The Weaponization of Language: Musings on the Rise of the Right and Protectionism in the Western World

I hate the word ‘waiting’. It’s so goddamned onomatopoeic. Long vowels punctuated by what appears to be a strong consonant – suggesting a climax or ending, perhaps? – only to be carried on with for another three letters, dragged along by the soft palate until you’re practically gurgling. Fuck ‘waiting’. At least with words like ‘stagnation’, you can feel your feet stuck in the mud. Or ‘boredom’, that sublimely alienating experience because it is so dependent on the individual.

And just as the rage peaks in cathartic waves, a pair of frightened animal eyes looks at you, and you realize you’ve been terrorizing another alienated being, one left alone by the necessities of the day-to-day. And that, truly, is the cause of the rage and the self-loathing and the fury and the tears that never actually come so that your eyes burn with the uselessness of it: the necessities of the day-to-day sap not only the will to live but the physical value in doing so. I don’t feel beyond frustration, that slightly itchy wool that sticks to you with the damp.

However, if “words, words, words… [are] all we’ve got to go on”, and if it cannot be considered entirely a saving ‘grace’, perhaps it can be in words where my frustration and rage vents into reality and I can once again know what it is to enjoy a day.

THE WEAPONIZATION OF LANGUAGE

Yes We Can. I’m With Her. Make America Great Again. Britain First. Better Together. As with so many things, the US election of late has affected the world at large and the way we think within it. Preaching the importance of civic engagement aside, let’s take a look at what we’re asked to engage with. An idea? Certainly. A slogan? Without any doubt at all. A common understanding? Now hang on a minute there… If understanding is wrought from comprehension and communication (and there’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that’s true, as well as hardly any suggesting it’s false), we bring to the black-and-white fore something that is hardly either or both but always, as Schrodinger’s Cat, something in between.

The recent US election has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that one thing we are not doing is talking to each other. And as a result we don’t hear each other, we don’t listen, we don’t empathize, we don’t recognize. A permanent, polarizing social othering has anchored itself in the one avenue for political expression everyone is most familiar with: the ballot box. We vote for our candidate, not theirs. We vote for policies that will make our lives better, not those that would change the way we do things. We don’t consider that a policy that might not bear the kind of fruit we like on our ice cream sundaes might be in the best interest of more than just our bottom line.

And there you are: what is a bottom line? As I understand it, it is nothing more than the literal bottom line of a page – a financial statement, or ledger, in fact – where we see if we are ‘in the red’ or ‘in the black’ (as Interac would prefer us to be – great slogan, by the way!). When did any human society become reduced to red vs black, ahead or behind? Isn’t the whole existence of the nation state – although I understand that that term may be a tad anachronistic in some cases now – predicated on the complexities of the society that makes up a nation state existing in an eternal state of compromise? Give and take? Help and hinder? Show and tell?

Again, here’s the trouble. We’re not showing or telling anymore. We’re suggesting. And in the most political way possible, we are doing so without actually saying anything. Gods forbid the political establishment actually say something that could be taken as fact, or as an opinion, a position, or a thought! George Carlin ranted about this in one of his many great stand-up comedy shows, ultimately arguing that if we had kept the phrase ‘shell shock’ to describe the psychological affects of war on individuals, those individuals would not have to fight so hard or suffer in such silence for the support they so desperately need.

So what are we talking about here? We are talking about the weaponization of language. However, in a grotesque twist of fate, this weaponization has evolved counter to all other weapons of humankind. There are no targeting scanners, no weapons-lock mechanisms, no highly accurate surveys of the underground caverns for the Red October to escape through. Our words in the political sphere – so diluted of meaning as to suggest a myriad of potential ideas – have been weaponized through over-generalization. We are not sure, so we guess.

For example: “Make America Great Again”. What does ‘great’ mean in this context? Who is the do-er of the action ‘make’? Is it a command, relinquishing all responsibility from the person uttering this phrase to the people hearing it? And ‘again’? When was this? Do we know? Can we know? Even the word ‘America’ leaves much to be desired in its lack of cohesion. What ‘America’ are we talking about? Whose ‘America’ do we mean? How can we follow instructions if they are not clear? “Just following orders” is the refrain of a bygone era, but do you know which one? Are you sure?

The ‘aww shucks’ era of public speaking needs to end. If you don’t understand, find out. If you can’t understand, try. We’re not all just Average Joes because ‘The Average Joe’ was an idea developed in this hideously diluted politico-speak to make sure no one felt left out. Don’t feel left out! Get involved! Don’t be afraid your voice won’t be heard, or that you’ve missed the point, or that you don’t understand. Miss the point! Don’t understand! In your apparent confusion you will lead political language into the light. If you don’t understand, someone hasn’t done their job to make it understandable. And no, I do NOT mean by dumbing down an idea into words of five letters or less. Slogans and catch phrases don’t explain anything. They offer a hook, nothing more. Conversation, dialogue, discourse, discussion, consideration, debate allow people to work out an idea, try it from different angles, see where it fits in the house, or if it should be on the porch instead. There’s a reason so many of those words in English start with a ‘d’. Duh!

FOR FURTHER THOUGHTFULNESS:

George Carlin’s full bit on soft language and political correctness, and ‘the intention of the words behind them that make them good or bad’, and the importance of context, ‘you can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth. I hate words that conceal the truth…’

The Atlantic’s response to Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ and the way it’s being spun in the media – not ‘explicit sex talk’ but ‘sexual assault’.

The etymology of political language, starting with ambition.

Neil MacGregor’s Guardian article on Britain’s view of itself.

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