it’s criitics (just as spam is chopped meat, frequently from the head end of a pig). Unfortunatly it is a hypothesis that is difficult to test and experiments in the area frequently use colour representation and use. Unfortunatly humans tend to go with Black, White and Red more due to the way the human eye tends to work (look up night vision to see why) which kind of puts Pink center stage as it were.

[2] Nearly all cognative and behavioral research going back historicaly for as long as the thoughts could be recorded can be shown to be biased in the direction of “moral superiority”. Even today it is very difficult to stop a researchers “world view” impinging on the way they conduct experiments, and this alone could be construed as proof of linguistic relativity.

[3] The argument is simple, the French language contains a lot of phonems that require the forward part of the face be used thus the development of those muscles gives the appearance of high cheak bones. As it can also be argued that the ability to be adroit in a language offers a form of breeding privilege through higher sociatal status then this will have a genetic re-enforcing mechanism.

[4] It has been noted on many occassions that the number of patents issued be they primary or secondary has in the past varied significantly with the language spoken. It has been used as an argument in politics frequently as to the supposed superiority of one nation over another. However in more recent times it can be shown from the numbers of published academic papers that getting out and actually travelling to places and meeting others has a more pronounced correlation than native language or state.


vasiliy pupkin January 23, 2013 3:29 PM

Language is very powerful weapon when meaning of the words may have different interpretation depending on purpose:
“If one give me six lines written by the hand [typed/posted on the web -VP] of the most honest man [said over the phone – VP], I would find something in them to have him hanged” (Cardinal Richelieu).
With additions in [] looks very familiar with 30 years in prison as result.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.