Sometimes we say things we don’t mean, or say things we think have a different meaning, or in the case of Michael Scott, just say anything that comes to our mind, oblivious to its actual meaning. When I was a kid, I thought volleyball was actually just called balleyball, I would “try not to take things for granite”, and unfortunately, I would tell people that “some music really designates with me.”
I had a homonym problem, a heteronym problem, an antonym problem, a synonym problem, and possibly a hearing problem. One of the quickest way to lose your credibility (regardless of your field) is to constantly demonstrate these problems in public discourse.
Sometimes we use expressions that we really don’t understand but because we hear them used colloquially, we repeat them and then perpetuate a false understanding of a word, or adage and confuse our readers or listeners.Without attempting to give an exhaustive list of such expressions, I want to focus on two notions that have the compounding problem of inspiring unjustifiable activities when their respective convoluted meanings are converted into action.
“The Letter of the Law”
Usually when you think of someone who follows “the letter of the law” you think of an uptight individual with perhaps a narrow perspective of how to maintain a certain moral code of conduct; one who is “straight-laced”, unyielding, self-righteous or even pharisaic. But that’s not actually the meaning of the expression. If an individual adheres to the letter of the law, what he is doing is technically following the explicit or literal meaning of an idea without following the intention of that meaning. (And most likely has his own agenda for following his private interpretation). For example, if Mom and Dad tell their 12 year old son that he is not to watch R-Rated movies because the material may be inappropriate, violent, suggestive or pornographic, their intention is to protect their son from harmful influences. Their law against R-Rated movies is the manifestation of that law. If, however their son has occasion to watch a PG-13 movie that contains similar harmful influences of an R-Rated film, and if the boy believes his action is justified because his parents never explicitly cited PG-13 films as harmful, he is no longer following the intention of his parents’ “law” and as a result, he is following the letter of the law. The implication of such an individual is often confused as an overly-principled individual, when in reality the meaning of this expression more accurately describes an unscrupulous character.
“The Spirit of the Law”
I’ve found that the meaning of this expression is not as convoluted. Following the spirit of the law is just the opposite. Following the spirit of the law occurs when an individual makes a decision to follow the intention of the law without adhering the literal meaning of the law. The only problem is, if you cannot communicate with the law-maker, or if the law-maker is a consortium of dissimilar law-makers then the individual attempting to follow the spirit of the law can have a hard time making a correct interpretation, especially when that interpretation means applying it to a specified case. As a result he is left to his own opinion and as such, is prone to self-indulgence, and self-deception in the name of “creativity” or because of he believes in following a more “unorthodox” approach.
A great example of this, is the ongoing case of interpreting The Constitution of the United States. We even have categories for such differing interpretations of the document and label our supreme court justices with words like “literalist”, originalist”, or “progressivist.” The great fallacy of this reasoning occurs almost daily on the prime-time political talk shows, when pundits and ideologues accuse members of the opposing political party of “misinterpreting the founders.” While you might disagree with the interpretation of others, (and while you may even be right), attempting to argue based completely on this foundation would require an omniscient understanding of the intentions of every delegate at the Continental Congress between 1770-1776, a singular understanding of The Declaration of Independence, a unique insight into the perspective of every member of Congress until 1787, including and especially James Madison (the author of the Constitution), and a perfect contextual understanding of late 18th century Colonial American linguistics. Oh, and it might not hurt to be “besties” with John Locke and John Milton, since many of their ideas made it into the mix of the Constitution as well. Obviously, such an undertaking would, of course, be absurd.
No, attempting to follow the spirit of the law is not easy, but there are times when there are no manuals, no procedures, no laws to dictate an appropriate course of action. Usually in those times, I have found that there isn’t a whole lot of time for philosophy either. It’s in those times that you must organize all the information you have as quickly as possible, make a decision based on principle, and then, looking Heavenward call out, “Stop me if I’m wrong” before storming into the blaze.