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Saturday, January 30, 2010

The grammar of libel

I received e-mails and blog comments asking why I said what I said.  I had made an error.  Not an error of fact but an error of judgment swayed largely by my growing conviction that the Internet, which has the potential and sometimes the realization of being one of the most useful tools devised by humankind, is often rendered worthless and intellectually  carcinogenic.  The error was made in my previous post in which I ridiculed the Supreme Court for engaging in semantic shysterism in defining corporations as persons in the same sense that individual humans are. 

The statement for which clarifications were suggested is:

The English lexicon has from its inception defined a person as a human, an individual of specified character, the personality of a human self. To contend that a corporation, which is a political contrivance of humans with an agenda, is in any way a person is to fly in the face of an essential linguistic and semantic distinction that is deeply rooted in the language.

My mistake was in eliding a paragraph that defined more thoroughly what  "essential linguistic and semantic distinction" exists regarding the word "person,'  In composing the original post, I had a paragraph that gave some etymologic history of the word person.  In transferring the post to the blog composer,  part of the post was cut because of some technical glitch in trying to copy it. I decided not to try to recall and rewrite that section because it seemed a bit overly pedantic in relation to the rest of the post.   I thought the phrase "essential linguistic and semantic distinction" would be a sufficient qualification for literate readers. 

The word person has been the subject of contention throughout the history of literacy.  The evidence is in the way the word is handled in most dictionary entries.  They provide the definition of a person as an invidividual human as the prime one and list other usages and meanings in the  sub-entries.  Good descriptive dictionaries (as opposed to prescriptive dictionaries) provide lists of all the usages that one might encounter for a word.  The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, has a sub-entry under the category law that lists a usage as a human or organization that has rights and duties. 

From the earliest attempts to codify the usage, the writers of dictionaries have stressed that "essential linguistic and semantic distinction."  The early lexicographers were careful to make clear that a humanperson is a "natural person" and an organizational person is an "artificial person."  This distinction is alluded to in Justice Kennedy's dissent to the United Citizens Supreme Court decision.  The literature of America deals extensively with the idea that inalienable rights accrue to natural persons but not to artificial ones. 

The issue with the Supreme Court decision is that the majority opinion does not adhere to that distinction of what is considered an authentic person and equates corporations with natural persons in defining that matter of rights.

In putting the legal usage of person down under specialized sections, dictionary writers are also demonstrating that there is an inherent contradiction in the usages.  In the natural sense, a person is an individual with distinctive identity traits.  In the legal sense, a person is a collective amalgamation in which those distinctive traits are lost.  Norman Mailer once commented that totalitarianism is the obliteration of distinctions.  He was referring to the loss of individual identity that corporatization imposes. 

The use of the word person is dealt with in manuals of writing style to preserve the essential, natural definition,  The meanings of words come out o.0f their history.  Tone style book used at a newspaper for which I worked, anytime we referred to corporations in terms of their rights and obligations, we were required to refer to them as "corporate entities" to emphasize that they were contrivances that had no claim to natural, inalienable rights. 

But this obliteration of distinction by the Supreme Court has deeper implications.  Every state legal code has statement that one of the rights held by persons is the right not to be defamed.

In South Dakota law it is stated thusly:  "Obligation to refrain from defamation.  Every person is obligated to refrain from infringing upon the right of others not to be defamed.”

The state constitution lays out the grounds for holding people responsible when their exercise of free speech defames: 
     § 5.   Freedom of speech--Truth as defense--Jury trial. Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right. In all trials for libel, both civil and criminal, the truth, when published with good motives and for justifiable ends, shall be a sufficient defense. The jury shall have the right to determine the fact and the law under the direction of the court.

The United Citizens case before the Supreme Court was about a film that the court termed “perjorative” about Hillary Clinton.  While public figures do not have the right to seek action against defamation in political speech about them,  the matter of the right not to be defamed and the right to exercise free speech to the point of defamation is in conflict. 

Now that corporations have no restrictions on their right to use their profits for engaging in political speech, it might be time to find ways to hold defamers truly responsible for what they say. 

But that could put an end to the blogosphere as we know it.  And it could elevate the level of persons we encounter.


Culture said...

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States