JOHN MCWHORTER JANUARY 10, 2011
Does anybody truly believe, even in the wake of something as hideous as what happened in Tucson last weekend, that we can do something as quixotic and indefinable as policing incendiary language on the web?
I get it if calling for this is about politics. But is anybody really thinking that this debate is about something real?
The object of discussion is real enough: the coarser brand of language we hear along the lines of Ms. Palin’s “Don’t retreat, reload” line, which is a symptom of a larger ill, the escalation of political polarization. Too often, though, this is discussed as if it were due to something in the water of late, or something uniquely repulsive about specific entities like Glenn Beck.
The actual cause of this new national temper is technology and its intersection with how language is used. Language exists in two forms in modern times: speech and writing. Writing is a latterly invention only some thousands of years old, produced and received more slowly than talk. It encourages reflection, extended argument (something almost impossible to convey amidst the overlapping chaos of conversation), and objectivity. Writing is, in the McLuhanesque sense, cool.
It once mediated much more between people in politics. Even speeches were couched in writerly prose. Most were expected to engage them on the page, as technology didn’t allow all Americans to see politicians speaking live at the press of a button. Plus, without amplification, public language had to be more careful and explicit. One could not stand before a crowd and “just talk.” Public language had to be like the public dress of the period: effortful. Even Millard Fillmore’s inaugural address reads like Virgil.
It is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life. The internet brings us back to the linguistic culture our species arose in—all about speech: live, emotional, unreflective, and punchy. The slogan trumps the argument. Anger, often of hazy provenance but ever cathartic (“I want my country back”) takes fire. All of this is reinforced by the synergy of on line “communities” stoking up passions on a scale that snail mail never could.
The reason that in the old days no political candidate taken seriously tossed off the likes of “Don’t retreat, reload” as a prime calling card was that America was still a culture of formal rhetoric, descendant from a tradition that began with the carefully honed oratorical skills of Ancient Greeks. With broadband and YouTube, the only question is why a culture of written-style language would persist.
Inevitably, it would seem, punchy, “incendiary” speech will sometimes serve as fodder for twisted minds to go out and do unspeakable things. Just maybe a case can be made that people like Glenn Beck and Anwar Al-Awlaki increase the number of loonies moved to take it to the next level, although we must never forget that serial murder and random assassinations were hardly unknown before broadband.
Naturally one asks at this point whether punchy need necessarily be incendiary. I suggest that the difference between the two is too ambiguous to submit usefully to policing, either formal or moral. Because we will not be rid of the punchy part—YouTube and its ilk are here to stay—we should face that we are also stuck with the incendiary part.
This is the rub: What’s “incendiary”? Upon what basis do we decide that someone saying “Don’t retreat, reload” is being incendiary when all of us know, loony or not, that the intent of the sentence was metaphorical?
Because we all do know that; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be human. Language is all about metaphor—we do not use words simply as vehicles of tidy and unchanging dictionary definitions. Language is much more a marvelous mess than that. Anthropologist Donald Brown has even included in his list of human universals a basic understanding that the link between language and its literal referents is highly inexact. That is, all persons, be they in a rain forest tribe or a tall building in New York, understand this.
And are subject to it more than they typically suppose. Try this: Here’s the money passage from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech:
The glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans—ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
A great deal of that sentence emerged in metaphor, engaged in by people via the same mental process that allows to understand that Sarah Palin was not urging us to fire a weapon. True comes from a word in Proto–Indo-European, the grandfather tongue to most European languages, meaning tree—it started as tree and came to mean “steady as an oak.” The -ly on truly started as a separate word, that meant body. Body came to signify “like,” as in resembling this body, and that shortened to a suffix -ly that means “like.” Note the likeness in meaning between homebody and homely to get the sense in which -ly developed from body via, again, metaphor.
World started as two words that meant man age—that is, the human race, or world. Fellow started as a Norse word that meant fee layer—i.e. someone who laid down some money with you in a joint venture. The inference from that was friend, or fellow.
And so on. We don’t think of these words as metaphors now—but that’s only because the process of change has gone so far for them. Eons ago, those words were in intermedate states of drift from literal to abstract meaning. Now, others are. Here’s one: Is a dude a man or a woman? If it’s a man, then listen to younger women today saying to other women, “Dude, it wasn’t even ten o’clock!” Now, that woman would not point to another woman and say “There goes that dude.” But when she addresses a woman as dude, then dude is being used as a female word. Or—is it that in that particular usage by women, dude has morphed into just an interjection like Oh! or Darn!?
Yes, but still, what’s the answer to the question “What does dude mean?” Apparently it’s splayed somewhere across nouniness and interjectionality at this point, and poised in a rather quirky gender application. There are no neat answers here, and that’s how language works. The answer to the question, “Where do you draw the line?” here is: There is no line. Like so much that challenges us, the categories are fuzzy. It’s why the endless debate over what the N-word “means” is so futile—it’s a muddy cross between a slur and a term of endearment and that’s just the way it is.
It seems that we are more open to acknowledging this kind of thing in all of its messiness when it’s people we like who are being “incendiary.” Real-life examples of people left of center using words like target in “incendiary” ways are useful, but equally so is, as always, the thought experiment.
How about: Say it’s 1992 at the Democratic Convention and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan roused the base by urging, precisely, “Don’t retreat, reload!” You know—with her trademark smile and her noble history. So very many people of the kind who spit fire when Sarah Palin says that kind of thing would have been applauding almost teary-eyed if Jordan had said it—fully understanding that she certainly didn’t mean that we should have anything to do with guns.
And note: If some twisted individual the next day listened to her and went out and shot a Republican, we would think, quite simply, that he was insane, that such people will tragically always be with us, and that quite likely if Jordan hadn’t stoked him up, someone or something else would have eventually. We would not blame Barbara Jordan.
Is the analogy off because Jordan would have gotten some points because of being handicapped or female or black? I don’t think so, but if so, substitute Lloyd “You’re No Jack Kennedy” Bentsen. Again, I think we’d be much more understanding of how language works if he said it than if, say, Christine O’Donnell did. Note the blood pressure going up at the mention of her name—or, imagine Dan Quayle saying, “Don’t retreat, reload” ...
See? If we are really to police “incendiary language” then I think a goodly amount of this kind of thought experiment will be necessary, as well as a discussion I promise will be extremely sticky, as to where the metaphorical veers off into the meaningfully dangerous.
Otherwise, perhaps the sad truth is that in a world where we benefit from Google Maps, Hulu, Orbitz, YouTube, streaming, and jpegs, we must also endure the gruesome menace of the Jared Lee Loughners and Nidal Malik Hasans.