For the American student of China, these are interesting times. Domestically, repression is on the rise: It is now common to turn on the television in China and see free-thinking individuals, days or weeks after having been “disappeared,” confess woodenly to crimes for which they have not yet been legally charged. Equally striking is China’s assertive behavior abroad. Beijing has declared a million square miles of the South China Sea to be a Chinese lake, with swiftly constructed artificial islands now starting to be fortified and The Hague’s adverse ruling brushed aside with contempt. “One Belt, One Road” and the Asian Infrastructure…
From left, Democratic presidential candidates businessman Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stand on stage, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
A sentence in the French newspaper Le Monde recently caught my eye: Il y aura toujours des talibans de l’austérité, there will always be the Talibans of austerity. It was uttered by the economist Jean Pisani-Ferry in an interview in the newspaper about the crisis in the Euro zone, and it made me think at once of the Confucian dictum in the Analects that the first task necessary in restoring a polity to health is the rectification of language. Words must be used correctly, for if they are not moral collapse follows.
Some linguists might object that the meaning of words shifts and is never absolutely fixed: for example, if enough people use the word disinterested to mean uninterested, then the word disinterested actually comes to mean uninterested, and the fact that it thereafter becomes difficult to express succinctly what the word disinterested once meant is quite beside the point. Will disinterestedness itself disappear just because the word for it disappears? Reasonable people might disagree as to the answer.