One of the more troublesome causes of the decline of American culture and civilization is the steady deterioration of the English language. This is not a reference to the proliferation of slang and vulgarity among younger generations or to the lack of eloquence among the general populace. These are merely symptoms of more fundamental problems. Neither is this difficulty confined to America or to the English language alone. It is a problem inherent in the nature of language itself and in the way we learn to use it. It is not an issue of poor grammar or mispronunciation, but rather of imprecision, misapplication and deliberate manipulation.
The development of spoken and written language has allowed humans to communicate in ways no other creatures can. Where animals use noises and vibrations to signal danger, or the desire to mate, humans use words to analyze and discuss abstract concepts and express a sophisticated array of thoughts and emotions. Investigations into the origins and evolution of language have sparked much debate about which holds primacy over the other, thought or language. Since words are just symbols used to express ideas, emotions, sensations etc, it seems natural to assume that language springs from our thought processes and therefore is secondary to it.
But this is not how children learn to speak. They learn by observation to use a common medium that is already understood by others. The symbols we learn have established definitions and patterns of use. Because our language learning is dependent on other people's use of pre-existing symbols, the associations we make as children between our ideas and words are inherently biased by the context in which this observation takes place. Modern linguists have long recognized the intrinsic difficulties involved in learning to use words to communicate. Edward Sapir, who is regarded as one of the fathers of American linguistics, wrote the following in an article published in 1929.
"Human beings…are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society…The ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation."
The point is not to say that language is too limiting or that learning to use it is a detriment to human growth. On the contrary, language is an extremely powerful tool, not only of communication but also of self-awareness and understanding. Without it we are no better off than primates. But there seems to be no doubt that language affects the way we think and shapes our world in ways we aren't conscious of. To counteract these effects, our language learning must be conscious and deliberate rather than passive and unintentional. This is essential in avoiding needless confusion and in preventing us from being deceived by those who would use words to "predispose certain choices of interpretation" in our minds.
Even as adolescents and adults too much of our language learning is implicit and comes, not through deliberate searching of established sources for concise definitions and methods of use, but through the vague and casual lens of context. Context alone can be dangerous in that it rarely provides us with concrete, precise meaning. Unless our contextual observation is followed by a formal effort to understand a term correctly, we may end up with a mere foggy, associative notion of what it means. Since this process often occurs subconsciously, we may not realize the extent of our ignorance and can be left with a false sense of comprehension.
While this may seem like an insignificant problem that the average person needn't worry about, the exact opposite is true. Every discipline, of necessity, eventually creates its own set of specialized vocabulary to facilitate a more exhaustive study of it. Only those who acquire this vocabulary can gain more than a rudimentary understanding of the subject. It may seem unnecessary for a carpenter to learn the vocabulary of the physicist, and this is probably true. But in a highly political world where a few men make decisions which affect the rest and which are enforced by violence, a population without a correct understanding of political and economic terms and the phenomenon they represent, cannot long remain free.
That most Americans do not have such an understanding should be clearly evident to those who do. When it comes to history, politics and economics, our educational system is geared towards confusion. Students are taught specifics without first building the foundation needed to analyze, interpret and apply such knowledge. Middle school students learn about vetoes, term limits, Paul Revere and women's suffrage, but try asking your average college grad to define the word government without being contradictory or inconclusive. You'll find that not many can do it without help. Even the dictionary can't define it without using the word government in the definition. The same goes for words like freedom, liberty, rights and equality, which are commonplace in history and political science textbooks, but of which most people have only nebulous conceptions.
High school students may play stock market simulations and learn the words supply and demand, but receive nothing that comes close to any real instruction in economics. The situation is not much better at the university level. The inevitable result of all this is that young people come out of school with myopic world-views and anemic vocabularies leaving them vulnerable to political manipulation. Democratic political systems assume that the average person understands these issues enough to make decisions regarding them that will affect the lives of millions of other people. This is a naïve assumption to say the least, and politicians know it. They are counting on it.
For over a century, Americans have been saddled with wars, taxes, regulations, and restrictions, all sold to them by fast-talking politicians under the guise of safety, security and freedom. They have been blind to the danger partly because of the deliberate usurpation of words, which previously stood for concepts that had served to protect them, but which gradually have been made tools of their destruction. When they hear the words freedom, democracy and liberty being used by a demagogue to justify villainy and despotism, or when a socialist uses the words "basic human rights" to justify their plunderous, parasitic proposals, most people cannot see through the fog of their own illiteracy. Their understanding of such words consists of amorphous feelings of pride, patriotism and veneration, but they lack the formal definitions that would reveal to them that such a person is either an imbecile or a liar. The feelings and emotions traditionally attached to the words that describe the noble ideas our forefathers fought for have been passed on, but the meanings have been blurred and altered.
When it comes to war, diplomacy, or economics and public policy, many people just assume that politicians, their advisors and media talking heads must know what they're talking about. How else could they have risen to such prominent positions? But to one who understands the nature of the words being used and the topics being discussed, it is clear that on Capitol Hill, no one seems to know what they're doing. We've been raised to believe that as Americans, we live in a safe, prosperous world where the wisdom and virtue of our constitution, our military, our president and even God himself protect us from danger.
Many of us have been lulled into a false sense of security by the soothing lullaby of political promises. Others have fallen prey to the fear-mongers and the hypnotic rhythm of the drums of perpetual war. Both visions are mirages that are carefully constructed using vague, ambiguous language. We can witness the wholesale subversion of the English language in real time by tuning in to C-SPAN, CNN or FOX News at practically any time of day. Firebrands like Bill O'Reily, Sean Hannity and Michael Moore spout nonsense and poisonous drivel yet enjoy enormous popularity and influence.
Much noise is made by libertarians about the state's domination of money, the school system, the media, etc, but state control over these and other institutions is (at least partly) dependent on their control over and manipulation of language. It is an indispensable means for disguising the nature of their crimes and the contradictions inherent in the world they are building. The ongoing debates over the Iraq war, illegal immigration, outsourcing, free/fair trade, inflation, unemployment, saving the Internet, nuclear nonproliferation, oil prices and wiretapping/surveillance are rife with disinformation and doublespeak. The remedy for solving these problems lies in first understanding them correctly, and that requires a proper grasp of the words and concepts involved. Hijacked words and phrases are some of the state's most powerful weapons of deception and pacification.
As Charley Reese recently noted, “It is an evil paradox that men with the lowest motives can launch wars by appealing to the highest ideals of better men.” Such a paradox is only possible because the highest ideals of better men are often nebulous and ill-defined and therefore easily uprooted from their foundations. These better men are a tyrant’s favorite subjects because with a little rhetorical realignment, the strength and energy of their noble conviction can be made to serve evil with the approval of their own conscience.
These tactics are not new and their success is well known to students of history. Perhaps the most successful players of semantic games were the communists. They took words like freedom, oppression, ownership, exploitation and equality and transformed them into their polar opposites. The words bourgeoisie, profit, landlord and private property suddenly took on sinister overtones. They even coined a word, "capitalism," to describe the system of private enterprise and infused it with a menacing stigma. This allowed them to discredit the system and its components by merely making reference to them. Their success at achieving their goals (grabbing power) is infamous and the results, catastrophic. The corrupting influence they have had on some of our most important words still lingers, infecting our universities and poisoning political rhetoric and public discourse.
Advocates of peace and individual liberty should be lovers and learners of the words and phrases that represent these ideas. Most people do not want war. They do not enjoy the slavery of high taxes, endless debt and relentless inflation. They just don't recognize the true nature of what the state is selling them. They are told that all America's wars are defensive wars, deficits are good for the economy, inflation is a rise in prices brought on by speculators and greedy profiteers and taxes are “the price we pay for civilization.” New definitions for old words are continually being manufactured with the intent to deceive and provide unwarranted legitimacy to destructive acts. It is the responsibility of those who see through the charade to help others do the same.
Mass communication via the internet and the printed word is important. Libertarian influence in this sphere is growing significantly, but statist ideas still predominate. Much of the groundwork must still be done on an individual level by engaging in discussion and debate with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and complete strangers. But to be successful in this regard it is imperative that we begin and end with correct definitions. To borrow from Sean Corrigan's recent speech at the Gold Investing Conference, “…We must recognize that we can never have a meaningful debate, or reach any viable conclusions from one, if our terms are not laid out and rigidly and unalterably defined beforehand.”
Unalterably defined. This is what we should strive to be both in our convictions and in the language we use to describe them. This does not mean that our beliefs cannot grow or change, but that the symbols we use to define them are securely rooted and constant. Our communication should be clear and direct, and we should require the same of others. Most people are not used to this and many will find it surprisingly refreshing. Having to rigidly define our terms and really think about the meanings of the words we use forces us to explore the depths of our own ignorance and to develop coherent, systematic ways of thinking and speaking. If properly done, such an exercise has the power to completely transform the way we think about the world. And the way people think about the world now will have a direct impact on what the world of the future will look like.
June 3, 2006