“What is politics if words have no meaning?”
Loughner asked that question of Giffords awhiles back. Her answer did not satisfy him. He visited her later, with a wordless answer of his own; a gun.
Let’s take that question seriously, though it came from a paranoid schizophrenic. (And sociopathic to boot; a fortunately rare trifecta.) If words have no meaning, then politics is a farce, reason an illusion, and mankind doomed to swift extinction. We humans need words as much as birds need wings and fish need gills. Where there is no language, the people perish.
Do words have meaning? Only if there is intelligent life on planet Earth. Is there intelligent life on planet Earth? We, ourselves, are in no position to answer that question yes or no, for we are not objective in the matter. We cannot prove our own intelligence, merely on our own say-so; so the intelligent thing for us to do is to doubt our own intelligence. (That’s called ‘philosophy’, which is Greek for the love of wisdom. But to love wisdom is not the same as possessing wisdom, as any Greek lover can tell you.)
Nor can we prove, just on our own word’s say-so, that those words mean anything; so the meaningful thing to do is to question the meaning, if any, of our words. That’s called critical analysis; a valuable skill, especially when contemplating political speech. Tyrants cannot stop at injustice; since reason refutes injustice, they must defy reason; and since reason derives from language, they must defile language. Speech is our species particular adaptation; it’s our one advantage over all the other beasts; but tyranny destroys language; and therefore it’s a disease of mankind.
Orwell noted that Big Brother needed newspeak and doublethink; he also noted that the Party presided over a period of continuous decline. These interconnect. From lies come madness and then death.
We cannot ourselves prove that we are intelligent, or that our words mean anything. But since we ourselves embody DNA’s bet that words do have meaning, then we might as act as if that is the case. Since we’re the bet, we might as well go all in. If we fail, then I suppose the ants will learn from our bad example. But if we succeed, then we get to be us.
A professional philosopher will note that this is a version of Pascal’s Wager, except applied to acting rationally rather than believing in God. Pascal wagered: if we believe in God but there is no God, then we lose nothing; but if we believe and there is a God then we win all. I wager: if we act by reason but the world is irrational, then we lose nothing; but if we act by reason and the world is rational, then we win all. Similar bets; but which god is God? Mankind has many gods; but we seem to have one rationality; therefore my bet seems to be more secure. One may doubt this seeming, of course; such uncertainty is also rational.