What are they and what is their purpose?
Thankfully most words have definitions that are clear enough. There are some words that once had clear enough definitions but now are what I would call an empty vessel word. Like the term implies an empty vessel word is one that anyone can pour any meaning into. They mean different things to different people. Their status as Empty Vessel Words is not an accident. Oh, it may have started off that way initially as folks with a different perspective assigned different meanings to words. But now they are intentionally used to muddy not clarify, we can see this by noting that these words may mean different things to the same people at different times.
These words are different than simply vague terms that are often applied to situations in order to keep someone’s position on a topic unclear. This happens a lot in politics, particularly foreign policy. The kind of words I am talking about are intentionally used in a way that allows multiple meanings to be poured into them at any time.
The purpose of such words is as a rhetorical device. They are designed to shut down an opponent during a debate. It is a cheap debate tactic and one that has polluted the public discourse on a number of important topics. There are many such words, likely more than I am aware of. I will concentrate on but three of the most egregiously abused Empty Vessel Words.
Empty Vessel Words Hall of Shame Word 1: Democracy
First up in our list is the champion of all champion Empty Vessel Words, Democracy. The misuse of this world covers the entirety of the political spectrum. The dictionary defines it as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives”. This definition would seem clear enough. The evolution of this word in popular discourse was that it went from this bland, procedural definition that the dictionary still uses to a word meaning a substantive political philosophy. It’s power comes from the general veneration of the word to begin with. A veneration that I think wholly undeserved.
As a word denoting a substantive political philosophy it has become meaningless, an empty vessel. It is a word that is used by everyone from Lockean natural rights classical liberals to Bernie Sanders style Democratic Socialists. Any word that broad in its meaning is meaningless. It is sort of like a piece of property. We all know the practical effects of everyone claiming to own a parcel of land, none really owns it, and it quickly becomes degraded. So it has become with democracy.
Every part of the political spectrum uses this word to describe a situation that they like and to decry its absence when describing something they do not like. The charge of being opposed to democracy is considered so toxic in our world that all who are subjected to this are supposed to shrink away in fear, thus ending any debate. The problem comes when both sides use it so indiscriminately as to render the charge meaningless. The only ones who think the charge of “anti-democratic” to hold any sway are those who already agree with the one leveling said charge. As I said, an empty vessel awaiting a meaning to be poured into it to score cheap debate points but to shed little or no understanding upon an issue.
In fact, it is so widely used as to be the emptiest of words. If you press anyone in the political sphere, they will immediately need to weasel out of any precise definition. Ordinary people will give you something like the dictionary definition, but politicos can’t because that won’t advance their ideological agenda. The right will use it as a way of enforcing a majoritarian ethos (which conveniently allows whites to continue controlling the power structure). The left will use it as a descriptor of an authoritarian governmental economic agenda of ever-increasing welfare benefits and control of business enterprise.
Empty Vessel Words Hall of Shame Word 2: Capitalism
Next up on our list is capitalism. The dictionary definition is “ an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit”, which is what regular people think of. Not ideologues. This is a word used primarily by the left. Apparently, these folks think it like the definition of porn; “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it”. It is used to refer to anything bad that happens in the public sphere. It’s associated word used interchangeably is “neoliberal”. I have zero clue what they mean by this, except that the ominous tone used when uttering this darkest of words means they think it is horrible.
When I say that they think that anything bad that happens is capitalism I am not joking. Check out any number of posts on the socialist web site Current Affairs. They will define explicitly socialist experiments as Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro as “capitalist”. Germany under Hitler-capitalist, neoliberalism. The slaveholding south in pre-civil war America, capitalist. It goes on and on. Never mind how much government involvement is occurring, if it produces a bad outcome, then it is capitalism or neoliberal.
It does not matter that government spending and regulation have grown apace for the last 150 years, the US is in the thrall of a market-based fundamentalism, so goes the claim. See What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank or The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein to see this line of argumentation. If any and all forms of government interference in the market can be called capitalism, then the word has no meaning. This is by intention. By so labeling all forms of government action capitalism, they can 1) avoid any blame for socialistic polices going awry and 2) use damaging effects of those policies to argue for more government growth. The reality is the exact opposite of The Shock Doctrine. The reality is best described by Robert Higgs in his fine history Crisis and Leviathan. But this kind of disjointed illogic is what you get when a word can mean anything to anyone at any time.
It is true that the right will often use this word, but they then fall prey to the misuse of the word by the left and implicitly take the blame for all the things that the left has called capitalism. More about how to respond in a bit. There is a nascent phenomenon on the populist right or the so-called “Nationalist Conservatives” using this word in a manner redolent of the left. This movement is examined here. Regardless of who is using this word, they are using it to describe something they dislike, regardless of any actual meaning. They thereby render this an empty vessel word.
Empty Vessel Words Hall of Shame Word 3: Woke
Woke is a train wreck of a word, along with its dumpster fire cousin Critical Race Theory (CRT). These terms are used primarily on the right. They are used for the same reason as any empty vessel words; to describe something, anything that they dislike, and to shut down debate in the process.
This term is trying to describe a range of left/progressive attitudes and policy prescriptions that are mostly non-economic in nature. It is true enough that there are many on this side of the political spectrum who are advancing a cultural agenda. They want better race relations, and less racially disparate impacts that are negative. They often want some kind of affirmative action to redress past wrongs. They are out front in support of the LGBT community and are supportive of reproductive and gender-based rights. Regarding CRT, this is a specialized legal doctrine that examines the structural impediments facing people of color. A far cry from the large umbrella it has become, used to describe anyone with a comment on race relations.
The problem comes into play when the term is used to discuss all manner of things that have little to do with the left/progressive agenda. The moral panic surrounding drag shows is instructive. There is often a claim made that the LGBT community is “grooming” young people, as if there is a quota to meet. Any inclusion of racially negative historical events brings the charge of “wokeism” or an advancement of CRT. All of this is to avoid engaging in a real debate about these contentious issues. It is just the flip side of the left avoiding a real debate about the actual merits of a market economy by calling all outcomes “capitalist”.
So, both left and right use Empty Vessel Words. The relevant question is how should reasonable people respond? First, be aware that people are pouring any meaning they want into these (and other) words. Knowing that a rhetorical tactic is coming makes it easier to avoid the trap.
Second, when you hear words like these used, demand a specific definition. This is not at all unreasonable and can be asked in a gracious manner. It can only enhance a well-meaning (best to avoid ill-intentioned debates) discussion if everyone is clear on the terms being bandied about.
Most importantly, do not respond in kind. Be clear in the definitions of the words that you use. Do not attempt to score cheap debate points by using these types of words. The object is not to shut down a debate but to give both sides a fair hearing. If you are confident in your position, then this should not be an issue. Indeed, it will only strengthen your argument in the eyes of those listening to the discussion. Always remember, we are trying to reach people, not defeat them.
As in many aspects of public discourse Matthew 10:16 applies: ““I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves”. There is no call for us to be naïve, but there is also no call for us to be devious. We have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, on our side, we know how to do better than resorting to cheap debate tricks. If you are in doubt about the how to avoid this, just look to our supreme exemplar, Jesus the Christ. In debate, as in all things He shows us the way.
Praise Be to God