This problem of terminology has historically haunted political discourse. One of the key Eastern philosophers to discuss this issue was Confucius. Living during the tumultuous times just prior to China's Warring States Period, Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) lamented the way in which words and ideals had declined do to their misuse. One key passage related to this idea is found in the following passage from the Analects (my own translation).
Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, so as to administer the government [based on your advice]. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” “Oh, really!” said Tsze-lu. “That seems a bit farfetched! Why must there be such rectification?”
The Master said, “Yu! You are such an uncultivated schmuck! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
“If names aren't correct, language won't be in accordance with [the civilizing culture of the true Way]. If language ins't in accordance with [the Way], affairs won't be carried out successly.
“When affairs aren't carried out successfully, edifying cultural practices (literally, "rites") and edifying music (literally, "music") won't flourish. When the norms and music don't flourish, punishments won't be properly awarded. When punishments aren't properly awarded, the people won't 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 says may be appropriately put into practice. What the superior man requires is nothing less than that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”
In this passage, Confucius isn't advocating some rigid logical correspondence between language and reality (as Russel once dreamed of). The idea is that Chinese civilization was based on classical ideas that established harmony throughout society and that these ideas had been watered down by generations of corrupt leaders.
Of course, America isn't founded solely on cultural patterns appearing in its literature (although Bloom might argue this). Rather, it's founded on laws, on the idea of Constitutional norms, international treaties, and so on, that delineate the proper roles of government. In the Constitution, the term "war" presumably has a fixed meaning. Did the founders envision a war against ideas (as in "a war on poverty") being conflated with a war of agression (as in "war on terror")? Did they envision a war that would go on indefinitely? There doesn't seem to be anything in U.S. law that clarifies the role of the government in the guise of world policeman or international hegemon.
So now we have the spectacle of Democratic legislators asking how long the U.S. will have a prison in Guantanamo. I wish somone could have thought to ask this question earlier. Since the "war" isn't exactly a "war," and the "prison" not exactly a "prison," and the "torture" of the prisoners not exactly "torture," we'll have to wind our way through the overgrown thickets of Wonderland before we get a clear answer.
But the real problem here isn't simply clarity of thought. The ambiguity in terminology is being exploited by Bush and others in their attempt to establish a robust Executive Branch that can rule by fiat. We now have the paternal Cheney lecturing us about how we are simply supposed to trust the government to run around and arrest and detain indefinitely anyone whenever it choses to do so. Accountability and the rule of law is to be replaced by these warm fuzzy creatures called "trust" and "loyalty."
Clearly, we need to borrow a page from Confucius and have our own campaign to rectify names. I wouldn't go as far as the old sage and attempt to fit current parlance into the conceptual world of our "golden" past. But we should find ways to refer to practices so as to avoid distortions or bias. If sleep deprivation, when used as a technique by North Korean guards, is described as a common form of torture, then the same practice should go by the same name when we use it. If Saddam was a murderer when Bush and Powell were beating the war drums, he was also a murderer when the CIA was sponsoring his coup d'etat or when Rumsfeld was shaking his hand in Baghdad. If the current war is to wipe out terrorism from the globe, then the U.S. leaders should simply come out and say the obvious: America has launched a war designed to go on forever. We should then do away with the pretense of this being a special time of sacrifice (with the need for military stop-loss policies and so on) and write the increased military spending into our normal budget. And if Bush is to have virtually absolute power without having to be accountable for his lies to the public, we should change the name of the office to king and call ourselves his subjects.
P.S. The original inspiration for this post, came from a discussion of the Patriot Act in the comments of a post on Nashville Truth.
P.P.S. Another key passage often considered the locus classicus for the Rectification of Names doctrine is the short saying "Let the ruler be ruler, the minister minister, the father father and the son son" (Analects, XII, 11).
P.P.P.S. Other bloggers and articles that reference the Rectification of Names doctrine:
China Post article on doctrine of the rectification of names and the Taiwan/China dispute.
The Poor Man's light-hearted take on the doctrine
The American Thinker on the rectification of names and suicide bombers