Archive for December, 2017

Caring for Words, VII: Free Speech?

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Among the actions the First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents Congress from doing is the making of any law “abridging the freedom of speech.” Nevertheless, the US Supreme Court recognizes constitutionally acceptable limits to this freedom, including incitement to “imminent lawless action,” possessing or producing child pornography, and violation of copyright. Free speech, of necessity, comes with restrictions in the interest of some other compelling good. This leaves to be decided, of course, what goods are sufficiently compelling, as well as where to draw a line between troubling, offensive, or discourteous speech and speech constituting a “clear and present danger.”

Not all protected speech content is prudent or helpful. There are words or opinions a considerate person is constitutionally entitled to express but chooses not to. Communities often observe prudential speech conventions, though these change over time as sensibilities and demographics evolve – sometimes by choice, sometimes by command, sometimes as the result of concerted social action.

For John Milton (yes, that John Milton), who addressed his defense of free speech and publication to the Presbyterian-controlled Parliament in 1644, near the height of the English Civil War, the line of tolerance excluded Catholics from any claim to protected speech. Free-speech advocates for whom Milton is a hero tend to skip over that detail now. Who and what is proscribed, whether by law or convention, depends on who has a voice in the discussion. Most non-black Americans stopped using the “N-word” as social relationships and sensibilities changed during and after the Civil Rights Era. It’s an embarrassingly tiny but welcome development in a long, unfinished struggle.

Names – and who gets to choose them – are particularly contentious. Alaska’s request to restore the Koyukon Athabascan name, Denali, to the mountain named in 1896 by a white gold prospector as Mount McKinley was delayed forty years (1975-2015). The primary opponent to the change was an Ohio congressman representing the district where William McKinley spent much of his life. To the Koyukon people, it has always been Denali. It took the US government a century to agree.


Caring for Words, VI: The Internet

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

I’m hardly the first to write an internet post to warn about the downside of the internet. For the record, the irony is duly noted. The internet is not intrinsically bad. Developers of any newly available technology understandably emphasize its benefits. “This,” we are told, “is a tool to do something desirable,” even if we hadn’t previously noticed that particular desire. When, with use, downsides are discovered, we are often reminded that tools are morally neutral – it all depends on how and to what end they are used. Such reassurances, however, obscure the moral complexity of any technology that makes some actions easier – and more likely – than others. When obstetricians started using ultrasound technology in the 1960s, no one predicted the effect it would have on male:female birth ratios in Asia.

With all the benefits digital connectivity brings, I know from experience what a time drain the internet can be, with some attractive new diversion always a click away. The parallels to other addictions are manifest. I know the ways my use of search engines and social media makes me an unpaid worker for Facebook and Google. I know that otherwise courteous people post or text personal attacks they wouldn’t dream of saying face-to-face. I know internet comment boxes are where reason and civility go to die. I know how text abbreviations and emojis make it easier to write unimaginative or just plain bad sentences. I know frequent internet use makes me a poorer reader. I know all of this, but I have yet to learn how to use this technology without falling into its traps. I have reason to believe I’m not alone. (more…)

Caring for Words, V: Orwell or Huxley?

Friday, December 29th, 2017

The term “Orwellian” is used often enough, usually with some sense of dictatorial or centralized social control maintained through propaganda, misinformation, and language restriction, augmented by ubiquitous surveillance and brutal punishment of nonconformers. “Orwellian,” like “Nazi,” is commonly employed to indicate social conditions not only indisputably bad, but as bad as they can get. Americans, in particular, are forever wary of limits on expression, though often with some reservations about expression of content they disagree with. “Don’t tell me what to say or do,” we say in unison, and assure ourselves in the same words – but with no hint of irony: “I think for myself.”

Yet what if social control is more readily achieved – indeed, has to some degree already been achieved – not by telling people what to say or do, but by giving the masses what they want? What happens to the practices of attention required for careful reading in a world of infinite distraction? Is a common narrative possible when there are two hundred cable channels, a news source for every wavelength in the political spectrum, and an unlimited array of websites to choose from? What sense of history remains when all our electronically mediated stories are refracted through the lens of current prejudices? What if George Orwell wrote a more influential novel, but Aldous Huxley was more prescient?


Caring for Words, IV: Politics

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

The power of language can be directed toward many ends. One of these ends is yet another form of power: political control. In egregious cases, language is openly manipulated, degraded, and deformed. Politically-motivated language distortion, however, is rarely so transparent. More often, ugly realities are carefully obscured through strategic abstraction, while the indefensible is excused with distracting rhetorical flourishes. Many who’ve seen combat know all too well what the mind must do to rationalize killing another person. How often do we read or hear of lifelong racists who maintain cordial relations with one or two individuals of color? Political operatives can tell you how a well-chosen label frames an issue to their advantage. These sicken language in indirect and subtle ways, less likely to provoke resistance. Here’s the rub: the critical skills necessary for the “informed citizen” to tell rhetoric from reality depend on the language’s robust health. (more…)

Caring for Words, III: Worse than a Lie?

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

To call contemporary political discourse “a culture of lies” may be giving politicians, promoters, and pundits too much credit. When words, whether by choice or convention, are detached from shared experience or verifiable reality, speech devolves into amusing games and struggles for power. Wisdom yields to sophistry, knowledge to opinion, arguments prefer ad hominem to evidence. In this environment, to knowingly lie becomes, in a strange, inverted way, a moral achievement.

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”


Caring for Words, II: Quantum Uncertainty

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

Words, like quantum particles, will not be pinned down. However meticulously you fix them in the arc of a sentence, they quiver and jump the moment you turn away. They’re fickle and unruly even when you care what – and how – they mean. It’s this quantum uncertainty that makes metaphor at once surprising and fitting, as long as one maintains, in the words of Wendell Berry, “…a humorous intelligence, always mindful of the exact limits in within which the comparison is meaningful.”[1] Those who imagine they can make a word mean whatever they choose, thinking it will caper to a tune like a trained monkey, are wounding the language and undermining their audience’s trust. However strange it may seem, for some that’s precisely the goal.


Caring for Words, I: Words Themselves

Monday, December 25th, 2017

Καὶ ὁ Λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν
The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

Christmas, 2017, a celebration of “the Word made flesh,” arrives even as the degradation of our discourse – the way we talk to one another – accelerates. With the currency of “fake news,” “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and contemptuous labels like “snowflake,” and “conspiritard,” it’s been a bad year for American English.

Though the crisis is most apparent in what now passes for political discourse, it’s not the fault of one man, one party, or one ideology, but the logical consequence of choices and habits over many years, some of which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, that rapidly evacuated precious words of meaning, beat others to airy thinness, and discarded still others as obsolete. Sickened words form diseased sentences, and what thoughts they sustain become stunted, shallow, or helplessly sentimental. If an unchanging language is dead, a language that openly trades in lies, jargon, and euphemisms suffers from metastatic cancer.

Words have always mattered, have always been slippery, have always been potent, and so they have always been dangerous, particularly in the mouths and pens of those amassing power. This is not the first time words have been so abused, nor will it be the last. Perhaps they are always abused, sometimes more conspicuously than others. For these twelve days of Christmas (December 25, 2017- January 6, 2018), I plan to share the observations of better writers than I on the misuse of words and how we might better care for them.