Meaning, Relativism, Pickled Herring, Tyranny…

Posted on | October 26, 2011 by Piero A. Tozzi, J.D. |

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

-Through the Looking Glass

My colleague Susan Yoshihara recently posted on the browbeating Ireland has taken for its constitutional protection of unborn children during that country’s Universal Periodic Review.

Norway – the “Pickled Herring” in the above caption – demanded that Ireland “bring its abortion laws in line with the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].”

Norway’s assertion that the ICCPR requires liberalization of abortion laws is, however, patently false. As Susan notes, the ICCPR “never mentions abortion and in no way promotes the liberalization of abortion laws (although the committee that monitors its compliance sometimes pressures nations to liberalize their laws).”

More can be said about the scope of the absurdity – and the implicit menace – of the Norwegian statement, however. Invoking the ICCPR’s provisions as requiring abortion demands an act of linguistic and philosophical deconstruction that obliterates the notion that words can have any fixed meaning or that there can be such a thing as “Truth,” for the Convention itself explicitly references the life interest of the unborn child, independent of the mother.

In relevant part, ICCPR article 6 states:

1. Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.
2. In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime
5. Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by
persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on
pregnant women.

Thus not only does the text not require liberalization of abortion laws, but a straightforward reading of the treaty – “interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose,” as the saying goes – shows it to be protective of unborn life.

When the treaty was put forward for signature in 1966, a common cross-cultural consensus still considered abortion to be the heinous act that it is, which was reflected in the ICCPR’s recognition of the independent life interest of the unborn child. Not only did Ireland protect children in the womb, but so did most civilized nations, outlier nations such as Sweden and the Soviet Union excepted. 1966 – the year the Beatles released Revolver, for those who follow such cultural markers – was in many ways a hinge year, though the loss of cultural cohesion in the West that would follow in years to come was not quite so readily discernable from that vantage point. The next year, however, a (moral and cultural) line was crossed when Britain passed the Abortion Act. Slipping away was a shared civilizational consensus that absolutes existed. A relativism gained ascendency among the elites….

Treaties, like contracts, are inherently moral, for they concern promises made and to be kept. Yet if language has no fixed meaning and words are inherently malleable, then they become weapons to be wielded by the glib and powerful. If a word can be manipulated to mean “just what I choose it to mean,” what then exists as the basis for any societal relationship, be it among men, between Man and the State, or among States themselves? Like Alice’s Humpty Dumpty, Norway’s statement is far more than a lobbying ploy for a favored policy decision. Rather, it betrays contempt for the notion that Truth exists, and that relations can be based on anything more lasting than the assertion of raw political will. “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean.”

Perhaps the most subversive court case I read in law school – and the most revealing – was a 1968 decision by the California State Supreme Court, Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. G.W. Thomas Drayage & Rigging Co., Inc., 69 Cal.2d 33, 38 (Cal. 1968). It seemingly had nothing to do with the larger cultural issues of the day, such as abortion or the Vietnam War, but rather involved an action for damages resulting from faulty industrial equipment and rules of contractual interpretation.

The trial court had ruled that the “plain language” of the contract governed – that the language the parties chose would bind them, and there was no need to resort to extraneous evidence to fathom intent when the meaning of the language was unambiguous.

Not so, said the high court. The learned justices inveighed, “If words had absolute and constant referents, it might be possible to discover contractual intention in the words themselves and in the manner in which they were arranged. Words, however, do not have absolute and constant referents.”


The Latin legal maxim “Rerum enim vocabula immutabilia sunt, homines mutabilia” (“Words are immutable, men are fickle”) – derided by the Pacific Gas court as “a remnant of a primitive faith in the inherent potency and inherent meaning of words” – is more than simply a blackletter interpretive principle. Ultimately, the notion that words represent something objective and that men and nations can be held to their promises is a safeguard against tyranny, against the notion that the strong will have their way with the weak simply because they are stronger. Thrasymachus in The Republic – like Norway at the UN – preaches the relativism of the strong when he declares “What I say is that ‘just’ or ‘right’ means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger party.”

The ICCPR is largely a charter of negative rights which asserts at least implicitly that rights are grounded in nature and preexist the State, protecting the individual against the depredations of the State, whose tendency is to seek a monopoly on power at the expense of mediating institutions such as the Church and families. This is one reason why the United States has ratified the ICCPR while declining to ratify treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, where “rights” are conceived of largely in terms of the positive obligation of the State to provide goods – i.e., the State has an obligation to provide education, healthcare, housing, etc.

When rights – including the most fundamental right, the right to life – are no longer seen as preexisting and grounded in something beyond the State, then the State becomes the grantor and guarantor of “rights.” But a State that creates and grants rights can also take them away. When words cease to refer to an objective reality, but rather become whatever Humpty Dumpty declares them to mean, the stage is set for the emergence of what James Kalb calls the “Tyranny of Liberalism.”

At the UN and elsewhere, one sees repeated examples of countries and instrumentalities of the Global North seeking to impose a soft totalitarianism upon developing nations – see here, here and here – with countries such as Poland and Ireland that dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy also subject to sustained hectoring until they capitulate. To this end, cultural imperialists utilize a silky relativism, where the language proclaiming the right to life or the right to health becomes twisted to mean the very opposite.

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.



Turtle Bay and Beyond is a blog covering international law, policy and institutions. Our experts - at the UN, European Institutions, and elsewhere - explore an authentic understanding of international law, sovereignty, and the dignity of the human person. We expose those who would seek to impose a radical social vision that is contrary to these principles.


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