Anything Goes

Is there a connection between the rise of right wing parties in Europe and America, and the devaluation of and the debasement of our languages?  Mike Ungersma thinks there may be a link

Words. They are stones shaped to the hand.
Fling them accurately. They are horses.
Bridle them; they’ll run away with you.

Caroline Fisher

“All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.  When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer”  It was April of 1946 and George Orwell was alarmed at the debasement of English.  “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” he wrote in his still-relevant essay, Politics and the English Language.  Three years later, in the futuristic novel 1984, he attempted to show how the very meanings of words can be turned upside down to support a maniacal and repressive police state.  In the essay he went on:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Later, in the same work, he adds: “I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.”

Is poetry possible after Auschwitz?

Orwell may have felt he lacked the expertise to link what he perceived to be a degrading of these three European languages to the rise of Nazism, Communism and Fascism, but scholars like the cultural historian George Steiner did not.  In a 1960 article for THE REPORTER, Steiner meticulously traces the connection between the rise of Hitler and the alarming and deliberate misuse of the German language:

Make of the words what Hitler and Goebbels and the hundred thousandUntersturmführer made: conveyors of terror and falsehood.  Something will happen to the words.  Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language . . . It will no longer perform quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.

Are Orwell and Steiner – and many others – correct? Is there something special about ‘political speech’?  Do the words, the phrases, the repetition, even the rhythm of a politician addressing a crowd – or more likely today, the TV cameras – differ from the speech the rest of us use?  And why do we ridicule them for such speech?  Or accuse them of lying and avoiding the questions put to them?

At their recent joint news conference to announce a ‘breakthrough’ in their negotiations over ‘Brexit,’ the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, employed the language we associate with virtually any modern politician.  Vague generalities, vague promises, few details, with much left unanswered and much more open to competing interpretations.

‘Bare ruin’d choirs’

Like a vicar in a Sunday sermon, May and Juncker were employing the vocabulary of aspiration: “We want the world to be different and better,” not what is, but what ought to be.  For them, politics is a process – a never-ending endeavour to create a better tomorrow.  Unlike the vicar who promises eternal life in exchange for an earthly commitment to sinless living, or damnation for ignoring God’s commandments, the politician can make no such bargain.  For him, there can be  no concrete goal, no identifiable end, no resolution beyond continuing and endless effort.  Unlike the vicar, the politician seeks to convince, not convert.

Religious homilies and political rhetoric have much in common, but the task of both – the vicar and the politician – has been made much more difficult, religion by the relentless march of science, and politics by the devaluation of language.  For religion, the issue seems decided – at least for Christianity.  Hundreds, thousands of churches today are bingo halls or deteriorating, empty shells, what Shakespeare may have had in mind in his sonnet that spoke of ‘bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.’ Church attendance has plummeted.  Those who identify with Christianity are a shrinking minority.  Sunday is just another day in the week, and even Christmas is robbed of its original meaning.

Just as the Renaissance and its successor, the Enlightenment, eroded the authority and foundation of Christianity, careless use of language may now be undermining politics and even democracy.

Walk into any British pub in the 50s, 60s or even as recently as the 1980s, and you found two permanent fixtures on the bar: a charity box for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and another apt to be labelled, ‘Fifty Pence for Each Swear Word.’  Keep up the flow of profanities, and the publican would admonish – “Gentlemen, there are ladies present.”

The RNLI box remains.  The ‘swear box’ and the landlord’s warning are long gone.

A volley of expletives

Nothing quite devalues a word more than its overuse.  The utter pervasiveness of profanity at every level of modern society has rendered words that were intended to shock useless.  What once was a scale of obscenities that could be employed with gradualness to reach a crescendo of emphasis is no longer available to any writer or speaker.  In every walk of life, profanity abounds – in film, music, theatre, social media, TV – and sadly – even in the school yard.

This one example of the debasement of language has yet to creep into political dialogue – but something else, far worse, has.  Restraint, logical argument, efforts to rationally persuade, all are increasingly replaced by rant, bombast and histrionics.  A new and frightening coarseness and total and intentional disregard for the truth has become the lingua franca of much political rhetoric.  When challenged, the politician responds with the charge of ‘fake news’.  The political right relishes the opportunity to use the tactics this trend offers, and it is having an appreciable effect.

Aided by an enabling technology, the internet and its social media, everyone wants to be heard and no one wants to listen.  Can’t be heard? Then just crank up the volume and shower the world with rage.  Will extreme language lead to extreme politics?  The evidence mounts in virtually every democratic country.

More worryingly, it might even lead to the perfected technique of Nazi Germany, where, as George Steiner notes:

Gradually, words lost their meaning and acquired nightmarish definitions.  Jude, Pole, Russe  came to mean two-legged lice, putrid vermin which good Aryans must squash, as a party manual said, “like roaches on a dirty wall.”  “Final solution,” endgültige Loüsng, came to signify the death of six million human beings in gas ovens.

Steiner concludes his article on post-war Germany, The Hollow Miracle, this way:

Everything forgets.  But not a language.  When it has been injected with falsehood, only the most drastic truth can cleanse it.

Mike Ungersma, Benicassim, Spain

December 2017

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