“What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.”
― G.K. Chesterton
“I still believe in man in spite of man. I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed, and perverted by the enemies of mankind. And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.
Elie Wiesel, Open Heart
The misuse of language induces evil in the soul”
“Once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean, it becomes impossible to mean what we say.” Wendell Berry
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” –from Analects of Confucius
More than ever, we must realize that words matter because language matters. Language matters because it is the way we are designed to receive and give words to commune and to communicate. Even when individuals are not speaking words, they can still commune and communicate with language by simply living and through signs, gestures, music, posture, position, presence, practice and even silence.
According to Wendell Berry, “And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue.”
Of course, Wendell Berry knows that language is more than words, and that language carries words that are pregnant with experience, history, faith, beliefs, tradition, truth, information, memory, hopes, dreams, fears, shame, guilt, pain, and the lives of past generations. Johann Hamann is just one of the many wise men and women who said our language would both reflect and determine who we are, how we live as individuals and how we live in community. Due to the fact, that language gives birth to reason, and reasons determine everything we do.
Interestingly in the 18th century, Johann Hamann showed reason’s connection to language. In fact, Hamann challenged Immanuel Kant’s philosophy “Critique of Pure Reason” by bringing to light the truth that reason cannot be created ex nihilo (out of nothing, in our own minds). Rather, reason is determined by the language that has been spoken to us from our infancy.
“Not only the entire ability to think rests on language… but language is also the crux of the misunderstanding of reason with itself.” Johann Georg Hamann
I keep wondering if we could create the space to listen and look, would we be able to hear a culture that has emptied words of their meanings and conformed the use of language to nothing more than a conveyor belt of information. Would we be able to see that by man stripping language and words of their meaning and making them available for our use and misuse, we feel entitled and empowered to use language and words as means to our own ends.
However in forgetting that we cannot empty words and fill them with our own meanings and conform language to nothing more than a way to control others (be that through marketing, fear mongering, entertaining, intimidating and the redefining of words), we have forgotten that we are not just destroying language and words, we are destroying everything else.
The assault on words and language is nothing new. The Bible tells the story of Adam and Eve who witnesses and participates in not just The Fall of man but the fall of language and words. The Fall not only ends Adam and Eve’s perfect relationship with God, but it corrupts language. Instead of language being given and received as a means of grace and the gift of communion and communication, Adam and Eve exchange it for a way to tempt, to lie, to persuade and to find reasons why it would be reasonable to disobey God in order to be like him.
From this point on, man’s vocabulary and use of language have continued to expand and disintegrate. It seems like the last 50 years, we have seen a rapid escalation in the destruction of creation and it’s creatures. I believe this is because there has been a dramatic decrease in men and women who have understood language or how vital the definition of words are to communicating truth, love, hope, mercy, forgiveness, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, self-control, health, wholeness and holiness. As a result, we have lost traditions, the passing down of wisdom, intimate relationships, understanding of our personal responsibilities to be love and truth where we live, and we have lost ourselves, our purpose, place, positions and practices that help us commune and communicate in personal relationships.
The reason why we are where we are is because the mass majority of us are not tethered to truth and love. We do not even know what truth and love mean because we have forgotten who Love and Truth looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like or feels like. Instead of loving creation, we consume it. We don’t love our neighbors, we compete, compare, fight, judge, bite and devour them. We don’t even love the Divine but we conform him to our image and demand that he make our kingdoms come and our wills be done.
What we speak, how we speak, when we speak, where we speak, why we speak and who we speak to is a part of language. But what kind of language did we expect to have at this point? Especially, when we have forgotten who we are and how we designed, and now we eat, speak and live as consumers. Did we really think who we were wouldn’t change everything we did, including our definitions of words and our use of language? Did we really think that we could be consumers and use words and language as means to get what we want and it would produce peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-mastery? And did we not see that in the process of consuming that we would destroy everything, including ourselves.
Because we are consumers, who use a consumer’s language filled with individually defined words, we have severed ourselves from the Way, the Truth, the Life and the Word that we are called to imitate. Out of ignorance and full of arrogance, we produced reasons to speak words not to communicate or commune but to curate our consumer lifestyles, not knowing that is the way of nihilism.
With this mind, I ask“ Why now? Why are we getting this upset over the use or misuse pronouns when we have sat on our asses for the last 50 years and refused to battle over the use and misuse of nouns and verbs, and the use of language as nothing more than a way to transact, commentate, to regurgitate propaganda and to shout our opinions?”
Look at the words you use and how you use them. Do you give and receive the gift of language? Do you commune? Do you even know the difference? Consider for a moment what word has man not leveled. Have not foundational words like health, love, truth, forgiveness, mercy, grace and integrity come to mean nothing. These words are baseless, void of connection and place, and we have made them void of meaning so we can use them to produce junk, to sell junk, to speak junk and to curate a lifestyle of junk. When have we not acted like consumers and not taken the stance of individually deciding “What this verse, this word and even what God means to me?”
But I digress and so this is where I am going to turn it over to one of my favorite writers who has been pondering the use and abuse of language for quite a while, decades longer than me. In fact, there’s probably little I could say that Wendell Berry hasn’t already covered extensively.
In the Defense of Literacy, Wendell Berry writes…”Ignorance of books and the lack of a critical consciousness of language were safe enough in primitive societies with coherent oral traditions. In our society, which exists in an atmosphere of prepared, public language – language that is either written or being read – illiteracy is both a personal and a public danger. Think how constantly ‘the average American’ is surrounded by premeditated language, in newspapers and magazines, on signs and billboards, on TV and radio. He is forever being asked to buy or believe somebody else’s line of goods. The line of goods is being sold, moreover, by men who are trained to make him buy it or believe it, whether or not he needs it or understands it or knows its value or wants it. This sort of selling is an honored profession among us. Parents who grow hysterical at the thought that their son might not cut his hair are glad to have him taught, and later employed, to lie about the quality of an automobile or the ability of a candidate.
What is our defense against this sort of language – this language-as-weapon? There is only one. We must know a better language. We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature. The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters.
But to appreciate fully the necessity for the best sort of literacy we must consider not just the environment of prepared language in which most of us now pass most of our lives, but also the utter transience of most of this language, which is meant to be merely glanced at, or heard only once, or read once and thrown away. Such language is by definition, and often by calculation, not memorable; it is language meant to be replaced by what will immediately follow it, like that of shallow conversation between strangers. It cannot be pondered or effectively criticized. For those reasons an unmixed diet of it is destructive of the informed, resilient, critical intelligence that the best of our traditions have sought to create and to maintain – an intelligence that Jefferson held to be indispensable to the health and longevity of freedom. Such intelligence does not grow by bloating upon the ephemeral information and misinformation of the public media. It grows by returning again and again to the landmarks of its cultural birthright, the works that have proved worthy of devoted attention.
‘Read not the Times. Read the Eternities,’ Thoreau said. Ezra Pound wrote that ‘literature is news that STAYS news.’ In his lovely poem, ‘The Island,’ Edwin Muir spoke of man’s inescapable cultural boundaries and of his consequent responsibility for his own sources and renewals: Men are made of what is made, The meat, the drink, the life, the corn, Laid up by them, in them reborn. And self-begotten cycles close About our way; indigenous art And simple spells make unafraid The haunted labyrinths of the heart … These men spoke of a truth that no society can afford to shirk for long: we are dependent, for understanding, and for consolation and hope, upon what we learn of ourselves from songs and stories. This has always been so, and it will not change. I am saying, then, that literacy – the mastery of language and the knowledge of books – is not an ornament, but a necessity. It is impractical only by the standards of quick profit and easy power. Longer perspective will show that it alone can preserve in us the possibility of an accurate judgment of ourselves, and the possibilities of correction and renewal. Without it, we are adrift in the present, in the wreckage of yesterday, in the nightmare of tomorrow. (1970)