The weaponization of language

Our society is divided by many conflicting forces, but two of them are in our face almost all the time, roiling America like the whirling blades of the old MixMaster – and causing just as much confusion.

Both are related to the field in which I was trained – linguistics. Both center on language – not surprising, since language is a multi-purpose tool without which we would not be human.

I think of them as two mega-issues, each with a constellation of sub- and intersecting issues.

  1. 1. Hate speech and fighting words

First, language regulation/political correctness, with its many instrumentalities, including trigger words, safe spaces, the sanctity of affirmative action and the bloated, arrogant diversity industry, and a plethora of arbitrary restrictions on the use of particular kinds of language – “hate speech,” “fighting words” — that are vaguely and arbitrarily defined yet given extraordinary power to arouse and incite animosity.

Today, offense is in the ear of the beholder, and beholders hear a lot that offends them. There’s no limit to people’s exquisite sensitivities.

One group proposes new pronouns that honor a person’s gender preference. You can’t let a school bear the name “Lynch,” even if that was the name of an actual person. A Chinese-American reporter named Lee cannot cover a sporting event in the South. The word niggardly, dating back to a borrowed Scandinavian word that has nothing to do with nigger, will probably go out of use.

This issue affects many activities and decisions. It’s all-pervasive and getting worse. The latest example is the Roseanne controversy, but there will be others. The firing of Roseanne is a nuclear missile in the p.c. arms race: It proves that “we will do ANYTHING, regardless of the cost, to avoid offense.”

I have been speaking out on this for many years (e.g., “Why we love to hate p.c.,” The Toastmaster, June 1996; copies available on request)

Cycle of guilt and victimhood.

Essentially – and people should learn this in grade school – we allow ourselves to be manipulated by words, to be frightened and angered by them. Guilt, outrage, and vociferous victimhood follow, in a perpetual cycle.

So people grow up allowing themselves to be manipulated by advocates and agitators who learn what words to use, what words inflame, what words are forbidden, what words close off rational thought.

It is a rare person indeed who has trained him/herself not to react to provocative verbal behavior. Yet this is the direction in which America must go, if we are to make this multi-racial society work: depriving taboo words of their power.

Stop the cute euphemisms

It would be an enormous step forward if the mass media had the courage to normalize words that now trigger such animosity and offense. Instead, they reinforce the triggering power with cutesy little workarounds like “the n-word,” “the c-word,” the “f-bomb,” and of course, much bleeping.

Yielding to taboos like this is primitive behavior, like Orthodox Jews who can’t say God’s name and instead say ha-shem, which means ‘the name.’

We can do better. I want the bleeping to stop. That would contribute enormously to desensitization. After all, that is how people often talk. And I want to hear Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson say fuck and cunt if accurate reporting calls for it. What a refreshing change that would be.

  1. 2. Maps and territories

The second mega-issue I’ll call “language and reality.”

The discipline most closely involved – again, kids hear nothing of this in school, as evidenced by their gullibility as adults – is called “general semantics,” the study of how people attach language (“maps”) to reality (“territory”).

A basic principle: We must not mistake the map for the territory, the word for the thing. Don’t react to the word as you do the thing itself..

Furthermore, the attachment of words to reality is highly fluid, and this gets us into ubiquitous sub-issues like fake news, truth and reality, epistemology, falsifiability, propaganda, disinformation, denotative-connotative meanings, lying/misleading, and so on.

We almost never encounter a word/phrase with one meaning only. Scientists try very hard to establish a 1:1 relationship – one term for each agreed-upon bit of reality — so that they (ideally) know they’re talking about the exact same thing.

In everyday life, the connection between words and reality is hard to establish, because people insist on putting their own labels on things or describing reality in their own way.

Philosophers as far back as Confucius have recognized the importance of agreeing on the definitions of terms before there can be rational discussion, but when language is so politicized and weaponized, there will be little agreement and much conflict about whose label is the right one.

Language and reality

Is everything and anything Trump says reflective of reality? His followers believe it is. His opponents, who can demonstrate the falsity of so much he says, can prove, to an empirical level of verification, that his words often do not reflect reality.

His inauguration crowd was not the biggest in history. Muslims did not dance on the rooftops in NJ on 9/11. There are thousands of other recorded fabrications.

So no, Kellyanne, there are no “alternate facts.” To return to the original metaphor, you can produce a great many maps of Connecticut, but you cannot substitute a map of New Hampshire and call it “Connecticut.”

Again, something kids should have learned by the fifth grade.

Conflicting narratives

Another map/territory issue: When people cling to a certain map of reality plus a backstory, it becomes their “narrative,” i.e., their unshakable truth.

As we know, America is now riven by two different narratives (at least) promulgated by the two major groups in the Color War: (i) people of color have been oppressed, are still being systematically oppressed, and deserve a bigger share of the pie; and (ii) the hell they do!

Here’s another: America is always in the right, never loses a war and never withdraws from a fight. Behavior in this area is motivated by powerful words: doing my duty, it’s an honor to serve my country, fighting for your freedom, which may reflect reality a little – or not at all.

It’s not unique to America. Every group has its narrative. Conflict between narratives (e.g., Jews and Arabs) is, alas, irreconcilable.

The social power of language. Reality and meaning. Two areas in which linguists are qualified to speak out.

So where are they?

Why aren’t they called on to give expert commentary in the media and introduce reason and commonsense into the toxic language issues that continue to bedevil and divide us? Why aren’t they on CNN or Fox, taking a stand against the omnipresent weaponization of language?

A wild guess as to why the silence is deafening: they’re all in academic institutions, afraid to upset their sumptuous apple-carts by speaking out against the prevailing liberal ideology.

You have to get away from the academic groupthink and be untouchable by the Thought Police. Like me. More to come.