Saturday, March 8, 2008


“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thought-crime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it.” A character in Orwell’s 1984.

Acquiring a language I think is like taking a trip to the optometrist. You see the world broadly if somewhat less sharply at a certain range and then the doctor places a lens in front of your eyes. Suddenly what you were looking at becomes clearer. But at a cost. The perimeter is less clear. That lens is your native language and you don’t recall the trip to the optometrist because it seems you’ve always worn glasses.

If you acquire an advanced degree, or pursue a certain profession, you find that another lens is placed in front of that one too. That lens may be the obfuscatory jargon of the law profession, a scientific discipline, law enforcement, or economics, for example. This lens will allow you to see one area of life with even more clarity and precision than commonplace vision, but a cost. Vital information about life will fall out of focus.

If in the pursuit of higher education, or foreign travel, you gain fluency in a foreign language, you find that all these lenses will be cast aside in favour of a new one—the new language. Objective reality may remain the same, but the classification system of each language—its structure, substance, gender, number, time and vocabulary assist the users to perceive the world in a certain way, but also limit that perception. To speak a different language is to think in that language and therefore to think differently because you perceive only what your language allows you or pre-disposes you to perceive. Your language shapes your world view because it acts as blinkers. Speakers of different languages, therefore, have different world views. People do not live in an objective world, but one where we are at the mercy of languages as both as a medium of expression and filters that admit only selected parts of reality into our consciousness.

As a university student I was struck by the fact that students who majored in various other disciplines seemed to inhabit perceptual solitudes that made cross-disciplinary communication difficult at best. It wasn’t simply the fact that each sector of students were informed by a different knowledge base, or even that each student spoke the idiom of his field of study, but that that idiom , that jargon, did not give him the conceptual tools to interpret information from another student’s area of study. Fostering cross-disciplinary discussion in this academic Tower of Babel seemed a more daunting task than arranging a conference at the United Nations.

It would seem obvious that some languages would be more equipped or more handicapped at describing certain concepts or objects and that if it was an environmental requirement to describe them adeptly a speaker of that language would be able to discern them more ably. He would not only be able to report his experience with the right linguistic ammunition, but experience it differently. This linguistic construction on experience can be illustrated by an example drawn from within a language, that is, between an American and a British dialect. Let me contrast the way I experienced a Wimbleton tennis match , the same match, as mediated by American English and then by British English. Two languages, one event, two realities.

The loquacious American commentators were incapable of saying anything with economy. One sportscaster would spend 60 seconds fumbling for words in an attempt to explain why the favourite was not at the top of his game, while his BBC counterpart tersely remarked “the champion lacks resolve.” What was so extraordinary about the British telecast was the silence. Often four, six points would go by before a soft and carefully enunciated crisp British voice would say “extraordinary shot, that”, reminding me that there were indeed commentators viewing the action. The long interludes of silence between volleys would allow me to become part of the match. I would hear the swells of crowd noise, the soft pop of the racquets striking the balls and the drama of the event, reminding me of how differently the two language styles could frame the experience. I didn’t hear the over-the-top American superlatives. Instead of “blistering returns” there were “imaginative replies”, a badly hit shot was “an awkward ball”, a “killer” volley was a “clever bit of improvisation” and a temper tantrum was described as “a piece of patented brinkmanship.” For Americans, silence is a dreaded void to be filled with flat-screen TVs that pollute every bar. That point here is, the spectator experiences the same sporting event quite differently in the Queen’s English than he does in the version across the Atlantic.

The concept of language as a kind of lens or filter, or even straitjacket, cannot be over-stated. Wittgenstein said that the limits of language are the limits of one’s world. By that token, bilingual or multilingual people have broader vision. It is not what we look at, the poverty, the injustice, the overpopulation, the environmental degradation, that is paramount. But the linguistic construction built in to filter that reality, to bring it into sharp focus, or make us blind to it.

The question becomes then, whose lens are we wearing? What filter are we looking through? How do we remove it?

In 1984 George Orwell revealed that the purpose of Newspeak, the language of his fictional totalitarian regime, was to rid old English (Oldspeak) of all adjectives and unnecessary words so that people would be not be able to feel or think. If one could not describe sadness, one could not feel it, and if there was no word for democracy or justice one couldn’t complain about the government. By eliminating words, Newspeak would eliminate the range of thoughts..

Lancaster University’s Professor Tony McEnery concluded that computer games and MP3 players have accomplished much the same thing in teenagers. (“Technology Isolation Syndrome”). His 2006 study of speech, blogs and questionnaires found that teenagers used half the average words of 25-34 year olds and that 20 words accounted for a third of their speech.

It looked for a time that a subtle totalitarian language would emerge from the Human Potential Movement in California in the 1970s. As R. D. Rosen dubbed it, “Psychobabble” was a mode of confession “that confessed nothing” and in its attempt to escape the confining vocabulary of Freudianism it substituted a jargon that had no theoretical roots. But it gave way to a puritanical tsunami that swept over every major institution in the English speaking world. “Political correctness”. It’s objectives are classically Orwellian. The notion is that if we don’t label people or things by conventionally harmful terms, then people will desist from thinking of them in those terms. And if politically acceptable euphemisms are substituted and repeated ad nauseum, the ideological brain-transplant will be completed. Whilst dangerous, some politically correct neologisms can be quite funny. .

For example, the homeless are now the “involuntarily undomiciled”. And a drunk is “a person of differing sobriety.” While a junkie is merely someone with pressing pharmacological preferences. Someone who is untrustworthy is just “ethically disoriented” while a lazy man is only “motivationally deficient”. Someone chronically late is “temporally challenged” and a prostitute is not a streetwalker or a whore but a “sex care provider” presenting themselves as a commodity allotment with a business doctrine. As a white man, I am a “mutant albino genetic-recessive global minority”, and the diction I practice is in reality just the style and writing imposed upon the world by “patriarchal white lexicographers.” Standard English is “capitalistic patriarchal hegemonic discourse.”

Each vested interest and lobby now seems to have its own “politically correct” euphemisms. The Pentagon were groundbreakers in this respect. A “clean” bomb was a nuclear device or neutron bomb that kills people but leaves infrastructure intact. Civilian deaths could be disguised as “collateral damage”. Assassination is “wet work”, bombs that hit civilians as “incontinent ordinance”. Dead soldiers are just “non-operative personnel or “terminally inconvenienced” or “non-viable”. Bombing an unintended target like a hospital could be dismissed as an “accidental delivery of ordinance equipment.” And military failure, like President Carter’s ill-fated Iranian desert raid, could be termed as an “incomplete success.”

Ministers of Labour, meanwhile call their union-busting legislation “right to work” laws and the scabs that are used to break strikes are accorded a more morally sanitized name, “replacement workers”. Trade union officials that haven’t the guts to tell their membership that they calling for amnesty for ‘illegal’ workers instead say they wish to “regularize” them. And they are not illegal, they are undocumented, even though they used forged documents to get into the country. Finance Ministers call the stock market crash “an equity retreat” and warn we may experience “negative economic growth”. Couldn’t use the word “contraction” if it killed them. Conservation officials call the mass slaughter of wild animals “game management” and the Environment Ministry describes the explosive destruction of a nuclear reactor core like Chernobyl’s as a “core management event”

. The nuclear industry has conducted its own unique detoxification of plain English. An explosion is an “energetic dissembly” and a fire is “rapid oxidation”. Plutonium contamination is “infiltration” and a reactor accident is to be referred to as a “normal aberration”. “Spin” is a new breed of deceit three decades in the making which attempts to effect damage control by the use of euphemisms. And what are euphemisms essentially but a kind of linguistic Demerol to diminish painful truth by re-labeling it.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is gifted in that department. They once decided to sanitize their lexicon by banishing the “hazard” because it allegedly triggered panic in the American public. Health “hazards” were not to be mentioned and the Office of Hazardous Emergency Response was re-established as the “Office of Emergency and Remedial Action”. And Enforcement Personnel became the more friendly “Compliance Assistance Officers”.

But it is in Growthism where language makes it most incursive, dangerous and decisive intervention in the determination of what we perceive to be real today. The ideology that economic and population growth is beneficial, necessary and inevitable prevails, to a large extent, because the language which mediates that message has colonized academic forums, radio and television studios and print media. Consequently the reality of environmental Armageddon is seen by the audience through rose coloured glasses that are worn by the presenters, their guests and researchers and tinted by the vocabulary they use to interpret that reality. The audience therefore never sees or hears that every economic “boom” is an environmental “bust” and only comes to know “growth” via positive connotations.

For example, when Statistics Canada released its Census Report in mid March of 2007, those localities like British Columbia and Alberta which gained people from the previous census, were anointed census “winners” by the media as if a prize was going to be awarded for more pollution, GHG emissions, congestion, farmland and habitat loss. Prince Rupert, BC and Saskatchewan, on the other hand were designated as census “losers” for having fewer people than five years before. Newscasters consistently report that Canada “enjoyed” record growth or that the Maritimes “suffered” a “stagnant” economy with “sluggish” housing starts. The concept that Canadians might “enjoy” a steady state economy that didn’t cover arable land and habitat with subdivisions is foreign to news script writers.

The word “growth” itself has undergone many makeovers in recent years to make it palatable to those of us who wouldn’t swallow it otherwise. Growth has become “managed growth”, “deflected growth”, “smart growth”, and the ultimate oxymoron, “sustainable growth”. It seems that urban planners concoct a new label every year for the same snake oil it. To preserve all those wonderful green spaces that we love, planners propose to cram more and more of us into smaller and smaller urban compartments. But if we don’t like sprawl, we like density even less. So Great Vancouver planners tried to package it under the name of “compaction”. When ratepayers wouldn’t buy into that garbage, planners re-marketed it under the label “Coreplan”. No dice. Now its back as “Eco-density”. Density with green paint over it. The one name you won’t ever hear from planners though is “growth-control”. That is outside their frame of reference.

Our culture abounds with so many sweet-sounding buzzwords like “sustainable”, “livable”. “affordable”, “diverse”, “vibrant”, “inclusive”, “pro-active”, “choice” ---the vocabulary of deceit. Attach these adjectives to anything you want to sell or run past the planning objectors---any self-serving development scam for example---and you can jam it through as easily as candy down a baby’s hatch.

The filter of growthist language in Anglophone societies is combined with the filter of multiculturalism---a smokescreen of left-wing tolerance that cloaks the right wing development agenda. Cultural diversity is much like a leaky air mattress that can only be kept afloat by constant pumping, the air being people from abroad. The language of diversity and tolerance is thus recruited to rationalize the policy of mass immigration and economic growth, always couched in the most positive terms. Growthism and Multiculturalism are a lexical duopoly.

How then do we remove their lens? The first answer is to substitute it with our lens. Ecological economists are attempting to do just that by developing indices of real economic performance, as if the planet mattered. We have to continually challenge media terminology and offer our own. When the CBC boasts that the country is diverse we counter by saying that is culturally fragmented and has lost cohesion. When the CBC says that immigration is the solution we have to demand that they prove that there is a problem. When the CBC states that the population of Newfoundland has stagnated we must declare that it has stabilized.

The second answer is to be found in the pages of Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”: “We can never dispense with language and the other symbol systems: for it is by means of them and only by their means, that we have raised ourselves above the brutes to the level of human beings. But we can easily become the victims as well as the beneficiaries of these systems. We must learn how to handle words effectively, but at the same time we must preserve and if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through the half-opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too-familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.”

Huxley is not suggesting that we abandon symbolic reasoning, but broaden our perception to grasp the real and not just its symbols, so we can appreciate the relationship of words and things. Words are, after all, just a proxy for experience, a shorthand to build or explore new avenues. Better to imagine how a piano could be carried up a staircase than try by trial and error. But conceiving and planning are not to be confused with the actual lifting of the piano. Words are not to be confused with reality, nor lifeless abstractions with life itself. Objective reality is not a linguistic construction.

When I was 19 years of age, under controlled clinical conditions, I walked through one of Aldous Huxley’s doors of perception, and I saw a reality that four years of intense undergraduate study had not shown me. The experience was very much like a journey, or “trip” to use the vernacular of the time, and it yielded insights that I have never had before or since. My brother was administered the same psychotropic, and it changed his worldview irrevocably. He abruptly quit his good career and moved his family into a 42 foot boat that he built at the back of his home, abandoned urban life and consumerism and spent the rest of his days close to wilderness. His decision recalled a comment by Carlos Casteneda: “Conclusions arrived at through reasoning have little influence in altering the course of our lives.”

It is ironic that mescaline is classified as an hallucinogenic drug, for surely it is those who believe that infinite growth can continue on a finite planet who are hallucinating. I would speculate that if somehow mescaline was dispensed on a mass scale the grip of Madison avenue would be broken and the concept of destabilizing society and nature to chase higher profit margins would seem absurd. So far, only North American indigenous peoples are permitted the use of peyote to embark on vision quests.

Some might be outraged by any suggestion here of advocacy of pyschodelics. I oppose the recreational use of drugs and would prefer that people employ deep meditation and study to expand their minds. But I suspect that more damage is done by benzodiazepines than was ever done by “acid”. Did some have bad trips and go mad?. In my entire campus life I never heard of one, but I’ll take your word for it. I have, however, heard of many people dying of an anaphylactic shock from eating a peanut, or of liver cancer from alcoholism, and they all died unenlightened. And I have read of 3-4 billion people who will die in a generation if there is not a radical change of consciousness. No matter, this is quite academic. Mescaline therapy won’t happen. The point here was only to say that stripped of language, a new understanding and a set of new insights can be revealed.

There is a dormant awareness that can be awakened, but the filters must first be removed, the lens put aside. It might take a psychedelic experience, an emotional upheaval or shock or a reality-mediated revelation like the long emergency of resource depletions and ecological collapse, but the consciousness which now seems set in concrete and apparently needs a jackhammer to break apart will indeed emerge. Whether it will be in time to save us is doubtful. In the meantime, all we can do is appeal to the limited awareness that people have using an alternative vocabulary to the one they have been given, or in the words of population sociologist Sheila Newman, exploit that “chink left in peoples’ consciousness and expose those marketed absurdities as shimmering but empty dust motes in the mad attic of culturally induced agnosia.”

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