Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Death of Language

I'm not going to delve too deeply into the fray regarding the national debate that was sparked by the recent tragedy in Tucson - largely because I feel that the discussion that ensued was so utterly childish and pedantic that I find it less than unfruitful to address it in full. But I will take note of something about this particular case that I happen to find intriguing.

We've heard a substantial number of people harangue their political opposition over the use of martial imagery and metaphor which they believe, apparently, is indistinguishable from the literal for some of us. We have been told that, because a person could take a euphemism and extrapolate an entirely different message from it, that these verbal colors are not acceptable for the public pallet - that we must stop the proverbial waving of the red cloth in front of society's deranged bulls.

Now, to be sure, we've had this collective argument before in different capacities. Shifting the guilt of individuals onto political rivals isn't a new sheet in anyone's playbook. Society found its witches at almost every point of contemporary tragedy (Waco, OK City, Columbine, you name it). But I've never recalled the accusations being not only so particularly vague but also unfounded. Normally when one of this nation's wayward sons travels out into the thick with a firearm and bad intentions at hand, we find ourselves going back through things that the person was connected to - the things in his life that might have influenced him so profoundly.

In the case of Waco, we found religious fundamentalism. For OK City, we found anti-government (pro-militia) sentiment. For Columbine we found "scary" music and movies. But in this particular instance, we found no need to even dig at all to support our superficial hypothesis of causation. We were pointing fingers before we, quite frankly, knew a single thing about this killer - and we did it, un-mistakingly, for political expediency.

Now several days have passed.

Should I be somewhat surprised that our usual witch-hunt has not ensued to the point of actually tearing through his objective influences? Because I am. For once, I'm actually surprised by the sheer intellectual laziness of many of my fellow citizens, but perhaps less surprised by the political opportunism which has subsequently been employed in its stead.

So where do we stand now?

Well, we stand even deeper in this political bog. But why? Why should I or anyone else feel the need to defend the concepts that Western civilization was built upon - free will, personal responsibility, free speech? We're not engaging some group of transcendental relativistic nihilists here; these are our fellow Americans - who live the majority of their lives by these simple principles, even if they don't commonly recognize it as such. Have we really become so far removed from a liberty so fundamental as our most base means of communication - speech - that we now honestly question if the weight of our words can irrevocably drag us off of the cliff of reason, like lemmings being lead to their death?

In some respects, I suppose it's hard for me to imagine that we're really having a conversation about what kind of language is acceptable. I find that no less contemptible than us having a conversation about what colors are not appropriate for painting. It's almost provokes more confusion than ire.

However, the sensibilities I'm putting forth haven't been lost on all of us. A great many people have stood their ground in defense of liberty and common sense. And given the panic and outrage that has unforgivably been pointed in their direction, they surely deserve all the credit due to them. They have put forth rebuttals that even I can't bring myself to write out of a sheer lack of respect for liberty's detractors.

The one point that I do find interesting in all of this - and one that I haven't seen anyone pick up on - is that we're having this very off-putting debate about the language we use in political discourse..... in light of the crimes of a crazy man who believed (apparently) that language itself was a form of mind control. It's incredibly unfortunate that this irony is lost on all of us in the middle of the mess. What may prove harder for me to discern, at this point, is if the criminal's belief in "language as master" is any less crazy than the public's apparent belief in it.

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