The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Our Strange Politics of Meaning Assignment

A thought.


Recent stories about flags at the residence and vacation home of Justice Alito and his family remind me of something broader I'd been meaning to blog about: It's depressing, in our era of polarized politics, how much political attention focuses on interpreting the meaning of phrases and symbols that the other side uses.

The Alito flags raise one recent example, but I see this as a recurring dynamic. What does "from the river to the sea" mean? What is "critical race theory"? What does "all lives matter" mean? A surprising amount of politics ends up being channeled through contested meanings of used phrases and symbols.

I'm sure there's an academic phrase that already describes this.  But in the absence of knowing it, I will call this the strange politics of meaning assignment.  Here's the idea.  In a polarized political environment with little communication between the two sides, you can easily rile up your side by providing an uncharitable interpretation to the other side's symbols or phrases. This is what that means, you announce. Now you can see the real them. Finally, they are saying the quiet part out loud. This is who they are.

Sometimes that assigned meaning is correct, and being uncharitable is just being accurate.  In that case, fair enough. But, often enough to matter, meaning might be contested. A particular symbol or phrase may have different meanings to different people.  A particular use may be innocuous or in a context where the meaning is uncertain.  In that setting, assignment of meaning can cause a lot of trouble.  It can effectively create a meaning that isn't what those who use that symbol or phrase mean.

I have no personal knowledge of what particular flags mean, so I have no idea to what extent the Alito flag stories reflect this dynamic.  But it seems to me that a lot of attention in our politics raises this concern. A phrase or symbol is noted; someone on the other side will declare that this is what it means; and off the two sides go, with completely different understandings of the facts because they have assigned different meanings to symbols or phrases.

None of this is to doubt that there are real differences in political opinions, or that some symbols and phrases are profoundly disturbing.  But I wonder if something is lost when we focus on the symbols and phrases rather than try to address the underlying disagreements directly.