How a piano becomes an oboe
Dictionary.com has decided to change the definition of "court-packing," while China seeks a new definition of human rights.
So what's the big deal? Definitions do change over time.
Let's see what might be wrong with the idea.
I've always wanted to be able to play the oboe, but I'm lazy and too cheap to take oboe lessons. I can, however, play the piano, so perhaps there's a workaround. You'd think it would take eons for a piano to evolve into an oboe, but you'd be wrong. From this moment on, that bulky, quarter-ton black object in the corner of my living room is an oboe.
There — I can play the oboe.
That's as long as no one else agrees I look dotty, so I malign anyone who still insists it's a piano as an oboephobic ignoramus. After a while, even the holdouts cave and start referring to that pile of polished ebony as an oboe.
Now for the next step.
The New York Philharmonic advertises auditions for second oboe, and I apply. When I show up with my seven-foot instrument, they inform me that they're seeking an oboist, not a pianist, but I insist: I am an oboist, and this is my oboe.
While waiting for security to escort me out of the building, I suggest that I might file a complaint against them for othering me and my atypical oboe; it might be easier for them to let me audition than to send their lawyer to the EEOC to unpack my truth.
After my audition, they thank me politely, commend my mastery of the legal/regulatory system, and promise to apprise me of the result within the week. My oboe-movers pack it up and take it home.
My next project will be an oboe debut at Carnegie Hall. Don't worry about what the critics will write — as you can see, I'll know how to handle them.
Fortunately, I cannot impose my delusion on anyone. A piano will remain a piano.
But what about court packing?
Intellectual influencers have fomented many deliberate shifts of meaning, and their widespread use in the press and popular culture makes it difficult to discuss important ideas rationally — which is the whole idea.
"Affordable" housing, for example, was once called "subsidized." While a reasonable case can be made against subsidies, only a grinch can object to making housing affordable. So it becomes tricky to ask the malodorous question of whether the house that is affordable to the person living in it is also affordable to the person being forced to help pay for it.
The ability to make fine distinctions used to be called "discrimination," but the word now refers to something that will put you in legal difficulties. This shift of meaning has killed two birds with one stone, er, has had a dual effect: while we mustn't discriminate against people by subset (is it still okay to refuse to rent your spare bedroom to a prosti—um, sex worker?), we also mustn't make fine cultural distinctions, since someone's self-esteem might take a hit.
"Mass incarceration" is another of these concepts. China's round-up of Uighurs is actual mass incarceration. Jailing criminals, even thousands of them, for their criminal activities is not. Before heading off to the big house, each alleged perp will have been tried and found guilty. In other words, each case will have been tried individually — the very opposite of "mass incarceration." But in 2021, anyone wishing to toss felons in the poky is Hitler's evil twin.
Back to court-packing. When one person thinks the term refers to filling naturally occurring vacancies with justices who are philosophically simpatico, while the other thinks it means creating and filling new seats on the court, how can intelligent discussion take place?
That is the point — to make intelligent discussion difficult if not impossible.
From redefining words, it's just a baby step to redefining actions: if a society decriminalizes, say, sex with children, the deed remains as loathsome as before, but because of a change of definition, it's no longer a crime and begins to lose its stigma. And if the concept of human rights no longer forbids ethnic cleansing, well, that's how a piano becomes an oboe.