The War on Words and the Peril of the Human Soul

I devoted my professional career to using, teaching, and researching words; but it’s only lately that I have begun to ponder their full spiritual significance in our lives. The Word.  That we humans speak is immediately of the utmost importance.  It means that we have the ability (or face the necessity) of standing back from the rest of the material world.  We move from spontaneous impression to filtering, cataloguing, comparing, contrasting, prioritizing… in a sense, we suspend our direct participation in earthly time.  All because of words—because of thinking.

A wildebeest throttled in a lion’s jaws simply suffocates, in the same way that leaves turn and fall or that a precarious ledge topples in a snow melt.  There’s no great drama in any of this (though we humans who watch may represent it as such).  All of nature’s parts are absorbed in nature’s rhythms: nothing stands beyond the symphony’s rows of instruments to hear to composite effect, either in protest or appreciation.  Things just grow, and die, and leave their seed to grow and die.  No tree hears another tree fall in the forest.

But humans are different.  Because of the Word, they give names to objects and events lifted out of the torrent.  They identify parts; and, in their frustration with the inadequacy of names, they name more parts.  They impose taxonomy and hierarchy.  To some extent, I would imagine, these generalizing efforts at isolation and objectification can prove crippling.  On a walk through the thicket around my house, I sometimes hear noises that I know instantly to be “disturbing”: to big for a turkey, too ponderous for a deer.  I can picture a hunter-gatherer eschewing the realm of words to favor the electric alerts of his senses.  Yet his resistance can’t last; it must wear down.  That same evening, around the campfire, he will be compelled to explain to the younger men why the rustle he heard was stirred by the foot of a leopard and not a serval.

So there we are, like it or not: exiled from perfect absorption in natural rhythm.  For it is our nature to break with nature.  And so we study what we (or our descendants) come to call reality; and in studying it, we cease to be a merely mechanical part of it.  We can actually choose to do something that the machine never did in its immemorial past.  We can stave off the machine’s predators, for instance, by constructing walls or fashioning weapons; and in doing just this much, we already begin to affect the ecology of our forest or savannah.  Certain species that we treat as inveterate enemies may decline around us, and others on which we depend proliferate, perhaps domesticated.  Because of our withdrawal from the great torrent and our reflection upon its movements from a high bank, we alter its flow.  A wholly natural world whose purpose would have seemed haphazard generations earlier (had a mind existed to think of purpose) now begins objectively to reflect the purposes enforced by human activity.

These purposes can be high or low, of course.  Our intent can become quite ravenous.  Who knows how quickly a hunter-gatherer band would learn to conserve its prey species rather than harry them to extinction?  I suppose a kind of Darwinian arbitration would ensure that the more thoughtlessly exploitative tribes would do themselves in.  Yet the notion of personal profit would probably have pushed right to the sustainable edge of such exploitation.  Successful hunters of the plains are not Green New Dealers: they frugally use everything they harvest from the herds simply because hunting consumes energy and imposes risk—and, in their condition, they have a very finite amount of one and all too much of the other.

The unprecedented affluence of our industrialized society (along with unprecedented kinds of poverty hidden in its cracks) has but lately in our species’ history inspired the Rousseauvian romance of noble savagery—of the absolute virtue of being reabsorbed into wild rhythms.  Hatred of exploitation and overkill—and of the entire system (its walls, its weapons, its logic, its social structures) that produces them—is a distinctly recent pathology.  It may yet kill us, that self-hatred: it may kill all of us, down to the last human.  For we can’t, after all, throw off our clothes and run with the herds again; what we can do (and would do in a suicidal panic, if pressed too hard) is employ the unnatural arsenal devised in our unnatural isolation to efface every last trace of ourselves.

Such is the danger of living with (but not fully in) the Word.  How did we arrive at the panicky stage?  Here is where I detect in the Word a power of destruction almost equal to its power of creation.  Say that we turn our eyes back to an early settlement with walls to repel predators and with tamed herds to defeat the sabotage of the seasons.  Life is good.  The Word has served us well.  But words are themselves walls; in culling out an object for identification, they also filter other objects from interference with that newly heightened aspect of reality.  The settlement is good… but what of the human drifters who occasionally straggle to the gates imploring assistance?  They aren’t of the tribe.  What word should properly designate them?  (There is no word for “Greek” in the Iliad, by the way; the collection of allies around the Achaean king Agamemnon was a very volatile mix of tribes, as the story itself emphasizes.)  The townspeople could style the intruders “jackal-men” and drive them back beyond the pale into wild no-man’s-land.  Alternatively, they could denominate them “human brothers” and throw open the gates… but such generous abstraction never in fact occurs at this stage of culture, for obvious reasons.  The resources of the settlement would quickly be overtaxed if there were no “in” and no “out”. Hard-laboring people in small settlements can perceive that truth very, very clearly.

All human societies of all ages must reach uneasy truces in such situations.  There are no permanent answers, for any solution’s viability depends upon available resources.  In a society like ours which is awash in resources (and how many of these have existed in the world’s history?), a high risk is incurred that foolish citizens may believe in limitless abundance.  The temporal distance from those days on the savanna when you ate everything on the carcass because hunting was so damn hard have recoiled beyond collective memory.

Yet that lesson, relevant though it is in 2019, isn’t my ultimate point today, either.  Go back once more to the walling qualities of words.

Say now that the domesticated cattle start to die (as in the Iliad).  There are no words to explain this inscrutable catastrophe—but words are found, nonetheless, to describe it.  The majority of the settlement was always uneasy that X prospered so far beyond others, or that Y built a hut so tall and proud, or that Z would stalk around restlessly as others slept.  Specific events are isolated, and then connected.  Words drift… and collect. The arrival of X in the settlement, or the vigorous activity of Y, or the reported oddities of Z seem to have occurred or been noticed not long before the first animal sickened.  Therefore… therefore, X has to die.  Or Y, or Z.  The gods demand it.  Perhaps all three are sacrificed, until the community finally “gets it right”.  And eventually, things will likely return to normal.  When they do, the last sacrifice will have been the “right” one.  Z is dead, the cattle are recovering… Q.E.D.

A benefit to the “cure” is that nobody felt easy around Z, anyway (or X, or Y).  Perhaps the “successful” explanation of the problem, then (which was never more than a crudely successful description), becomes immured through language as part of the culture.  The story sticks. It’s retold—and reenacted. Perhaps an annual routine of sacrificing the children of the community’s most envied headmen settles into the collective mind as a surefire means of keeping the gods appeased.  It becomes a ritual, that escape-valve on envy. The ritual naturally “makes sense”, thanks to all the words expended upon it. All and sundry are indeed so won over by its verbal architecture that citizens compete to have their daughter’s throat slit on the altar.

Animals are incapable of such horrors.  Only human beings can thus lose themselves in the labyrinths they construct of words.  What had enabled them to think before now facilitates non-thinking.  Further analysis is forbidden—no new words are sought—because the retreat into a reduced, highly artificial version of reality provides such a sensation (however false) of security. To speak of the Event in words other than those provided and hallowed has become an impiety. Fave, siga… adore the divine by stilling your tongue, averting your eyes, and shutting down your brain!

Will I have skipped too many steps if I now claim that our society has reached just this critical stage where wars of words have become a war on words?  I’m confident that readers of The Intellectual Conservative, at least, will recognize the application to our political scene.  A proportion of something like 25 percent among us, mostly young people, clings for dear life to a vision of reality that bears less and less similarity to the world of earth, water, air, and fire.  It is ninety-parts-of-ten dream, and devout cultists indeed don’t hesitate to shower their fanciful descriptions—offered as scientific explanations—with the word “dream”.  At some level, they realize that the fantasy has no viable causality; but they lay the system’s flaws at the door of “deniers”—the ill-starred, evil-eyed X, Y, and Z among us who draw the gods’ wrath and keep the sun from rising in the west.

If I am wrong in attributing a cultic kind of scapegoating to left-wing politics, then why is the War on Words being waged exclusively from that quarter?  Why is it only on the Left that one hears demands for “safe zones” where nary a discouraging word is heard, for censorship on social media where dissenting views are styled “hateful”, for eradication of “gendered pronouns” and substitution of limitless new concoctions, for suppression of anodyne phrases as “code” and “dog whistles”—for removal of caps, flags, and statues as incitements to hostility, and even for anathematizing of the “okay” sign?  One can neither speak, nor dress, nor even gesture with any sense of personal security—of being indulged and protected by common civility; for one is told that the gods are watching, a single false move could draw a thunderbolt… and then the entire human world would burst into flames!

The planet (one is told) already has only a decade to live, at least as concerns its human burden.  The heavens already rumble ominously.  Sacrifices on an unprecedented scale must be made.  Hecatombs must fall at the altar.  Any and all resistance is “racist”.  That word in itself has grown a fascinating study in taboo.  What does it mean, in 2019?  What else could it possibly mean now than that the blasphemer has spoken wrongly or too much—that he has designated a reality not snugly wrapped in the fantasy’s straitjacket?

I know, of course, that there are puppeteers behind the screen whose cynicism in manipulating their gullible, wooden-headed dolls is bottomless.  No doubt, there were also priests in early settlements who managed to smear their personal enemies with charges of sacrilege.  (Agamemnon accuses Calchas, the seer who required the sacrifice of the king’s daughter, of exacting a private vendetta.)  Yet the string-pullers on the Leftist stage would have no Punch-and-Judy show to perform if willing minions didn’t surrender their hands and feet for tying.

Why are they thus submitting themselves, those thousands and those millions?  Yes, scapegoating has always bedeviled human behavior, and always will; yes, we have a dark side that is forever abusing words to stifle the further use of words—forever corrupting thought to shut down thought.  But why now, and why to this degree?  If America has been as great as the Trump legions insist (and, let’s face it: that, too, is a pretty reductive formula), then how did this mass hysteria infect our body politic?  Is it them—the “libs” at news desks and universities?  But “liberalism” (as in “freedom of expression”) is precisely what’s in peril, and our own over-simplification of words risks mistaking trenchant description for thoughtful explanation in the same fashion as we see in our adversaries.

What is driving this hysteria?  If we are to have any hope of curing the disease, we must—as an utterly essential first step—resist all puppet-masters and defend our inalienable right to free use of words: whatever words we need, and whenever they are needed.

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