We humans have developed a wide variety of tools over the last few hundred thousand years, and among the many useful tools we use are words. Other animals communicate, like us, by means of sounds and gestures and when we look at our primate cousins we can see how very like them we are. But our ability to exchange generalized concepts by means of specific sounds is unparalleled in the animal world, and this is what enables us to create more sophisticated cultural artifacts than can be created by other creatures.
Yet we rarely notice how imprecise nearly all of our words are.
We had to invent a totally separate type of language in order to progress beyond the use of stone tools, because words are inadequate for anything requiring precision. When planning to place a probe into orbit around another planet in our solar system, it’s no good saying “Jupiter is a really long way away.” Orbital mechanics requires precision. We must know where Jupiter is in relation to us right now, and where it will be at some point in the future when our probe eventually reaches it. We need to define the planet’s gravity well and the way gravity attenuates as the square of distance. We must understand precisely how many kilograms of material will be needed to provide how many newtons of thrust. We must be able to calculate parabolas and a great many other functions. Words will not help us, and so we use mathematics.
But in everyday life we’re perfectly content with vagueness, fuzzy thinking, and enormous imprecision. When babbling politicians tell us a danger is “huge” or that something is “serious” we don’t mind that we have no idea what scale is implied nor what magnitude. When marketing messages tell us something is “new” or “superior” we don’t mind that we have no idea about what the comparison may be, nor about by how much the vaunted something is supposedly better.
We simply don’t notice the fact that we have no idea what most of our words mean.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that when people talk about capitalism they actually have no idea what they mean by the word. Capitalism, like “the patriarchy” or “cultural appropriation” or “microaggression” is merely a convenient totem. Intellectually lazy…