Thursday, May 5, 2016

Reflections on words, words, words....


I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are as slaves. (Jonathan Swift, on lawyers)

George Orwell’s ministry of truth is one of literature’s best examples of Swift’s satire. In 1984, War is Peace and Peace is War...enemies now were friends once, and the reverse is also true. Just as in Orwell’s satire, truth telling is one of the casualties of the modern political culture (not only of war in the literal sense). The speak-masters, the silver-tongued orators are paid handsomely for their skill in getting others to listen, and listening today means “buying” or “taking the bait” or “marking the ballot” or joining the group....

Call it prosletyzing, marketing, political rhetoric, advertising, propaganda or the more recent infomercial, the hybrid that openly admits it is selling the audience on some product or service, political party, religious community or recruitment program, or put in more euphemistic terms, public relations, information management, brand-polishing....the spin-doctors are the slave-masters unless and until their message and their client are exposed for having kept the body politic in the dark.

And of course, the courtroom is still the venue where the art and skill of manipulating the perceptions/realities of the judge, magistrate and/or jury matters most directly and most immediately. The lives of those “on trial” are in the hands of those best trained and most practiced in the multiple tasks of research, investigative detective work, taking on the experience of their client and then illustrating how that evidence demonstrates their desired outcome. The definitions of words, especially words for which there are a plethora of images in the minds of diverse people, takes on a special significance when used to compose a legal defence. Similarly, when one seeks a path on which to trod as a spiritual pilgrim, it is words and the multiple sources of those words in our individual lives, that help to shape our experience of various faith components such as “Jesus,” “God,” “salvation,” and of course, “heaven and hell”.

We have all, in the western world, walked paths filled with sounds, sights, messages and even imaginations’ expressions of all of the  significant signposts that form the linguistic foundations for our basic understanding of the meanings of individual lives (see existentialism, for example) and the relationships between individual lives and the wider body politic. And most of the language available for our discourse can be found in our forefathers’ early exposure to what Northrop Frye calls The Great Code, in his work that links English Literature back to the stories, the structures and the foundations in what we know as the Bible.

So much of our understanding of our own lives, and the lives of those around us is rooted in the pathways of heroes and outlaws originally painted in scripture, picked up by later writers and massaged over the centuries, as we attempt to put our own ‘mark’ on the original images as our contribution to history. And those individuals who were in touch with troubling truths, those truths that others would rather ignore, colour or cover-up, postpone, or even deny, were often among those most despised among their peers.

We are a species who work like beavers to mask the gaps in our sight, our memory, our capacity to face our own self-sabotage. And most of the early signs of developing masks are the words we select to ‘frame’ our situation. Recently, I learned of a young woman who, while co-habiting with an older male, became pregnant, knowing of her partner’s deep and profound conviction never to father children. Conflicting motives in the light of a new life, of course, have and will continue to raise “issues” in the lives of the couple, as well as the life of the unborn child, starting with the ‘issue’ of whether or not to abort the fetus.

Our culture feels quite comfortable tossing around words like “victim” or “jerk” when individuals feel trapped in circumstances over which they perceive they have lost control. And the vocabulary of the entrapped becomes the first wave of a potentially ensuing conflict, both in human and domestic terms, and also in geopolitical terms. Frye, in another of his many insightful writings, “The Educated Imagination” describes the two levels of language, that of ‘practical sense’ and that of literature. The former is the language of daily discourse, in which words and sentences attempt to cope with our individual and professional responsibilities. Courtrooms, news agencies, water-cooler conversations, pub-talks, workplace interactions are the stuff of the language of practical sense. Literature, including novels, poetry, movies, plays deploy language of a different level: the language of the imagination which generally seeks to unite what would normally appear to be opposites, through literary devices like metaphor
(in which two things are identified: he is a bull in a china shop), simile (in which two things are compared: she is like a birdsong in the early morning) or personification (in which an object is given qualities of a human: the tree shook angrily in the violent wind).

It is not so much that the words used in the practical sense world are different from those used in works of fiction or poetry; it is more the degree of imaginative vibrations that both the writer/speaker intend and the reader/listener receive. One of the more simple ways of clarifying these vibrations is to invoke the distinction between the connotative and the denotative use and meaning of words.

Denotative language conveys the language of practical sense, in which words are generally agreed to have their literal meaning. On the other hand, connotative meanings are mined through reflections on the multiple layers of meaning to a word or a phrase, and especially to a figure of speech (metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia (words making the sound of nature). And when our emotions are aroused, regardless of whether that arousal is positive or negative, happy or sad, comfortable or anguished, (or all of the many variants on both of these emotional poles) then we are less consciously controlling and manipulating our words, and our expressions.

Stripped of all (or as much as is feasible) emotional content, lawyers are expected to refrain from expressions overlaid with emotional content. Witnesses may, on occasion, repeat the emotional experience as part of their evidence, but the tone of the room is clinical, as far as the judge and the professionals can provide such “professionalism”.

Similarly, operating rooms, pathology laboratories, police reports and criminal investigations, the anecdotal reporting of statistical evidence...they are all vacuumed of evidence of emotional freight in the words and the sentences used  by their authors.

On the other hand, in the worlds of the classroom, (at all levels of learning) the counselling/coaching room, the reflections on spiritual matters, and the informal conversations of all of the professionals whose work fences “out” the emotions, the affect is not only useful but essential. Children, adolescents, and most adults are either unfamiliar or unprepared to distinguish their language of practical sense from the language of their affect. Some writers even posit that the only true reality is subjective, elevating the human response above the empirical and the objective. If teachers are unaware of the “feeling” component of their lessons, (presentations, lectures, simulations) both their own and the emotional impact on their students, they are failing both themselves and their students. Those emotions need not emerge as part of the overt experience; however, they will never be extracted from the human experience, regardless of the venue.

There is, too, another important implication of this tension between the subjective (emotional, affective) and the objective (empirical, factual, denotative). Women are generally much more comfortable with the flow between the two while men fight any disclosure, or even any admission of feelings, as expressions of weakness. And that canyon separating the genders has and will continue to fuel divisions, conflicts, divorces, and even broken lives.  Both genders while having what is known as a common language with which to meet and greet and get to know each other, also have significant cultural and even philosophical differences in their selection and deployment of words, images and their most intimate experiences.

In the public arena, of course, these distinctions between the subjective and the objective are rarely honoured, and the language cocktail to which we are subjected increasingly contains toxic words, name-calling, venom rising to libel, and manipulation of our emotions for the purpose of seducing our purchasing decisions, including our voting behaviours, and our religious affiliations. The history books are filled with memorable quotes that epitomize a person, event, or even a period of history....in a world whose voracious appetite for sound bytes is limitless. Some of the more memorable include:

“Tear down that wall Mr. Gorbachev!” (President Reagan speaking in Berlin)

“Would you buy a used car from this man?” (beside a giant visage of Richard Nixon,  on billboards sponsored by the John F. Kennedy campaign)

“Just watch me!” (Pierre Trudeau, when asked how far he would go to stop the FLQ in Quebec)

“Corporate welfare bums!” (NDP leader David Lewis, in opposition to corporate hand-outs)

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (President John F. Kennedy)

However, a different picture is painted of the  body politic, through nuanced discourse that runs in “paragraphs” as Obama is persistently accused of using. And, then there are the wordsmiths like E.J. Pratt, whose line “he seemed to know the harbour, so leisurely he swam” from his poem about Sharks, or his “No! By the Rood, I will not join your ballet!” the last line in his poem “Truant”.And there is T.S. Eliot’s “in the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo” as he describes the hollowness of their lives.

And of course, there are the memorable lines from earlier English and American verse:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” (Shakespeare)

“Two paths diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference” (Robert Frost)

“For oft in vacant or in pensive mood, I dance with the daffodils” (Woodsworth)

“All experience in an arch through which gleams the untold fields” (Tennyson)

“Happiness is a brief relief in the general drama of pain” (Thomas Hardy)

“I learned to love by hating” (Irving Layton)

“When he knew that only drowning men could see him, he said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them” (Leonard Cohen)

And the clarity and the integrity of such utterances have to be held in graphic relief beside the contemporary attempts at rendering “black as white” and “white as black” in the American political discourse: Voters must have the right to weigh in on the next Supreme Court appointment, so the decision must be left until after the November 2016 election (Denying and then avoiding having to reconcile such blithering with the facts that voters already elected President Obama, and his appointment is merely the result of his doing his job.) Or the more contemptible “Liar” and “crooked” and the demeaning of the characters of his opponents by the presumptive presidential candidate of the Republican party....such reductionisms so insult not only the political culture, and the nation of the United States, but also call into question the relevance of the nation’s engagement in geopolitics should the trump-maniac win the election.

Language does indeed matter, not only in the courtroom, and the classroom, the sanctuary and the political stump! And one of the ironies of this political season is that the worst model of masculinity to ever run for the presidency could and likely will guarantee the election of the first female president, whose likeability ratings are nearly as low as his, but for very different reasons.

Clearly, the public’s capacity to discern when they are being duped remains in question: some seening through the fog of deceit and seduction, while others gobbling the deceptions and the raised “finger” of contempt as if it were transports filled with fast food.

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