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Monday, January 24, 2011

In the Crosshairs of the Speech Police

In the weeks since the Arizona massacre, the media has revealed a preoccupation with language almost as intense as the one that motivated her shooter. Loughner's obsession with Congresswoman Giffords seems to have begun in 2007 when she mockingly replied to his question, "How do you know words mean anything?" And Loughner's killing spree has touched off the media's obsession with that same question, leading a CNN anchor to apologize for using the term "crosshairs".

It was almost as if the media had come down with a lighter version of Loughner's fixation on grammar as a tool of mind control. If only they could properly censor the language, no one would have to die or go on shooting sprees. Somehow if we refuse to use the word 'crosshairs', no one will ever wind up in anyone else's crosshairs. It's as if the use of the word creates the idea, rather than the word being only another means of describing an idea.

But controlling language is not the same thing as controlling minds. Orwell's 1984 depicted a totalitarian regime which controlled language in order to prevent forbidden ideas from finding expression. Since then (1948 not 1984) the left has obsessively tried to politicize language. There are entire seminars on the political uses of language. Newscasts are dotted with politically correct terminology, homeless, differently abled, custodial worker-- yet has changing language actually changed attitudes?

Historically euphemisms have taken on the meaning of the underlying idea. So much so that today we often have no idea that many of the taboo words in our language started out as euphemisms. That is because language is a way to express ideas and emotions. A language which attempts to repress common human tendencies will be subverted by slang and eventually transformed by common use, no matter how much the grammarians may protest. Even in totalitarian states, it is the people who control the language, not the language which controls the people.

Believing that words can change reality is magical thinking that appeals to lunatics and tyrants who view other people as less than human, machines whose functions can be altered by inputting the right code. When Giffords replied to Loughner's question, "How do you know words mean anything?" with a few words of Spanish, she was implicitly suggesting that meaning is contextual. Spanish has no meaning to those who don't speak it. And it's full of slang words whose meaning shifts by geographical location. While Loughner believed that language had to be decentralized and the media wants language to be centralized, language is a mirror, not the image itself. Language reflects people, rather than creating them.

For Loughner controlling his grammar could have seemed like running an anti-virus program on a machine constantly being hammered by outside invaders. As a schizophrenic, his mind naturally interpreted the gap between reality and his own distorted thoughts as hostile and threatening. Even language carried with it ideas that cut his gray matter the wrong way. By building a fortress out of grammar, he was trying to protect the deviations of his own mind against the invasion of reality. It was not government that he was opposed to as an individual idea, but the entire world outside his shaved head. A world whose normalcy impinged on his madness with its status quo of sanity.

The media with its word madness is another kind of nut. It is natural for people who work with language to believe in its power. Writers believe in the supremacy of the pen like no one else. Creating worlds out of language circularly allows them to see the creative powers of the word. But for a propagandist press, words are not creative, but constructive. They are building blocks in creating the world that they would like to see. The careful use of language and the delineation of forbidden and permitted words allows them to manufacture and market their worldview to the masses. Orwell's Newspeak, written on digital sand. To the builders and the bosses of the worldview, if something cannot be said, then it also cannot exist. Stop saying 'crosshairs' and no one will ever point a gun. It is absurd, but also grimly revealing.

The media believes in its own power far more than anyone else does. And how could it be otherwise. If they didn't believe in their own power and influence, then why bother. (Aside from the high salaries and free hair gel.) The media's mission is to change minds, to educate and inform the common man so that he will become more enlightened. So that he will become more like them. The blowdried white man's burden operating out of a studio adjoining Park Avenue.

The best propaganda is not just accepted by those who hear it, but also by those who tell it. The lie so compelling that even the liar comes to believe in it. But lies are accepted more deeply when they appeal to the emotions and worldview of the hearer. And so when there is a cultural gap, the liar is more often fooled, than the lied to. He believes his own lie, because he wants to believe it. The lie reflects how he thinks the world really works.


With the rise of the Tea Party, the left finds itself in the curious position of once again denouncing the right as violent agitators plotting a mass revolt against the government-- an occupation that is meant to be the exclusive provenance of the community organizers of the left. But such accusations always reveal more about the accusers, than they do about the accused. What this accusation reveals is a view of the public along the lines of the proles in 1984, mindless and unthinking workers and peasants who can never do more than trudge to their jobs and drink beer, unless someone from the intellectual classes works them up to it with the right combination of words.

When the media fails to win on an issue, it will blame the messaging. But if after every effort is exhausted, the public remains unconvinced, it will decide that the public is unreasonable. Dangerously so. In the media narrative, unpersuadability is equivalent to irrationality. And such people are dangerous. Having placed its own worldview at the apex of reason, worldviews that deviate from it are treated as unreasonable to the extent and magnitude of their deviation. Culture gaps that are not based on race or ethnicity, will elicit a violently xenophobic response. While the media celebrates diversity, it is actually profoundly intolerant of differences.

The media's chief power is language. The word that contextualizes the carefully selected image. It is easy for  them to slip into the error that it is the word that alters reality. That events and people can be transformed just as comprehensively as the images and videos can be contextualized and framed by their narrative. The idea that the people and events on the other end of the viewfinder may have an energy and a force that dwarfs their own never properly occurs to them, except during the occasional war or revolution. And even then they remain confident that their live version of history will properly define it as it should be. Will fix it in the frame of the lens and freeze it that way forever.

In such a frame of mind, it can seem as if their act of withdrawing a word from the collective grammar of the broadcast will also withdraw it from the minds of the listeners, as comprehensively as anything Orwell envisioned in 1984. And a larger uninformed public, which to them always seems on the razor edge of bursting into unreasoning violence, will no longer have the mental tools to plot and plan violence against government officials. It is the arrogance of the tyrant in the bubble,representing an alienation from the general public that is almost as pervasive as the one that hummed inside Loughner's malfunctioning brain.

Loughner and the media both agree that words can control men's minds. The media's descent into the madness of the speech police reflects a multichannel schizophrenia of their own. The belief that their words create reality. And in the crosshairs of the speech police, criminals become the victims of language, and language becomes the target.

13 comments:

mindRider said...

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. You can not deny that words do not cause change in human being's be they sick or sound, actions. There is no way of frazing the negative into such a form that it would not trigger this or that instable person or seed a doer into acting upon the heard, so indeed no matter how much we try, indesirable concepts shall always be verbalized in one way or an other affecting the hearer.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Yes and men aren't G-d. Human words have limited power. They can only direct people where they already want to go.

People don't act because words force them to. They act because they want to.

mindRider said...

The citate does not tell us that humans are G'd but do imply that the word is all powerful that all action starts not with the thought but the spoken word!
Than why else would the word be needed to take the step from thought to acting for those individuals standing ready in their starting blocks?

Anonymous said...

Pardon me, but could you spare some time for an out of work ex-pat? I like this blog but I disagree vehemently here with this premise of this.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece. The very premise that I am so easily controlled and driven by language automatically takes me out of the category of free-thinking individual and places me in the category of mindless drone who will obey my masters. I will not be owned or controlled and the language has nothing to do with it. Crosshairs / reticle / bullseye / sight picture - whatever. You can call what I see the instant before the trigger breaks calamari, I don't care. Men and women make their own decisions and must live with them, even those whose brains are broken. If you accept the fact we are individuals then you accept that we are responsible for our choices - good or bad. This is what the left cannot tolerate and why they fight it because it shows them for what they are - an over-"educated", morally challenged, elitist minority group who would survive less than a decade if allowed to impose their world view on the rest of us. Whether conquered by an invading force or whimpered away due to a lack of wisdom and the ability to "do", they cannot survive without those of us they despise and it drives them to the threshold of insanity.

KM

ParaPacem said...

What an excellent article - it concisely encapsulates the area of thought-engineering described in 1984, and gives me a flashback to the first time that I read of an IRS official referring to their rape of the working man's paycheck as our 'voluntary tax contribution'.
First visit to your blog, via WRSA link, but will be returning regularly now

Keli Ata said...

I can't believe a journalist would apologize for using a commonly used word is commonly in connection with violent crime but also as a non-violent euphamism. In the Arizona case it was indeed literal.

A mentally stable lawabiding person isn't going to snap and turn into a killer just because of words.

The media can call terrorists "insurgents" all they want but it doesn't change the fact that they're terrorists.

Totally OT but I refuse to call robbers bandits because it's too cutesy for a violent crime. It's a major pet peeve of mine.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

mindrider - action begins with thought, not word. Words articulate thoughts.

anonymous 1, you're probably spam, but you got the benefit of my doubt.

KM/anonymous 2, exactly. They don't see people as individuals, but as a mass mind that they can try to steer one way or another. And that leads them directly to tyranny.

parapacem, and leading to voluntary tyranny. But the bureaucratic transformation of language can't travel far beyond bureaucracies. Once it gets into common use, words end up meaning what they do anyway.

k.a., it was a fairly surreal moment. But they've got it into their heads that they can control what goes on in other people's heads.

mindRider said...

@keli ata ...a mentally stable law-abiding.....what do you think many German Nazi's where before the words of Hitler (may his memory be damned).

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

The Nazis didn't snap and turn into killers because of words. They were killers all along. Hitler just gave them a chance to act out what they already wanted to do, e.g. kill the Jews and punish the rest of Western Europe for WW1.

thedametruth said...

It is truly a shame that media is suddenly so fixated upon grammar, for never have I heard such a plethora of poor grammar, poor taste and low intelligence from any sector. The days of articulate, eloquent and well informed journalists are long gone, dead and buried with such masters as Cronkite, Murrow and their ilk. They have been replaced by mindless, poorly educated monkeys with nothing salient to say, who chatter away, intent on being heard, and ignorant of how to say anything well.

thedametruth said...

Dan, as always, brilliant observations. You're always spot on. thanks for all you do!

bip,

The Dame;)

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

thank you,

their job is to essentially capture the public's attention long enough to spoon feed their propaganda

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