Why Language Matters
As a writer, I obviously take a particular interest in language. Because of this, and for other reasons, I can’t help but notice the decline of the language in America and how it seems to be inversely related to our amount of freedoms.
Language is a fundamental aspect of a civilization. Without language, you do not have a civilization. It is with words that we communicate to one another. Recall the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. After God had confused the language among the people, which to that point had spoken only one, they dispersed into their own groups based solely on their ability to comprehend one another.
In other words, if you confuse a language, you divide a people.
Go back in history and you will find an attitude about language and the written word that bordered on religious. Books were rare, and therefore treasured. Early copies of Shakespeare’s plays were chained to podiums to prevent theft, but open for any student to read. Aside from their religious devotions, monks spent their time dutifully copying manuscripts, both religious and secular in nature. Many of the classical works exist today solely because Irish monks maintained copies, as all the others were destroyed during the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire.
Language is the means by which people exchange thoughts and feelings, express their emotions, and exchange ideas. This is why governments have always tried to control the written word, and why in occupied countries the occupiers banned the native tongue of which they themselves did not speak. If you control a people’s language, you control them.
So how is this applicable today?
A Nation of Illiteracy
People do not read. As a consequence, they cannot write or speak effectively. They also do not study their language. The result of this is a form of semi-illiteracy in which those who control government or vie for control, can engage in deception without outright lying, because no one is sufficiently educated to identify the errors.
When I say read, I do not mean this in a literal sense. I mean they do not read anything substantial. Reading a gossip magazine with ninety percent photos of celebrities is not reading. Skimming through Twitter accounts or blog posts is not reading. A person who consumes ice cream may eat, but if that’s all they consume their bodily health suffers.
When I say read, I refer to writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Conrad, Hemingway, London, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Twain, Doyle, and Pasternak, as well as others who had command of language. There are plenty more, but these are just a few off the top of my head.
Furthermore, if people do read them, they are coerced into reading them in a high school or college course taught by a professor who may or may not impose their personal interpretation of the text – which is what they do to something that is supposed to be art in the written form. Plus, the student can always consult SparkNotes. So much for higher education.
To get a general idea of the average person’s literary level, sample the comments posted on news sites, especially stories concerning political topics. While one may encounter a thoughtful observation, it is a single stone in the riverbed of incoherent, incomplete, grammatically incorrect sentences.
How Illiteracy Affects Politics
Nowhere is this illiteracy and ignorance of language more evident than in debates, whether they be social, political, religious, or moral. It’s why libertarians find it so hard to communicate with ordinary people, employing words according to their actual meaning rather than how they have been corrupted. (At the same time, Ayn Rand was guilty of this when she developed her own idiosyncratic definition of “selfishness” for Objectivism, which is where most people get their perception of libertarians as just selfish)
Take, for example, the word “freedom.” The word has a specific meaning – the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.
For a person who understands what the word means, when they say they want to be free they refer to the ability to do things without having to get permission from anyone first, as long as what they do does not violate other people’s freedom.
The way the word is used today, however, is a misuse. When they speak of freedom, they mean something which requires restricting other people’s freedoms in order to create the ideal situation. It is, in fact, a state of being in which there is a necessity of coercion and constraint upon others in order to maintain a status quo.
Another often misused word is “right.” An argument I frequently hear is that people have the right to not be killed by guns, so we must restrict the right of people to own guns. Or, if someone does not want to pay taxes to support public education, they’re trying to take away a child’s right to a free education.
In an educated world, no one would ever get away saying something like that, as everyone would understand that the phrase “the right to free ____” is a contradiction in terms, as is the claim that one must “restrict people’s rights.” If they have a right to do it, you have no authority to restrict them from doing it. But you do not have a “right” to anything that requires someone else to give it to you. I have a right to write, for example, but I do not have a right to a pen or pencil or printing press or blog. Neither WordPress nor any other site is required to provide me with a venue to publish my writing.
It is important to know the definition of words and how to use them when speaking or writing because you have to know when other people misuse them, especially when making an argument. Too frequently I witness people engage in debates and lose because they accept a flawed premise based on the mishandling of words.
Cue the increasing use of the phrase “hate speech.” Hate is an emotion, yet when people speak of “hate speech” or “hate groups,” they inevitably refer to people who are merely opposed to a particular ideology. It hasn’t nothing to do with hate. But the word conjures up a powerful image, which is why it is used, and people simply assume those accused of “hate speech” actually hate. The inference is that only those who hate can be opposed to their beliefs.
Naturally, they can’t say it overtly.
Not too long ago I was debating with someone online about libertarianism (a mistake I no longer make) and he said something along these lines: We need a system that is based on empathy and will get rid of greed.
The illiterate man will accept this as a legitimate declarative statement and argue its merits based on incorrect definitions.
To the literate, the statement makes no sense. Empathy is the capacity to understand and share the feelings of another person. In other words, you must have undergone similar experiences in order to share the emotions as they do. A person who has never been in combat cannot empathize with someone who has seen his best friend killed during a firefight.
Empathy also does not mean sympathy, which anyone is capable of extending to another. A government based on empathy, whatever the phrase means, would require everyone to have experienced the same things in life. Again, it’s a meaningless statement.
Furthermore, the literate will realize that “greed” is an emotion and not the equivalent to “financially wealthy,” which is a condition determined by physical possession. Anyone can be greedy, and anyone who has read classical literature knows this.
Of course, many people know they misuse words. It allows them to communicate ideas and thoughts covertly. Words like “tolerance” and “diversity” do not mean in common conversations what they mean in the dictionary. But those who use them pretend they do, and hardly anyone challenges them on it.
As a libertarian, I see the decline in language and the rise in government control as linked. There is a reason for it, as the degradation allows the political class to use words fluidly, depending on the audience. It’s how they can claim they need to spy on us in order to protect our freedoms.
Orwellian doublespeak can only occur when a language has been ruined to the point where the words have no real meaning. War is peace, freedom is slavery, love is hate.