Beware of buzzwords and gibberish

September 17, 2006|by Allan Powell

It is easy to see that a crucial election is in the making in November. Already political aspirants are honing their political slogans, charges, promises and code words to suit the needs of the moment. Let the buyer beware. The need to mesmerize, remove doubts and appease the political base can make even the most well-meaning politicians cross over the line between honesty and dishonesty to win.

Some time ago, at a social ceremony, a local politician was addressing an audience of fine young people who were being awarded badges for exemplary conduct and achievement. For the most part, his remarks were typically what one expects at such a gathering: Praise, encouragement and an adequate sample of patriotic words to inspire and impress.

Among the list of words used to impress was the term "moral relativism" which was dutifully condemned as a cause of moral deterioration. Needless to say, this was a certified crowd- pleaser in an audience that glories in moral absolutes. Politicians bask in their own sunshine when thundering about eternal verities.


Because of a long-time association with this term, and, because it was clear that the speaker had a misconception of the intended meaning of the term, I wished to converse and clear the air. After the program, I approached the speaker and began my inquiry. This was an unwise course of action. My style or approach or presence produced a red face, some bluster and much indignation as the irritated speaker walked away before the question was completed.

For the record, the term "moral relativism" is almost always used improperly in a pejorative sense. It is usually declared to mean that, morally, "anything goes" or that people who would endorse the concept of moral relativism "have no moral code" because they believe all morality can be shifted at the whim of the user.

This, of course, is a distortion of the meaning. No sane person supposes that they are exempt from the moral demands required for an orderly society. In addition, it would be patently offensive for people to wish for exception in moral expectations for their special benefit. In an open society, those who object to certain laws may work to alter or remove those to which they find objection. With regard to accepted custom, they may be deviant but they should not be surprised at social reprisal. All good citizens should strive for a heightened moral sensitivity.

Properly understood, "moral relativism" is a corollary of an important sociological concept - "cultural relativism" which connotes an empirical fact. The manners, customs, values and mores (moral expectations) vary from one culture to another. Outsiders should be careful when passing judgment on another culture and view their ways, not from their own point of view, but in the context of what purpose it fulfills in the culture under consideration.

This does not require the outsiders to accept the norms and values of another culture nor forbid a personal opinion. It merely expects a student of moral development to recognize that moral values change - not only in another culture, but in their own.

The larger moral problem to be faced in our society is not the contrived fear of moral decay brought about by moral relativists or even the willful distortion of the term by people who think they now have license to live immoral lives.

Rather, the problem is the failure of those who trumpet the virtues of moral absolutism to back up their profession of moral superiority with a corresponding exemplary life.

It is the responsibility of each citizen to be alert to the use and abuse of language used by all public figures. Political speeches, sermons and other public statements should be carefully "unpacked." If speakers are reminded that they must be articulate and free of code words, the political process will be much improved.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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