While I am certainly not a trained rhetorician, nor am I extensively knowledgeable about linguistics, I do have a certain fascination with what Richard Weaver calls the “ethics of rhetoric.” In chapter eight (“The Power of the Word”) of Ideas Have Consequences, he writes:
[T]o have power of language is to have control over things is deeply imbedded in the human mind. We see this in the way men gifted in speech are feared or admired; we see it in the potency ascribed to incantations, interdictions, and curses. We see it in the legal force given to oath or word. A man can bind himself in the face of contingencies by saying Yea or Nay, which can only mean that words in common human practice express something transcending the moment.
This anti-positivist understanding of language points directly to its power and importance, and also to the social dangers of its abuse. Moreover, as is consistent with the rest of Weaver’s chapter eight, the collapse of the ethical and proper use of language has been a core aspect of Western man’s intellectual decadence.
Ben Lewis pointed me to a lecture that was given in 2002 by the eminent historian Forrest McDonald, published a few days ago over at The Imaginative Conservative website. McDonald echoes a theme that has plagued my own mind: a people that have little understanding of language, of words, of the ethics and purpose of rhetoric, is a people (yes, singular) riding the tide of social decline, not progress. Progress cannot be defined in terms of material prosperity, unless one can connect this prosperity to a certain teleological conviction; and since modern man lacks a metaphysical vision of purpose, his embrace of material development as progress is unjustified.
McDonald suggests several ways to survive (maintain sanity) in the midst of this decline. One of these ways to focus on the recovery of the English language, which he stresses is “now virtually defunct.” He writes:
Many people have called attention to the decline of the language and have sought the root cause of the malady; my own diagnosis is laziness. That is to say, we have ceased to be willing to work hard to form and express our thoughts with precision; and we have also, when reading or listening, stopped paying close attention to whether anyone else is saying just what he means.
He starts by pointing to Orwell's criticism of the abuse of the metaphor:
Metaphors are often used without knowledge of their meaning.... Incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the speaker or writer is not interested in what he is saying. A colleague of mine once wrote that, after Roger Williams was exiled from Massachusetts, he ”floundered around in the woods” for a while. You can find flounder in the ocean but never in the woods.
The metaphors also get garbled. In a single segment of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, I recently heard the following: “collapsed like a deck of cards,” “the issue that broke the straw,” and “living high hog off the land.”
And our language has become hysterical, rejecting an ethical use of proportionality:
We have also witnessed metaphor inflation, the use of superlatives such as “holocaust” or “genocide” to describe minor mishaps. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident was a “disaster” in which no one was hurt. And the media reported a world trade “summit” meeting in Houston, Texas, a city that is scarcely ten feet above sea level.
We are disconnected with the Western roots of our language, which is consistent with our disconnect with history in general:
That is not the worst of it. We tend to abandon short, homely words and substitute, whenever possible, hybridized Latin or Greek words, such as “hybridized.”
Some miscellaneous points:
We are fast losing all sense of numbers agreement: media and data are treated as singular (they are plural), and none, each, and every are treated as plural whereas they are singular. We have lost the distinction between shall and will, I and me, who and whom, like and as, less and fewer. And we are befogged by bureaucrats, politicians, and self-styled victims who deliberately use words to obscure their intent.
And we speak words that are nonsensical even to ourselves:
The result, in general, is an increase in slovenly and vague language. But our greatest fault is in resorting to meaningless words when we do not know what we really mean. This is most starkly seen in subjects without substance, such as the history of art criticism and the theory of literary criticism.
This has infected our ability to speak with reference to political ideas:
When we say “free,” we mean popularly elected. “Democratic” has ceased to have anything to do with a form of government; it means “good,” just as “racist” means bad. “Equal rights for oppressed minorities” means special privileges for organized interest groups. Then again, the radicals of the late 60s and early 70s—who now dominate the academy—taught us that “liberate” means capture, that “free speech” means mandatory cursing, that “nonviolent” means mob action, “nonnegotiable demands” mean let’s talk it over, and that 52 percent of the population is a minority.
We expose our laziness, our sin of sloth, in our abuse of language. And this has consequences in our inability to recognize truth-tellers and prophets.
The attraction of this ponderous way of speaking and writing is that it is easy because it avoids thought.
One shirks all responsibility simply by emptying one’s mind and letting the cant of the day come crowding in. It will construct your sentences for you and think your thoughts for you. When you do meet a person who does not talk in such clichés, who does not think in clichés, who does not, in short, live in a reduced state of being, you will find that he is some kind of rebel, expressing his own opinions and not a “party line.”
It garnered a small bit of frustration in my Facebook groups a while back when I started expressing frustration with the use of memes. Understanding the value and ethics of language will really bring one to an awareness of the tragedy ingrained in the employment of memes as a medium of communication of ideas. I understand I come across as grouchy and curmudgeonly, but if Ideas are important for the health of civilization, and if Ideas must be communicated in language, then I cannot help but wonder about the consequences of doubling down in our abandonment of the responsible and mature use of language.
Our present state of illiteracy in the West is not just a Real Big Bummer; it is both a cause and a symptom of decadence.