The poet Charles Olson wrote, “Whatever you have to say, leave/ The roots on, let them/ Dangle/ And the dirt/ Just to make clear/ Where they come from.” Words are grimed, caked, and clotted with decades of use and wrinkled with age. Some words and phrases become anachronistic, like “winding” a window down in a world of electric windows. Others carry an explosive politics. Many get bleached by the endless passing of palms, losing a clear meaning.
But at a deeper sense, Olson’s line reminds me that we need to inspect our language in all its dirty history and daily use. To take it step further: Words impact our world, etching our reality like the steady run of water on rock or blowing it up like dynamite.
As George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” His classic 1984 also stresses the coercive and meaning-making power of language through “newspeak,” the official language of Oceania that uses simplicity and structure to limit free thought. For example, “bad” no longer exists; instead, one has “ungood.” By limiting expression, one limits thought. This, among other reasons, hits at the danger of censorship and its popularity among totalitarian regimes.
This, of course, leads me to the recent reveal of the Trump administration’s censorship of seven words for the CDC: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” While the initial call seems like it was over-blown, the words being discouraged for the CDC budget to make it more palatable, it follows a larger pattern: the EPA’s censoring of scientists, the removal of “LGBT” and “climate change” from the White House site, Trump’s attacks on the media and use of “fake news” epithets, etc. Indeed, even if the Post’s story was overblown, the fact they needed to police their language along ideological lines for research funds troubles me.
Out of the gate, I want to recognize the work of philosophers of science, like Latour, and rhetoricians that highlights its limitations. Like all language communities, scientists are human, and their thinking is mediated by language and other cognitive and social frames. I do not think that science is arriving at some sort of ever-objective, rarified “truth,” and it’s methods can’t address all questions or experiences. For me, science is a way of explaining and exploring our collective experience and what we call “the universe” with a certain methodology and outlook. Science relies on empirical accuracy, strict standards, systematic and reproducible results, and contains a rigorous system of self-assessment. Moreover, it has clear results in our history and lives, and while it gets things wrong, it often self corrects–albeit in an untimely way.
Science has also been abused, from the problematic science of eugenics and conversion therapy to more recent examples of industry-driven research from cigarette companies, gas companies, pharmaceuticals, etc. Science, despite the claims or desires of some, is political. It may not want to be, but it is used to inform and justify policy–sometimes for good, sometimes for worse.
My fear–and anger–regarding the administration’s war on science and other evidence-based work, like the CBO, comes from the violence this does to language. When Trump uses “fake news” to attack CNN, he inhibits our ability to use the term for its original meaning, fabricated news. When scientists cannot discuss climate change openly or have to police their language, that inhibits their ability to practice science. We are all part of language communities–whether it be the electorate or a scientific agency–and the practices and beliefs of these communities remain stitched to language. Changing the language changes those practices and beliefs and the world that results.
Olson reminds us that words have “roots” and “dirt,” and their meanings don’t exist in some Platonic plain, free of worldy interference. They are malleable, always in-flux signifiers of meaning and building-blocks to reality. “Facts,” for example, traditionally connote a view that words point to a shared empirical experience. For example, I prove that my sentence “the chair is blue” is true by showing you the chair, and you and others see that it is indeed blue. (I wrote about this more in a past post). But with alternative facts, the standards remain ambiguous. Like the famous 2+2=5 example in 1984 shows, one can construct their own epistemology that does not rely on traditional views of reality, a worrying trend today.
And as Orwell and others warn, controlling language means controlling its power. Through censorship, repetition, whataboutism, deliberate ignoring of factual authority, etc., the Trump administration is asserting its authority and replacing the pluralistic, democratic politics of our language with their own values and agenda.
Using the language to impose an ideological agenda and bulldoze opposition through ex officio power or demagogic decree points toward totalitarianism. As Hannah Arendt argues in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The true goal of totalitarian propaganda is not persuasion, but organization of the polity. … What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” Constructing a system or co-opting and warping ones in existence requires linguistic control, so totalitarianism, at least in a liberal democracy, does not begin with tanks and subterfuge but with words.
To put it another way, words change, but when words are changed by a central authority, one must question–and in some cases–resist. Extrinsic reality, like climate change and economics, may intervene eventually, but even if this happens, if one party defines the discourse, they still define our ability to process and respond to these changes. As Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
[Image: “Mr Collage-Man’s Orbly Stare” by Derrick Tyson, via Creative Commons]