Tuesday, January 25, 2011
In the Crosshairs of the Speech Police
In the weeks since the Arizona massacre, the media has revealed a preoccupation with language almost as intense as the one that motivated her shooter. Loughner's obsession with Congresswoman Giffords seems to have begun in 2007 when she mockingly replied to his question, "How do you know words mean anything?" And Loughner's killing spree has touched off the media's obsession with that same question, leading a CNN anchor to apologize for using the term "crosshairs". It was almost as if the media had come down with a lighter version of Loughner's fixation on grammar as a tool of mind control. If only they could properly censor the language, no one would have to die or go on shooting sprees. Somehow if we refuse to use the word 'crosshairs', no one will ever wind up in anyone else's crosshairs. It's as if the use of the word creates the idea, rather than the word being only another means of describing an idea.
But controlling language is not the same thing as controlling minds. Orwell's 1984 depicted a totalitarian regime which controlled language in order to prevent forbidden ideas from finding expression. Since then (1948 not 1984) the left has obsessively tried to politicize language. There are entire seminars on the political uses of language. Newscasts are dotted with politically correct terminology, homeless, differently abled, custodial worker-- yet has changing language actually changed attitudes?
Historically euphemisms have taken on the meaning of the underlying idea. So much so that today we often have no idea that many of the taboo words in our language started out as euphemisms. That is because language is a way to express ideas and emotions. A language which attempts to repress common human tendencies will be subverted by slang and eventually transformed by common use, no matter how much the grammarians may protest. Even in totalitarian states, it is the people who control the language, not the language which controls the people.
Believing that words can change reality is magical thinking that appeals to lunatics and tyrants who view other people as less than human, machines whose functions can be altered by inputting the right code. When Giffords replied to Loughner's question, "How do you know words mean anything?" with a few words of Spanish, she was implicitly suggesting that meaning is contextual. Spanish has no meaning to those who don't speak it. And it's full of slang words whose meaning shifts by geographical location. While Loughner believed that language had to be decentralized and the media wants language to be centralized, language is a mirror, not the image itself. Language reflects people, rather than creating them.
For Loughner controlling his grammar could have seemed like running an anti-virus program on a machine constantly being hammered by outside invaders. As a schizophrenic, his mind naturally interpreted the gap between reality and his own distorted thoughts as hostile and threatening. Even language carried with it ideas that cut his gray matter the wrong way. By building a fortress out of grammar, he was trying to protect the deviations of his own mind against the invasion of reality. It was not government that he was opposed to as an individual idea, but the entire world outside his shaved head. A world whose normalcy impinged on his madness with its status quo of sanity.
The media with its word madness is another kind of nut. It is natural for people who work with language to believe in its power. Writers believe in the supremacy of the pen like no one else. Creating worlds out of language circularly allows them to see the creative powers of the word. But for a propagandist press, words are not creative, but constructive. They are building blocks in creating the world that they would like to see. The careful use of language and the delineation of forbidden and permitted words allows them to manufacture and market their worldview to the masses. Orwell's Newspeak, written on digital sand. To the builders and the bosses of the worldview, if something cannot be said, then it also cannot exist. Stop saying 'crosshairs' and no one will ever point a gun. It is absurd, but also grimly revealing.
The media believes in its own power far more than anyone else does. And how could it be otherwise. If they didn't believe in their own power and influence, then why bother. (Aside from the high salaries and free hair gel.) The media's mission is to change minds, to educate and inform the common man so that he will become more enlightened. So that he will become more like them. The blowdried white man's burden operating out of a studio adjoining Park Avenue.
The best propaganda is not just accepted by those who hear it, but also by those who tell it. The lie so compelling that even the liar comes to believe in it. But lies are accepted more deeply when they appeal to the emotions and worldview of the hearer. And so when there is a cultural gap, the liar is more often fooled, than the lied to. He believes his own lie, because he wants to believe it. The lie reflects how he thinks the world really works.
With the rise of the Tea Party, the left finds itself in the curious position of once again denouncing the right as violent agitators plotting a mass revolt against the government-- an occupation that is meant to be the exclusive provenance of the community organizers of the left. But such accusations always reveal more about the accusers, than they do about the accused. What this accusation reveals is a view of the public along the lines of the proles in 1984, mindless and unthinking workers and peasants who can never do more than trudge to their jobs and drink beer, unless someone from the intellectual classes works them up to it with the right combination of words.
When the media fails to win on an issue, it will blame the messaging. But if after every effort is exhausted, the public remains unconvinced, it will decide that the public is unreasonable. Dangerously so. In the media narrative, unpersuadability is equivalent to irrationality. And such people are dangerous. Having placed its own worldview at the apex of reason, worldviews that deviate from it are treated as unreasonable to the extent and magnitude of their deviation. Culture gaps that are not based on race or ethnicity, will elicit a violently xenophobic response. While the media celebrates diversity, it is actually profoundly intolerant of differences.
The media's chief power is language. The word that contextualizes the carefully selected image. It is easy for them to slip into the error that it is the word that alters reality. That events and people can be transformed just as comprehensively as the images and videos can be contextualized and framed by their narrative. The idea that the people and events on the other end of the viewfinder may have an energy and a force that dwarfs their own never properly occurs to them, except during the occasional war or revolution. And even then they remain confident that their live version of history will properly define it as it should be. Will fix it in the frame of the lens and freeze it that way forever.
In such a frame of mind, it can seem as if their act of withdrawing a word from the collective grammar of the broadcast will also withdraw it from the minds of the listeners, as comprehensively as anything Orwell envisioned in 1984. And a larger uninformed public, which to them always seems on the razor edge of bursting into unreasoning violence, will no longer have the mental tools to plot and plan violence against government officials. It is the arrogance of the tyrant in the bubble,representing an alienation from the general public that is almost as pervasive as the one that hummed inside Loughner's malfunctioning brain.
Loughner and the media both agree that words can control men's minds. The media's descent into the madness of the speech police reflects a multichannel schizophrenia of their own. The belief that their words create reality. And in the crosshairs of the speech police, criminals become the victims of language, and language becomes the target.