June 18, 2013
The War on Language
Posted on Sep 28, 2009
By Chris Hedges
There is a scene in “Othello” when the Moor is so consumed by jealousy and rage that he loses the eloquence and poetry that make him the most articulate man in Venice. He turns to the audience, shortly before he murders Desdemona, and sputters, “Goats and monkeys!” Othello fell prey to wild self-delusion and unchecked rage, and his words became captive to hollow clichés. The debasement of language, which Shakespeare understood was a prelude to violence, is the curse of modernity. We have stopped communicating, even with ourselves. And the consequences will be as extreme as in the Shakespearean tragedy.
Those who seek to dominate our behavior first seek to dominate our speech. They seek to obscure meaning. They make war on language. And the English- and Arabic-speaking worlds are each beset with a similar assault on language. The graffiti on the mud walls of Gaza that calls for holy war or the crude rants of Islamic militants are expressed in a simplified, impoverished form of Arabic. This is not the classical language of 1,500 years of science, poetry and philosophy. It is an argot of clichés, distorted Quranic verses and slogans. This Arabic is no more comprehensible to the literate in the Arab world than the carnival barking that pollutes our airwaves is comprehensible to our literate classes. The reduction of popular discourse to banalities, exacerbated by the elite’s retreat into obscure, specialized jargon, creates internal walls that thwart real communication. This breakdown in language makes reflection and debate impossible. It transforms foreign cultures, which we lack the capacity to investigate, into reversed images of ourselves. If we represent virtue, progress and justice, as our clichés constantly assure us, then the Arabs, or the Iranians, or anyone else we deem hostile, represent evil, backwardness and injustice. An impoverished language solidifies a binary world and renders us children with weapons.
How do you respond to “Islam is the solution” or “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior”? How do you converse with someone who justifies the war in Iraq—as Christopher Hitchens does—with the tautology that we have to “kill them over there so they do not kill us over here”? Those who speak in these thought-terminating clichés banish rational discussion. Their minds are shut. They sputter and rant like a demented Othello. The paucity of public discourse in our culture, even among those deemed to be public intellectuals, is matched by the paucity of public discourse in the Arab world.
This emptiness of language is a gift to demagogues and the corporations that saturate the landscape with manipulated images and the idiom of mass culture. Manufactured phrases inflame passions and distort reality. The collective chants, jargon and epithets permit people to surrender their moral autonomy to the heady excitement of the crowd. “The crowd doesn’t have to know,” Mussolini often said. “It must believe. ... If only we can give them faith that mountains can be moved, they will accept the illusion that mountains are moveable, and thus an illusion may become reality.” Always, he said, be “electric and explosive.” Belief can triumph over knowledge. Emotion can vanquish thought. Our demagogues distort the Bible and the Constitution, while their demagogues distort the Quran, or any other foundational document deemed to be sacred, fueling self-exaltation and hatred at the expense of understanding. The more illiterate a society becomes, the more power those who speak in this corrupted form of speech amass, the more music and images replace words and thought. We are cursed not by a cultural divide but by mutual cultural self-destruction.
The educated elites in the Arab world are now as alienated as the educated elites in the United States. To speak with a vocabulary that the illiterate or semiliterate do not immediately grasp is to be ostracized, distrusted and often ridiculed. It is to impart knowledge, which fosters doubt. And doubt in calcified societies, which prefer to speak in the absolute metaphors of war and science, is a form of heresy. It was not accidental that the founding biblical myth saw the deliverer of knowledge as evil and the loss of innocence as a catastrophe. “This probably had less to do with religion than with the standard desire of those in authority to control those who are not,” John Ralston Saul wrote. “And control of the Western species of the human race seems to turn upon language.”
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