Tag Archives: language

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.

Language as Living History: Some Considerations

In an article from earlier this year, former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson discusses the importance of indigenous languages to the structure and cohesion of Canadian citizenship. More importantly, she states that, in light of the history of cultural genocide in Canada, most of these indigenous languages are at risk of being lost forever and, as such, we are at risk of losing a part of our history and culture. “Losing one’s language is like losing all freedom of expression. It is the loss of a human right.”

That comment resonated with me. As a student of ancient history – Ancient Greek and Roman in particular – I take it as a given that there existed a panoply of languages throughout the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East and that, although Latin became the lingua franca as its empire rose from the Hellenistic world of Alexander (whose own empire used a simplified version of Classical Greek, called “KOINE”, as its attempt at a universal language), a person may find themselves haggling with a shopkeeper or property owner in Aramaic or Gaulish or Greek or Persian or Latin. Multilingualism was a part of the ancient world the way computers are part of the modern one. And this freedom of expression – though never articulated as such – presents a delightful anachronism for me. Human rights, including the freedom of expression, is a concept that did not exist as we know it two thousand years ago. I rail against this when researching slavery in the ancient world and see scholars discussing the morality of it as one does for American slavery and other modern forms of human ownership. Even the idea of a “human being”, an “individual, or a “person” were not part of legal rights in the Roman world.

This, then, raises a question that I cycle through almost daily. How would you say something in another language? Would you say it the same way as you do in your mother tongue? What words were used to describe a legal individual, or infinity in philosophy and mathematics (which only became separate areas of study relatively recently), or the difference between public and private space? How does a dead language like Latin help me to understand my own world and my own inherited thought processes and concepts of self?

I certainly believe that learning more than one language is a huge benefit for anyone. You learn a different way of saying something, of asking a question, of struggling to be understood, and of considering how a language developed through thought and idea to functional communication. You also learn why you think and say things the way you do, for there will always be something intensely unique about your perception of the world, and that perception is informed by the way you describe it to another person, and to yourself.

Language is not only a connection to the past, it is a vibrant demonstration of the cultures of the past and present. As a person sympathizes with another, living or dead, through the words they use, that person grows more familiar with a world they might not otherwise be able – or willing – to connect to any other way. That’s the beauty of language; unlike Yoda’s famous adage, it’s all in the attempt. And in this modern world of fear and hate and distress, trying to understand each other is the most important thing we can ever do.

The Roundup #17 – Part B

I was away on my first trip to New York last week, and so did not prepare my usual post for the week. And then of course I had that whole going-to-work thing to do this week, so I’m well behind.

As a result, I’ll do two #17s – A and B – and cover all the stuff from the previous two weeks in two weekend posts.

Here goes!

From Archaeology.org:

A temple to Asclepius has been found at the site of Feneos in Greece.

Dingos didn’t do much baby-eating back in the day, as evidence that Aboriginal women in Australia used dingos as hunting dogs suggests.

An artefact bearing the world’s oldest alphabetic script has been identified from Luxor and dating to the 5th century BC.

Evidence of plague abounds, as it invariably always will.

A(nother) head of Medusa has been unearthed at the first century AD Roman site of Antiochia ad Cragum in Turkey.

And jewellery will always be an important part in any lady’s wardrobe, as evidence from 150,000 years ago suggests. These pierced snail shells from Libya were once used to adorn, well, anything.

From the Smithsonian:

Aztalan. Human sacrifice. Wisconsin. That is all.

Modern archaeology considers the remains of one of the most expensive movie sets ever created.

From the Guardian:

An annotated map of Middle Earth by Tolkien himself has been discovered in an old book at Blackwell’s.