The Doubter's Companion ¹


An existential system in which words are more important that actions. Not a judgmental system.

Democracy is not intended to be efficient, linear, logical, cheap, the source of absolute truth, manned by angels, saints or virgins, the justification for any particular economic system, a simple matter of majority rule or for that matter a simple matter of majorities. Nor is it an administrative procedure, a reflection of tribalism, a passive servant of law or regulation, elegant or particularly charming.

Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance [q.v.] The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen.


Characteristic reflex of the technocrat.

Since actions are the result of solutions arrived at by experts there can be no error [q.v.]. Error is replaced by a linear succession of right answers. This requires the systematic denial of error when each preceding answer fails to do its job in spite of being right.


This mania for denial has marked policies ranging from the economy to defence. It constitutes an assertion that expertise and the corporatist structure are more important than reality. [...]


Formerly, variations in language produced by geographical isolation.

Dialects are now the variations encouraged by specialists to prevent non-specialists access to their professional territory.

For those who do not belong to these professional guilds or corporations, not being understood is one of their few individual powers. The rules of professionalism -- often spelt out in their contracts of employment -- prevent them from speaking freely. What is the one subject on which a nuclear engineer cannot be frank in public? Nuclear engineering. Thus experts are silence in the area whey they in particular have something to offer the community.

They compensate by reconstructing their castrated individualism around the power of not communicating. The power of retention. Wilful obscurity does little for public debate. It creates a fear of outsiders who try to understand and an acceptance of ignorance in areas outside of their own dialect. If you don't want to be interfered with, you mustn't interfere with others. The insiders, as Vaclav Havel puts it, end up characterizing 'every attempt at open criticism as naked terrorism.'

They would defend themselves by arguing that the explosion of knowledge has made areas of specialization too complicated for public language. But none of us really wants to know where to put the bolts on a nuclear reactor. And we don't need to know.

Specialist language can be dealt with in two ways. It can roll gradually, in a process of honest popularization, from the inevitable complications of the expert towards general communications. The citizens are then free to penetrate down the road of verbal specialization as they care to. Or the specialists can establish their dialect as a general barrier -- a rite of passage -- and so reduce public language to a cacophony of distracting information and opinion, none of which is related to the use of practical power.

Isolated in these dialects, the experts cut themselves off from the collective imagination, which is what feeds each domain with ideas and energy. Like a small provincial aristocracy cut off from the metropolis by its own standards of propriety, they are ultimately victims of inbreeding.


The moment a word or phrase begins to rise in public value, a variety of interest groups seek either to destroy its reputation or more often, to co-opt it.

In this latter case, they don't necessarily adopt the meaning of the word or phrase. They simply want control of it in order to apply a different meaning that suits their own purposes. Words thus are not free. They have a value. More than any commercial product they are subject tot he violent competition of the emotional, intellectual and political marketplace.

Moral and ideological crusades fuel this desire for control over words. They are kidnapped for the cause and strung up like flags. Others then feel obliged to use them in order to indicate that they are in tune with the times. Deregulation. Efficiency. Free trade. Global economy. Their meaning really doesn't matter. The important thing is not to be caught without them. And then, like transubstantiation and the dictatorship of the proletariat, their day passes, the market in their use collapses and the pressure to capture a new vocabulary reasserts itself.


Opinion presented as truth in alphabetical order.

The social stability that has settled over the West in the last half-century tempts those who define language to confuse their powers of analysis with a power to declare truth. In the disguise of description they offer prescription. This is done in a dissected, dispassionate manner as if simply reporting on use.

Serious dictionaries give a selection of the successive true meanings of each word over the centuries. Some seem to forget definitions which they themselves have provided in earlier editions. Others give a fairly through selection of historic examples, but their choices contain attitudes.

Is it true, as almost every twentieth-century dictionary asserts, that TRUTH is 'consistent with' or '[in] conformity to' or 'in accordance with fact or reality'? Or is this an ideological position? If it is true, then how are we to explain the ability of facts to produce several truths on the same subject and the inability of some or all of these truths to conform with reality as people see it? What then is the relationship between facts and truth or facts and reality?

Dictionaries legitimize the process which has already half persuaded citizens that language does not belong to them because it does not reflect what they see or think. Languages which do not provide the forms of meaning needed by the populace are on the road to becoming anthropological remains.

This is not a deconstructionist [q.v.] exercise. There is no linguistic conspiracy. Nor is language always a reflection of special interests. Nor must it be an embodiment of whatever ideology is currently on top. To the contrary. There are great volcanoes of linguistic energy in any society which has not become moribund. They are constantly exploding -- often through oral language [q.v.] -- in order to shatter or readjust the established order of received wisdom. If a language isn't dead it must be an argument.

Earlier dictionaries were passionate arguments about truth. Chambers, Diderot, Johnson, Voltaire weren't certain they were right. But they were certain that the church scholastics who had preceded them were wrong. As the twentieth century moves towards its end, there are fewer and fewer people who believe that facts add up to truth. This means there are fewer and fewer people who simply accept received wisdom. In that sense, our era increasingly resembles the eighteenth century. It is therefore quite natural that dictionaries should again become arenas of debate.



Not a pleasant or an easy thing, but perhaps the single most important element in any democracy, free speech is afflicted by two widely-held, contradictory opinions. The first is that we have it; the second that it is a luxury.
How can you have something which exists only as an existential act? You can declare its inviolability in constitutions and protect it with laws. You can invoke it until you are blue in the face. But freedom of speech is only maintained at sufficiently high levels through constant use.

The exhausting effort which this requires involves a willingness to listen combined with a desire to be heard. Listening means taking into account, not simply hearing what people say. And being heard means being exposed to criticism, even ridicule. That is one of the reasons our elites, who have little desire to be heard as individuals, refer to it as a luxury.

The perfectly natural reflex of those who have power is to try to limit freedom of speech. They do this in an ongoing almost unconscious manner, whatever their particular political opinions. The more structured the society, the more this happens through social convention by euphemism and politeness and indirectly through laws ands contractual arrangements which make no reference to the thing that they are limiting.

A new method of limitation involves arguing that free speech, having been won in the absolute, can now be treated as a luxury. What people need above all, the argument runs, is prosperity. With the physical well-being and stability that brings, people have the time and every to engage in free speech. It follows, sotto voce, that the more unsuccessful those in responsible positions are at running the economy of a country, the less the citizenry should use their free speech.

The 'property first' argument is based on a common interpretation of Western history in which the growth of trade and industry created a middle class that began to demand rights. It is a convenient point of view in a corporate society. It reduces the contribution of the citizenry and of humanism [q.v.] to a secondary passive role. Instead it is technology and the market which created the edifice. Only then were the citizenry permitted to decorate the rooms.

This is a complete inversion of Western history. Solon was produced by an ethic of public service. And it was economic failure -- not success -- which provoked him and the citizenry to assume greater power. Socrates and the entire Athenian democratic debating system were the product of a stable, agrarian society. It was undermined and destroyed by the trading pretensions of the empire. Our contemporary concepts of equality, which implicitly include the right to speak out, come from early Christianity and the local assemblies of Northern European [and other] tribes. [...]

The point is not that industrialization played no role in the creation of the democratic system. But its role was secondary. An effect is not a cause. We did not proceed from economic change to prosperity to democracy in order to finish off with free speech as a sort of luxurious gold leaf to cover the rampant part of an already completed structure.

Within the West the same sort of historic inversion can be heard every day. Our corporatist society takes pleasure in insisting on 'responsible action.' This is, in itself, an inversion of our concept of the responsible citizen. In a democracy, society's structures are responsible to the citizen who is the ultimate source of power. 'Responsible action' suggests the opposite -- the citizen must now limit the use of her power in order not to damage the structures in place. This amounts to the institutionalization of banalized raison d'etat.

An irresponsible person is therefore someone who disturbs convention by speaking out. These are by definition people outside of the specializations, the professions and the corporate groups. Troublemakers. In an exaggerated version of middle-class propriety, the quasi-totality of our carefully-trained elites see themselves as limited in their public words and actions by their obligation to administer society in a responsible manner.

Thus the structures and [in particular] the education systems of the democracies have produced enormous elites which are unconsciously but profoundly anti-democratic. They may represent as much as 30% of the population and occupy most of the positions of power. For them, free speech is an indulgence claimed by marginal outsiders and a luxury which responsible people put up with resentfully and only to the extent that they must.


(1) John Ralston Saul, The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (NY: Free Press, 1994), pp. 94 -106, 132-6.

logos links past future demos
Comments? Contributions? Write to Serchan.