Reflections on Language and Tyranny

There is a bias today in favor of simpler, easier-to-understand language. We see it in education systems, in word processing programs’ auto-correct protocols, and in the rise (clever business in an age of school-indoctrinated illiteracy) of for-profit proofreading companies such as Grammarly. Though seemingly apolitical in nature, this ubiquitous impulse to verbal and written simplicity comes from the same ultimate source as the increasingly pervasive authoritarian inclination, spreading like a brushfire through academia and the media, to create and enforce rules of “inclusive” and “non-offensive” speech. That source is the desire to exclude and offend those among us still inclined to struggle with the painful but definitive human need to communicate our most irreducibly complex and nuanced thoughts as fully as possible. By forcibly simplifying speech and writing in the name of universal inclusion and understandability, we gradually reduce linguistic communication — the most viable means to any true union of souls — to the exchanging of banal facts, cliched notions, and uncontroversial opinions, whereas the only spiritual contact that ultimately matters is precisely that achieved in the realm of startling discoveries, rattling insights, and bothersome challenges. These latter discoveries, insights, and challenges, however, are often communicable only in language that is fundamentally difficult. Much of it will be figurative, by turns dizzyingly elliptical and exhaustingly detailed, and above all defiant of hackneyed phraseology, predictable imagery, and any illusions of clarity achieved at the expense of precision.

Speaking with excessive concern for “being understood,” in the sense of leaving no one out of the discussion, is of a piece with speaking with excessive concern for being inoffensive to everyone. More often than not, the language that truly touches us with the gift of another man’s understanding or experience will be somewhat opaque, if not absolutely impenetrable, on a first (or second) reading. It will be highly susceptible to misunderstanding, and particularly to the error of reading it through the distorting filter of our own presuppositions. In fact, this latter error is the norm in academic philosophy and literature departments today, where the difficult but necessary task of reading past writers “on their own terms” is almost always eschewed (in theory and in practice) in favor of the convenient but largely worthless tack of reading past writers “in the light of current understanding,” i.e., from the closed-minded position of absolute hubris. And this is closely analogous to the “language police” and “cancel culture” tribunalism of the progressives, with their thuggish efforts to alternately ban or mandate words or modes of speech, with a view to avoiding offense or enforcing inclusiveness, as though our politically correct speech overseers know, from their exalted position, who needs to be protected from offense and why — all the while ignoring the possibility that some people (or more likely all people) might objectively need a bit of offending, and benefit from it.

Being shaken by another’s words, even when these are truly ignorant in character, can be a great boon in many ways, not least in the genuine self-knowledge that may often come from examining oneself and one’s life in the light of other people’s apparent lack of understanding. More commonly, however, what is deemed offensive by our progressive language enforcers is not the direct slur or attack, but the (alleged) “systemic” impropriety; hence, I see that just today the University of California at Irvine has banned the ordinary legislative expression “grandfathered” as offensively non-gender-neutral. This sort of assault on standard vocabulary is an attempt to circumscribe language as a means of circumscribing thought, i.e., of limiting how people are permitted to view themselves as political beings within a language community. This, in turn, is also what comes of the seemingly more innocent demand for simpler, more “straightforward” expression: People are being actively discouraged from communicating meaningfully, personally, beyond the range and depth of the mass chatter. You must say only what others would say, and only as they would say it and hear it. Hence, genuine communication, the soul’s nearly impossible attempt to escape from its natural isolation and meet another soul in the open terrain of true mutual understanding — which is the opposite of merely mouthing the same commonly approved sounds, signifying the same commonly approved thoughts — is stymied.

Today’s rules of linguistic communication, in both their reductionist-illiterate and tribunal-progressive manifestations, can achieve only one thing in the end: the insurmountable and permanent separation of all humans from one another, disguised as democracy, as we formerly rational, communicative animals become universally trapped in a safe cocoon of easily comprehensible platitudes and communally coerced moral relativism. Lost to each other forever in our snug uniformity. Incapable of even finding ourselves for all the sameness of thought that inevitably comes of saying things only “the right way.” 

Startle me. Rattle me. Bother me. That is the only way you will find me, and the only way you will reveal yourself to me, as something more than just another indistinguishable replica of global progressive personhood.

You may also like...