Opinion

OMG! The Weaponization of Language

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Posted: Feb 16, 2020 12:01 AM
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OMG! The Weaponization of Language

Source: Ian Nicholson/PA via AP, File

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Mitchell's newest book, Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage That Spawned America's Social Justice Warriors.

It has been said that money is power. Some have suggested that knowledge is power. For Nietzsche, language was a central aspect of power. Frederich Nietzsche noted that the “lordly right of giving names extends so far that one should allow oneself to conceive the origin of language itself as an expression of power.”

Philosophers have long recognized language as a crucial faculty that distinguishes man from other creatures. Aristotle wrote that human beings, unlike other animals, possess “rational speech,” which is, among other things, for distinguishing between the just and the unjust. That is to say, language is employed to make moral distinctions. Language is tied to rationality, which in turn is tied to morality. Language is a means by which human beings can grasp the moral structure of reality which, according to Aristotle, is intelligible.

Plato, whom Nietzsche saw as the fount of many errors, taught that words are metaphysically tied to the objects they name. To name something correctly is to call something according to what it is. Names have meaning, and things possess natures or essences. Words are not merely verbal markers agreed on by a group of speakers. They point to something beyond themselves and can do so well or badly—not just with respect to efficiency but with respect to reality. We see here a distinction between what is called the “nominalist” view of language, in which language is merely the product of an agreement between users to signify an object by a particular word, and the “realist” view, in which words are connected to the nature of the thing they signify.

While not presenting a systematic account of language, the Bible suggests its centrality in human and divine affairs, beginning with the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis. In his first positive act, God speaks: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Then God “called” the light day and the darkness night. God speaks the creation into existence and then names it.

On the sixth day, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God [imago Dei] he created him.” Although the text does not explain what that means, we can infer from what follows that the imago Dei confers two important powers. First, in the verse that follows the creation of man in God’s own image, God gives him “dominion” over all the other creatures. We may conclude, then, that the imago Dei includes the prerogative to rule. God gives man authority, and authority implies a hierarchy in which one is ordained to rule and another to be ruled.

In the second chapter of Genesis, God brings all the living creatures of the earth to Adam “to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The first human act—naming the animals— parallels the first act of God, which was speaking the world into existence. Man, created in God’s image, does the sort of things God does: he rules and names. And the two acts are closely related. To name something is to classify it in relation to other things. To name is therefore to give (or reveal) the meaning, purpose, and relations of the thing named. It is, as Nietzsche put it, “a lordly right,” for it assumes a kind of authority over the thing named. It implies power. God asserts his power when he calls the world into being, and man asserts his power when he names the various parts of the creation.

Interestingly, the fall of man, like the creation, turns on language. The first words of the serpent call into question the words of God: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” A creature, made by God, uses words, the medium of the creation event itself, to question the words of the Creator. In a remarkable usurpation of the power of language, words are used to induce the man and the woman to act contrarily to the words of God. It is the assertion of the will to power without any submission to that which is right. Right, in this context, is nothing other than a voluntary submission to the ordering will of the Creator.

The woman tells the serpent that if she eats from the tree she will die. The serpent accuses God of lying. Words, which are the means by which order is created and revealed, are here employed in a lie, an inversion of their purpose. And when the woman and then the man eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, they immediately undergo a transformation, becoming aware of their nakedness and seeking to cover themselves. In other words, by entering the world of a lie, by acting contrarily to the order of creation, they come to see themselves outside the harmony of the created order. The result is shame, which they pathetically attempt to cover from the gaze of God, the original source and speaker of order in whose image they have been made.

The Gospel of John begins with a creation hymn that echoes the original creation story. Genesis begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” John begins, “In the beginning,” and goes on to link the creation event to the divine Word (logos), who is Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” The Word is the agent of creation. All that exists was made through the logos. The first utterance of God in the Genesis account is “Let there be light.” John builds on that theme—“In him was life, and the life was the light of men”—identifying light with life and suggesting that all things have life by participating in the divine logos. Words here seem to have life because of their connection to the Word, who is the source of all life. The living Word gives life, which is associated with light, the source of clarity and illumination and the very first thing God creates in Genesis.

The biblical authors are clearly suggesting that language is tied to the source of being itself. Words have a metaphysical reality, and one can participate in that reality either well (truthfully) or badly (lying). To speak truth is to speak words that correspond to the life that ultimately comes from God. To lie is to participate in darkness, which brings shame and death. If language and truth are connected and are given life and meaning by virtue of their genesis in a divine order, and if Christ is the logos of God, then lying is, quite literally, anti-Christ.

Nietzsche must reject this account of language, of course. If there is no God, there is no divine source of language. Naming is not a matter of “rightly naming” but of asserting one’s “lordly” will over reality. Language, then, is another way to exercise the will to power.

Long before Nietzsche, some philosophers questioned the Platonic-Christian account of language. In his own day, Plato’s chief philosophical rivals were the Sophists, who boasted of their ability to manipulate language for the sake of power.

Rejecting Plato’s notion that words express universals that have real existence, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) argued that the only universals that exist are the words we use to designate universals. Take the word “human,” for instance. There is no universal human nature that unites all human beings. The word “human” is merely a conventional binding agent, if you will—a linguistic glue by which all human beings are joined. But if there is no human nature, there is no such thing as a right or wrong way for human beings to act. As Hobbes put it, whatever a person desires he calls good, and whatever a person hates he calls evil. Good and evil are not rooted in the created order but are simply a matter of individual desire.

A student of language, Nietzsche spent a good deal of time considering its nature and origins, arriving at a developmental and naturalistic approach. Primitive man did not possess language and therefore did not possess rationality. Instinct rather than reason was his guide. He lacked memory, and as we have seen, Nietzsche regarded forgetfulness as necessary for happiness. Primitive man also lacked consciousness, which emerged only with the need to communicate with others—specifically, the need for the strong to command the weak. As society developed (and it is not clear what, exactly, prompted such a radical change), instinct was no longer adequate. Men had to become predictable for the sake of living successfully with others. “They were reduced to thinking.” Thus condemned to remember, they were also condemned to unhappiness. But in becoming thinkers, men became calculable—that is, predictable. Part of this calculability is the capacity to think in moral terms. A “good” person is one who works well with others, who tells the truth, who plays according to the rules of society. A “bad” person is the opposite. He is an unsociable person, one who refuses to conform to the standards of the herd. Society cannot tolerate his presence, so he must be driven out, or at least quarantined.

In Nietzsche’s account, human beings experience a sort of a fall, not by violating a command of God but by becoming rational, conscious, and social. This development produces unhappiness and paves the way for a decline into decadence. Christianization brings democracy, the final stage of decadence. When all are declared equal, greatness is impossible, and the majority is insulated from the powerful aspirations of the few. The will to power is thwarted by the will to congregate, itself merely an instance of the will to power that is exercised by the weak and resentful rather than by those who are proud and strong.

If language does not have a divine origin, then neither does reason. Thus, the conception of logos in John’s Gospel must be deconstructed. But the connection between language, rationality, and the divine runs deep in the Western psyche. If language somehow touches or points to reality, and if rationality is the term we use to describe the underlying order of that reality—an order that exists, not one we impose—then the concept of truth must be connected to both language and reality. To use language to accurately describe reality is to speak truly. In this context, truth can be seen as divine, for it is an acknowledgment of an order that is not dependent on human will but to which human will must submit. This is a line of thinking that Nietzsche vehemently attacked.

As we have seen, Nietzsche rejected the so-called “will to truth,” which depends on a Christian or Platonic conception of reality. Truth is not divine. It is not rooted in a divine mind or a divinely created order. The will to truth must be rejected and replaced with the will to power. But it is not easy to reject truth. Rationality itself seems to depend on the recognition of the category of truth. The law of noncontradiction, at least within the rational ghetto, depends on the notion of truth and falsehood.

If we reject the notion of truth, we call into question not only rationality but also the nature of language, which was hitherto thought to be the conveyor of truth by means of rationality. But “shouldn’t philosophers be permitted to rise above faith in grammar?” asks Nietzsche. He has already compelled us to jettison faith in truth along with faith in rationality. Here we are asked to question grammar itself. He eventually tips his hand: “I’m afraid we’re not rid of God because we still believe in grammar." And why must we cut so close to the bone? Nietzsche is trying to remove all vestiges of theism, and the operation must be radical. Reason, truth, and grammar all must be reconceived so that they do not point beyond themselves to a reality made by God. At best they are tools, instruments of power, or perhaps most aptly, weapons.

Language as power. Words as weapons. A rejection of rationality. Could anything better describe our current social and political climate? In 1949, the English novelist and essayist George Orwell published his masterpiece of dystopian fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he depicts a future society under the absolute rule of Big Brother, whose government rules with an iron fist and seeks to control not only the actions of its citizens but, more importantly, their thoughts. “Thoughtcrimes” are punished and citizens are compelled to affirm whatever the government declares is true, even if it says that 2+2=5.

In an appendix to the novel, Orwell describes the principles of “Newspeak,” the official language developed by the political leaders to replace “Old-speak,” which is to say English. Newspeak is intended to limit the range of thought by reducing the number of words and shades of meaning. Each word was given a denotative meaning and all other connotations were eliminated. Additionally, all superfluous words were eliminated, as were all words needed for unorthodox thoughts. Once Newspeak was fully implemented, “heretical thought?.?.?.?should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” In short, if you want to completely control a population, control the language, for rational thought is impossible apart from language. When a word is eliminated from a vocabulary, the concept it represented becomes obscure at best and eventually unimaginable. People cannot act intelligibly without first imagining the purpose and end of their actions. By controlling language, the government controls not merely actions but thoughts that might generate actions.

Protecting the integrity of language requires more than guarding against the nefarious plotting of a Big Brother or resisting the fear tactics of the social justice warriors. In many respects, we are debasing language quite well on our own. Some of our most pervasive technologies have done much to dumb down our language, reducing many of our encounters with one another to electronic huffs and grunts. Twitter, email, Instagram, Snapchat, and the rest prioritize speed over accuracy, substance, and literary style. OMG! ROTFL! NVM. Emoji. Images flashed from person to person at the speed of light and with the foresight of a gnat. We are more connected than ever, but the sociologists tell us we are also lonelier than ever. 

Could it be that our willingness to bypass the serious work of thinking clearly and expressing ourselves well contributes to this sense of isolation? Surely there is a connection between thinking well, writing or speaking clearly, and listening attentively. A speaker wants to be heard. A writer wants to be read. But hearing and reading are proxies for something more fundamental: understanding. And understanding takes sustained attention. It requires respect for another person’s words, which signals respect for the person himself. Linguistic shorthand can, if abused, lead to attention shorthand, which leaves us lonely and longing for the sustained concern and understanding found in true communication. Words matter. Rational speech is one of the attributes that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. We ought to attend with care, and even seek to preserve with love, the linguistic riches we have inherited. 

Even if we speak and write well, words can still be employed merely as instruments of power. Consider Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky’s handbook for revolutionaries who want to change the world, published in 1971 and supposedly a model for Barack Obama’s community organizing projects prior to his meteoric political rise. Alinsky is upfront about his goals: “In this book we are concerned with how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people.” And again, “my aim here is to suggest how to organize for power.”

Since power is the central theme of Alinsky’s book, it is not surprising that Nietzschean themes abound. For example, in an epigraph, Alinsky offers “an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment” to “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom—Lucifer.” Alinsky declares, much like Nietzsche, that he hates dogma, which he calls “the enemy of human freedom.” He takes a Nietzschean stance against morality in a chapter on means and ends, asserting that if the ends are held in high enough regard and the means are deemed effective, the means are clearly permissible.

This is not to say that moral values are without use. In fact, to be an effective organizer it is necessary to “clothe” one’s arguments in “moral garments.” Furthermore, the battle is half won if the radical’s goals are framed in terms that resonate with the population. Words like “liberty” and “equality” touch a deep chord in the American psyche. Terms like “diversity,” “pluralism,” and “tolerance” stir many Americans today. Consider the difficulty of arguing against an opponent who has established himself as the champion of freedom. Or the defender of equality, tolerance, or love. All kinds of assertions are made today with the confidence with which one might declare that the earth is a sphere: “Our diversity is our strength.” “All beliefs are equal.” “Gender is fluid.” To challenge these is to run afoul of the keepers of the words. But are these assertions true? Even to ask the question is to flirt with heresy, and heretics don’t fare well under Nietzsche’s Puritan Warriors.