Dave Hickey’s Column Language and Freedom There is one evil that concerns literature which should never be passed over in silence but be continually publicly attacked, and that is the corruption of the language. . . . But the critic who concerns himself with this evil must attack it at its source, which is not in works of literature but in the misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, politicians, etc. W. H. Auden, Reading Austin It is easier for an Englishman than an American to complain about the corruption of the language. After all, it was their’s first, and free speech, like free enterprise, is one of the fetishes of American culture. In fact, I would be willing to admit that freedom with the public language has enriched our literature at least as much as freedom with the public lands has enriched our industrialists. But it may be that the language, like the environment, can only be plundered so many times for quick profit without becoming polluted. And when different words and different forms do not yield different meanings, then the language is polluted. Freedom of expression may allow a man to speak out, and freedom of speech allow him to use whatever words he wishes, but if different words do not have different meanings, then freedom of expression is merely the right to make noise, and free speech the right to choose the noise you wish to make. Herein lies the terror of Orwell’s New-speak. If “true” means “false” and “good” means “bad” and “war” means “peace” then even with all the words in the world and the sacred right to speak them, the individual is silenced. In lieu of “Big Brother” we in America have developed television news commentators and freshman English teachers. The commentators do what the English teachers teach, and that is \(in the words of one honestly in clear, simple American English.” These are the same English teachers who sit over coffee bemoaning the fact that their students honestly think reality is so clear, so simple, and so American. This sort of verbal schizophrenia would not be SQ damnable, were it not for thefact that language is naturally corrupted as the currency of everyday affairs. It is a fantastically complicated and sensitive instrument, and most people have no need for it at all. It is merely a convenience handy for carrying instructions over great distances. Other than that most people have no use for human language. To express oneself or to impress oneself onto others, any animal language will do. Your cocker spaniel can do as much: he has one bark that says “me-yes” and another bark which says “you-no.” Your average adolescent has a language of about that much complexity, he only varies the vocabulary out of boredom. Being a nomadic herd creature, this is all the language he needs: “groovy-baby” and “bad-scene-man.” Your domestic herds pastured in suburbs have their own phonetic equivalents. Aside from alarms, then, there are only two basic conversations. Two creatures hear a noise: one of them says, “groovybaby,” the other one says “groovy-baby.” This means they both approve of the noise, and therefore are members of the same herd. If they had both said “bad-sceneman” the meaning would be the same. In neither case do they say anything about the noise itself. What is important is that they “understand” one another. If, on the other hand, two creatures hear a noise and one says “groovy-baby,” and the other creature says “bad-scene-man,” this means that there is disagreement over the sound, so obviously they are not members of the same herd. They do not understand one another, they are alienated from one another. These are the two basic conversations. In neither case is any further language necessary, nor is any further conversation. Any variations in the “degree” of grooviness can be implied by gesture and inflection, as can the relative badness of the scene. This is basic communication; it does one thing establishes community. If you were lucky, you could teach a man to fly a jet by saying nothing but “groovy-baby” and “bad-scene-man”; any further elaboration is purely for convenience. Computers speak in “ons” and “offs” but the language is the same, and the logic is too. If a word means nothing, then it can mean anything. A language like this, since it does nothing but evaluate would seem to lend itself to the appreciation or art and literature, but it doesn’t. What is really defined by groovy-baby and bad-scene-man is an object’s acceptability to the community. The object itself is totally ignored. It is just another extension for the self. Even when a “groovy” object or event is analyzed, it is always according to its utility in defining the community. “What does the new Beatles record tell us about us?” Like many primitive languages there is no disjunction between “nouns” and “verbs,” between “form” and “function.” A thing is defined according to its utility, according to what it does, and everything, naturally, does its thing. One pro-noun and one pro-verb and the world has been dealt with, insofar as man is an animal who requires food, clothing, shelter and the society of others of his kind. Simply, human language is not necessary for the necessities of life. What human language is necessary for, is freedom. Only by using human speech can a man simultaneously assert his membership in the community and his individuality within it. When a lawmaker proposes legislation, he must use language; when a tyrant orders an execution, he need only gesture; when a poet makes a poem, he says a private thing, but he says it in a public form. The whole affairs is really miraculous. A human language inevitably embodies the values of its community, but it is only used to disagree with those values. Platitudes and cliches and definitions are avoided, and rarely spoken. They do not express the individual, and we can hardly avoid regarding an individual who speaks in platitudes, cliches and definitions as something subhuman. If a fellow walks up to you and says, “A horse is a four-legged domestic beast of burden.” He is either a fool, a joker, or a computer. When Karl Kraus said that “language is the universal whore which I am always trying to make into a virgin,” he was expressing the dilemma common to all of us who try to use language humanely. The poet and the lawmaker use the language to dissent from the community, but not to subject it. The politician and the journalist use the language as a weapon, and in this way the language is corrupted. The politician says “live this way” and the journalist says “this is the way you live.” The simplest way to rob a man of his individuality and his freedom is to censor his language or blur its distinctions so that he can only say one of two things: yes or no. This is a standard tactic, sometimes necessary, but hardly honest. General statements are always used to incite violence, since they eliminate choice by censoring the language. If “all whites are racists” is true, then there is no freedom. And true or not the language is being used coercively. Once the axiom is accepted, race relations can only be discussed at a cocker spaniel level: “me-yes” and “you-no.” Once it is denied, the problem of blacks and whites disappears into a more complex problem of individuals in a community. So the language of law and poetry is necessarily as complex as the language of ideology and journalism is simple. March 28, 1969 13
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