MAY 28, 2019
A Remedy for the Abuse of Language
The line between medicine and poison is a fine one. The same drug can cure when administered by an expert and harm, if not kill, when misapplied. Some drugs always cause harm, but are consumed for some apparent benefit; they, too, are pseudo-medicinal. This is true for souls as much as it is for bodies.
Plato understood this. Logos (word, reason) is curative when used rightly, when administered by someone who knows how to speak and reason well—for Plato this was a genuine philosopher, while Christians will correctly add that above all it is he who is Logos itself. By contrast, logos is poisonous when misused, and this by anyone careless in thought and speech, but most egregiously by the sophists, those ancient Greek charlatans who deliberately played with words to persuade crowds that down is up, ugly is beautiful, and evil is good. Even worse than misusing language, they presumed to be able to teach others to do the same. Worst of all, they were successful. Their misapplication of words has spread widely and deeply. Sophistry isn’t an ancient relic; between purveyors of fake news, manipulative advertisers, political panderers, and postmodernist professors, sophists are alive and well paid, even if intellectually quite unwell.
Today’s sophists have doubled down on the age-old reversal of natural orders: not only are bad things good and ugly things beautiful, but good is downright bad and beauty, if not ugly, is at least numbingly boring, which is as severe an aesthetic condemnation as any nowadays. To modify Ivan Karamazov’s thesis, if God is widely rejected, everything is permitted, except for one thing: faith in God.
In his brief study of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton writes: “The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed, that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.”
He who administers medicine deserves praise, but for doing this he is not heroic, let alone saintly. The saint does not merely treat unhealthy patients; he administers an antidote, a cure for a poison ingested willingly, which is also why the saint is typically hated. To those who love their illness, the one who diagnoses and cures is noxious. To those who benefit from peddling the poison, he is an enemy to eliminate. Not all saints are martyrs, but, because they unavoidably offend dealers and users, they are always so potentially. Martyrdom lies at the limit of saintly courage.
Of course, we are not here considering a physical poison or one restricted to an individual soul; the problem is wider. Not only the body and soul but a whole culture can be poisoned, and with it most of the human beings—bodies and souls together—who participate in it. Ours surely is. (I hope no one minds too much that I treat the American and Canadian cultures as relevantly similar in kind and in toxicity levels.)
But if a culture can be poisoned, it can also be cured. Because each age has its own disorders, to which most cling and which many defend, even violently, each age will have its own saints. If Chesterton is right, every generation will also look for its saints, despite itself. We would do well to look for ours.
Chesterton continues: “As the nineteenth century clutched at the Franciscan romance, precisely because it had neglected romance, so the twentieth century is already clutching at the Thomist rational theology, because it has neglected reason. In a world that was too stolid, Christianity returned in the form of a vagabond; in a world that has grown a great deal too wild, Christianity has returned in the form of a teacher of logic.”
Where do we stand today? What do we neglect? What has poisoned the twenty-first century? And who are the saints with the antidote?
There is, evidently, much wrong with the world; thus, there is much need for saints. Our world is irrational and wild enough to still need St. Thomas, and, although we couldn’t call our culture stolid, the petulance and self-indulgence of our century would find in St. Francis’s impassioned adoration of all creation an edifying countermodel. For these ills Thomas and Francis are more than worthy guides. Nonetheless, let me suggest that neither the vagabond nor the teacher of logic gets to the heart of the contemporary matter. The twenty-first century neglects romance, logic, and much else, but it has abandoned something even simpler: words. Our age, as Josef Pieper put it decades ago, abuses words.
The Abuse of WordsWords serve two related functions. First, they express something about reality. I can be wrong about how things are, but my words, when sincere, tell someone how I understand the world. This points to the second function of words: they communicate. I don’t just express something about the way things are; I express it to someone. I speak to share with another person my understanding of how things stand and, ultimately, to join with that person in a mutual understanding. We abuse language when we either sever the connection between words and reality or eschew genuine communication—or both. Because humans live in a real and knowable world with other humans, to abuse words is to reject our human condition; it is anti-human.
That words today don’t always refer to real things should be evident enough. Instead of dwelling on the obvious cases, let me consider something subtler, and for that reason possibly more insidious. Take for instance the growing use of public consultation and of open governance structures to inform organizational decision-making. There is nothing in principle wrong with consultation or governance, but there is in how they are oftentimes used. Consider the case of the University of Tulsa, which recently eliminated many programs in the Arts and Sciences, several of which were thriving and highly regarded. According to University of Tulsa Professor Jacob Howland, who has been front and center in the resistance to these cuts, “faculty were repeatedly assured that this process would be transparent, inclusive, and data-driven. In fact, it was none of these things.” Of course it wasn’t. “Transparency,” “inclusion,” and “data-driven” don’t mean what they ostensibly mean.
“Transparency” means that some putative consultation takes place that adheres to jargon-laden procedures that are understood by no one, not that deliberations are public and open to rational scrutiny, let alone that feedback is taken seriously; “inclusion” means including those who already agree while excluding those who might make trouble; “data-driven” means that supposed facts and anecdotes are found to justify decisions, not that decisions follow a thorough consideration of all available evidence. In short, the transparent is opaque, the inclusive is exclusionary, and to be driven by data is to be driven by ideology, with pseudo-evidence compiled in support of it after the fact. This is all backwards. In such cases, words no longer refer to real things and, maybe more importantly, they try to manipulate an audience. This is not communication; this is propaganda. Bless Professor Howland for not being so easily manipulated.
What’s Wrong with the WorldRecently, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a copy of Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, the classic defense of public manipulation. A young man walked past, pointed to the book, and announced it was one of his favorites. Although my face communicated something like “you’ve got to be kidding,” I instead said, “I like it, too; it’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with the world.” According to Bernays, propaganda is “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” Right, and that’s why it’s wrong. But he chillingly adds that propaganda “is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” The point is not merely that humans sometimes try to manipulate others, whether privately or publicly, but that manipulation is the properly democratic way to order civil society. Bad is good and down is up!
It gets worse: “It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.”
Open and democratic competition certainly involves debate and persuasion by the best argument, which seems better to me than a micromanaging committee of “wise men.” Public reasoning is not manipulation; it is the opposite of propaganda. One can only think otherwise if words have already been severed from reality and from genuine communication. Indeed, Bernays is here clearly using propaganda to defend propaganda, employing an obvious false dichotomy—a fallacy one learns to avoid in freshman logic (only to forget in sophomore literary theory). He gives us two, and only two, options: either a despotism of supposed wise rulers who control everything, even diet, or else democracy, which necessitates the widespread and unseen manipulation of the citizens’ habits and opinions. These are clearly not the only options; indeed, they are among the worst ones imaginable.
Bernays concedes that “the instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused,” but adds that “such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.” What sort of propaganda is excessive and misused according to him, I can’t tell. Whether propaganda can go too far or not, on this view, it is indispensable to a flourishing democracy; thus, it is good, not just permissible, to speak falsely. The upshot is obvious: truthful speech is bad, or at least very stupid. Good is now bad!
To whom will we turn to find words used as they ought to be? Thankfully, there are many options. Indeed, most of the classical tradition of Western religion, philosophy, science, and literature can help. Unfortunately, this is the very tradition under threat in the institutions designed to promote and preserve it; propaganda has infiltrated the university. Nonetheless, if we are willing to read and listen, our condition might improve.
I’ll leave it to others to select the patron saint for the twenty-first century (though, if asked, I’d vote for St. John Paul II), but there are plenty of wise, if not saintly, writers who insist on using words rightly, one of whom we know well: the recently departed Fr. Schall, who also included great lists of worthy writers in his own books. What makes writers like Fr. Schall curative is their basic belief that language, imperfect as it surely is, does tell us something non-trivial about the world. Because words are effective, we can communicate, and if we can communicate, we might be able to inch closer to genuine communion with our fellows, by which we might even regain some modicum of cultural health. The antidote for us might be what Chesterton called common sense, i.e., the view, shockingly controversial to some, that “the difference between chalk and cheese, or pigs and pelicans, is not a mere illusion, or dazzle of our bewildered mind blinded by a single light; but is pretty much what we all feel it to be. It may be said that this is mere common sense; the common sense that pigs are pigs.”