Sunday, April 20, 2008

To Act Always As We Have A Mind To Act

It is both easy and often appropriate to be scornful about euphenism and other imprecise language, and indeed, a central part of more or less any philosophical enterprise is clearing that sort of thing away, a kind of bureaucratic rationalization of meanings, bringing structure to a formless mess. But the power to name things is a power like any other, and the insistence on a certain kind of straight-talking, a hard-nosed refusal to tell it any way but the way it is, is a kind of insensitivity to the costs of the exercise of that power, a demand that the world be a particular way for everyone. Evasions, compromises, and equivocations can be the only way to speak to an audience of more than one, particularly politically: the mutual comprehension that making power's exercise acceptable to those who live under it involves requires needs give and take, needs us to bite our tongues. Which is of course what I found so attractive about that Obama speech: it cuts both ways, aims at a reconciliation. If it were completely honest, it could not help but take sides, and if it did that, it'd be impossible for it to find a common language in which to make power's exercise acceptable. If it adopted the attitude that, say, Orwell does in 'Politics and the English Language', it could not work and that would be a loss.

I've always been pretty sceptical about that essay: it's so tempted by an authoritarian machismo, not quite able to shake itself from the thrall of a moral universe exactly the opposite of that which animates a worry about public reason. Telling it like it is can be reifying, a denial of other people's right to interpret the world around them within certain reasonable canons, to make sense of it for themselves. Of course, there are limits to the acceptability of Unspeak: dead children are always dead children, and dead children killed by bombs are always dead children killed by bombs, just as simulated drowning is a form of torture and not a mere aggressive interrogation technique. There's no room for reasonable disagreement there. Likewise, I think, the existence of climate change, and the damage it's likely to do. But that leaves a lot where Orwell's demand for the elimination of euphenism and obfuscation is a step too far: having agreed that climate change is to be avoided does not decide how to achieve that goal. Even more than that, as a general demand about how to use language, it's totalitarian: it destroys the possibility of so many different forms of literary expression. Presumably one reason Shakespeare never described his characters speech with verbs other than say is because he never described his characters speech directly: one would hope that actors could convey a variety of modes of speech. Equally, Elmore Leonard writes in a particular genre, with particular stylistic conventions. He might as well demand that all other forms of fiction employ only variants on the weary cynic waiting to be roused into a last burst of idealism as a central character. English has a number of different verbs for the act of speech for a reason: people have found it useful to pick out particular ways of speaking.

9 comments:

Tom said...

I agree, especially about Orwell. I mean it as the highest praise when I say that post was fair.

Falco said...

"euphenism and other imprecise language," Did you mean euphemism?

There is always a struggle to "own" the meanings of words and phrases. For instance I would endow the the meaning of the word "Socialist" with "retarded believer in a decredited system who lacks enough awareness of self, others, economics and history to reconsider their opinion". Whereas your version may be rather different.

Equally with climate change I would fall into the "denier" or at least "sceptic" camp. Since the global warming lot have given additional meaning to these words, (including terms such as "idiot who fails to see the obvious", "evil capitalist", etc), they are meant in a derogetry fashion. I however, would view a "man made climate change sceptic" as one who has bothered to take a good look at the science, noted both the complecations of the system and the odd contortions that people put their numbers through to get their favourite answer and decided that there is insufficient evidence at this point.

All that really matters is that there is sufficient flexability for us to endow the terms we choose with meaning and enough stability that we all know what we're talking about.

Rob Jubb said...

And I would have thought troll needed no definition...

Falco said...

If you think that giving a reasoned argument is being a troll then I think you have some work to do on your definition of troll.

What's the point of having comments if they are only there for people to laud your position?

Rob Jubb said...

Well, my definition's clearly stable enough that you've grasped what I'm getting at. Maybe we need to think about its flexibility.

Alex B said...

I think Falco has a point, Rob.

"Troll" is a highly ambiguous word. It can refer to the supernatural beings supposed to inhabit caves or subterranean dwellings (and by implication someone retarded)... or someone who posts a deliberately anagonistic message on a forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile response.

So you're going to have to be clearer about which sense you're using; at the moment, as far as I'm concerned, it could be either.

Rob Jubb said...

I would have thought that a comment which described me as retarded and lacking awareness of more or less everything, including myself, could be fairly described as deliberately antagonistic, especially when it presented no argument for those claims, and wasn't actually relevant in any of its content to the claim I was trying to argue in favour of in the post.

Falco said...

I must apologise, I was rather taken aback with your first reply because I had no idea that you are a socialist.

I simply used it as an example to make the point that plain speaking or obfuriscating, we tend to put additional meanings into words. Given that, even the most deliberately plain of speech can have different meanings to different people.

Rob Jubb said...

Amazingly, some of us can type, and even appear human.