Language, intent, politics, policy: on the “fundamentally unserious” idea that fighting linguistic battles is “fundamentally unserious”
Regular reader and commenter John Bradley sent along this, from Daniel Greenfield, who addresses the “The Battle of the Redskins” in a way that will sound, particularly toward the conclusion of his piece, quite familiar to many longtime readers of this site:
[...] liberal speech codes emphasize the formalism of offensiveness. It’s not why you say something or what you mean. It’s whether something you say resembles something on the prohibited list.
The racism standard has moved away from motive to effect. Laws can be struck down as racist if it can be shown, not that they were discriminatory in intent, but in effect. It doesn’t matter what you do, only that someone was offended. And the only way to screen out the things that someone might possibly be offended by is by banning everything that could possibly be offensive. Even niggardly.
When anything and everything can be offensive, the safest way to speak is to say nothing. Conformity is a safe bet and administrators cry out for speech codes to tell them exactly how to enforce the rules. Instead of changing how people think, the codes only change how they speak. The everyday speech of even ordinary people becomes filled with the bureaucratic euphemisms and academic jargon that destroy language and make meaningful communication impossible.
Words however aren’t meaning. They’re only the costume that meanings wear. Each euphemism eventually follows the euphemism treadmill to take on the inappropriate meaning of the idea it was meant to suppress. The only escape is into bureaucratic language that is so awkward and so hyphenated that no one can possible make a slur out of it. And the paranoia still doesn’t end.
Controlling language is about controlling people. Language, like all living things, is fluid. Any censor must forever live in terror of new subversive meanings arising out of the common speech, from the mouths of the youth and the obscure codes of secretive groups. The censor must always be vigilant for his cause is a futile one. Words can be banned, but the ideas inside them spring up again as long as they are socially relevant. To censor words is to know the hollowness of power over men.
Greenfield gives his discussion of language a power an elegance and simplicity that I often can’t muster in my discussions on the topic — though in my defense, I believe the reason is a matter of purpose: Greenfield wishes to teach by way of observation using the hook of the occasional; that is, using current events as a jumping off point to make the case for what he terms “the formalism of offensiveness” inherent in liberal (which is to say, leftist) speech codes.
I, too, have used this tack in the past, be it in disquisitions over the swirly cone of Allah, the radio offerings of Bill Bennett, the written contributions of Ed Morrissey as massaged (or more likely, sucked upon like a hambone) by Oliver Willis, the colloquialism of Tony Snow, the standards for racism in British law and parroted by the First Lady, the colonialist / racialist aspects of King Kong, or the rather shortsighted attack on intentionalism by an adjunct English teacher working out of an annex in upstate New York who quickly found himself in way over his head.
But in each of those instances — and countless others relating to how certain kernel notions that undergird what it is we think we’re doing when we claim to interpret — I’ve tried to teach the subject to people at the linguistic and hermeneutic level, as well, to break down the methods deployed by various theoretical schools into their primary linguistic pieces and roles, so that they may understand precisely how the left goes about creating the conditions for authoritarianism through the very structural and interpretative assertions and assumptions they introduce and promote. That is, I’ve tried, by way of teaching how signs are created, and how interpretation truly functions, to arm my readers with the specific tools necessary to rebuke the incoherent (and yet often widely accepted) attempt at an unraveling, or deconstruction, if you prefer, of how meaning is produced and who gets to determine it.
Intent has always preceded — and must precede — convention, because convention is nothing more than the shorthand for common and customary intent, an aid to quickly ascertain meaning in those situations where meaning is desired to be both quickly expressed and readily understood. The ability to purposely misread, however, has since been elevated to a kind of acceptable and even appreciated scholarly endeavor, making of communication a game of power, and making of interpretation a kind of consensus driven parlor trick: power is derived through what the left has trumpeted as the “democritization” of language, breaking it free from the author’s intent, whose control over the text s/he produced is said presented as authoritarian. And many on the right, who’ve embrace “textualism” — which is nothing more than New Criticism dressed up in more contemporary garb — aided, either wittingly or unwittingly, in the move toward inevitable linguistic totalitarianism, which itself will move us inexorably toward political authoritarianism.
By coopting positive labels for its mechanism of undermining the locus of meaning — and assigning to its opponents an unflattering label — those who preach “democratization” over “authoritarianism” in the area of interpretation have managed to confuse the political with the linguistic, intentionally so.
But this attempt at conflation fails once we are able to see what the assumptions are behind each label: authoritarianism in the act of willing meaning into being is not “authoritarianism” at all: it is individualism, autonomy, mapping one’s will into being by way of intent made manifest in the codes of language, and then made accessible by way of the conventions that we use to reconstruct that meaning, that intent. It is, in short, an affirmation of the individual over the attempted theft of will by some or other collective. Similarly, and lofty rhetorical labels aside, “democratization” of meaning is nothing more than a will to power affected by some motivated consensus group who assumes its intent to resignify a text — in a way that it can argue “reasonable people” could possibly read that text, if given the proper “nudge” — takes social and hermeneutic precedence over what the text comes to mean. This is what Greenfield argues when he writes that motive has moved to effect.
Now, not to rehash earlier arguments I’ve made concerning the “textualism” embraced by certain writers and thinkers on the right being nothing more than a form of intentionalism that privileges the reader, but in order to forestall the typical (and consistently incorrect) objections to an intentionalist stance toward a text, let me just remind the legally minded that we (intentionally!) make a convention of insisting legal language be used conventionally. This is a strategy for legal writing and for judicial hermeneutics that we have determined best works for ease of interpretation and clarity of meaning — of making manifest the expression of legislative intent in ways that are difficult to misapprehend.
But it is precisely because conventions change over time that we insist upon texts, comprised of signs that are only signs because they were turned into such by a desire to mean, by the will of an agent or agents wishing to mean, by an intent — to attach to signifiers specific referents, specifically signified — being approached not as emptied documents awaiting resignification by someone engaging them with their own intent foregrounded, but rather as presignified, intended texts (the thing that makes them language to begin with, and differentiates them from the egret tracks that may look like language by are not, save our intent to see it as such) awaiting decoding that appeals to the original intent of the author(s) and or ratifiers, in the case of a corporate intent.
None of this is fundamentally unserious, as some on our own side have called it in an attempt to dismiss it in favor of expediency and pragmatism. And in fact, I’ll even go so far as to argue that had we made the teaching of linguistic assumptions a priority in classical liberal, libertarian, and conservative circles, we would today be much more adept at beating back the Gramscian attempt to take over our institutions through a control over our epistemology — which itself can only happen through language.
The left has been attempting to destroy the ideas of the Enlightenment for some time — and in so doing, to take us back to the hidden relativism first promoted by the sophists. Because once all is relative, truths become mere competing narratives. And once that happens, language is reduced to a pure, distilled, naked method for seizing and controlling power, to rejecting the individual in favor of a willful collective who presume to determine meaning and, in many instances, assign their own intent to the individual whose intent they have negated in order to destroy him. All while crowing about their honorable and compassionate motives for allowing the ends to justify the means.
This is not a game and it is not some arcane feature of language that has no bearing on politics. It is, instead, the essence of political trajectory. And it is through language that the long march through the institutions has received its greatest gains.
Until we recognize that, we will win the occasional battle, but the war is already lost, because the ground upon which we stand can never be stable enough for us to hold it, or even plant our flag.
(thanks to Terry H for one of the links used here)