Confucius was once asked by a ruler how to fix a corrupt and failing state… and he answered, “What is needed first, is the rectification of names.” What he meant by this was that, for best functioning of any group from roommates to societies, words must be defined precisely. Specifically in two instances:
1. Concepts- In order to have a quality discussion leading to a proper decision, the merits/faults of different options, the involved parties must have the same concept in mind.
For example, when a New Yorker talks of the merits of mass transit, they are picturing a mostly enclosed railway system, running from every 5-10 minutes to at most every half hour that will drop them off within 3 blocks of wherever they need to go. When a person from Iowa suburbs speaks of mass transit, they are picturing a bus they wait for, outside, in rain or snow that may drop them off from a block to a mile away from their destination, perhaps an hour before they are supposed to be there, because that’s the only time the bus comes. Those two pictures are very different, but hung on the same phrase, do not provide the necessary tools for effective dialogue.
2. Roles- Having a clear, named roles, and making sure people understanding of their respective roles allows individuals to excel at them, and for others to 1. Interact effectively with that person 2. make proper judgments on their performance in those roles, if the individual should be praised, nagged, or replaced.
For example, when President Obama commented on the Skip Gates police officer arresting Harvard professor in his own home…said that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately stopped by police, he was criticized heavily (including Jon Stewart) for commenting on it, as it was “not his place to get involved”. And had he directly intervened, they would have been correct, since it was a local affair.
However, the President is a citizen, and may speak as he sees fit. Further, he has responsibility for law enforcement and federal prison systems. With such an obvious example of differential treatment in the way the law is enforced, it is his responsibility to start an investigation on racism on the federal level, and set an example for the states to follow. Later, if a state continues to employ tactics demons ratably racist, to intervene further. If every school child was taught to know the role of the President, every adult and child would know that it is part of the role, and to ask for more from him.
A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
– Confucius, Analects, XIII, 3, tr. Legge