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Not by any means: doubletalk in the service of "humane" ends.


This article first appeared in Volume Thirty Six, Number Three of ETC., Fall 1979.

A few years ago, I attended a meeting at which Charles Weingartner, co-author of Teaching As A Subversive Activity, participated in a debate with a rather stern professor of education on the subject of methods of teaching. The professor was, in fact, more than stern. In arguing his case for what he called "humane" approaches to teaching, he was consistently dogmatic and authoritarian, and gave the impression that he had never entertained the possibility that any of his opinions might be mistaken. Toward the conclusion of the debate, Weingartner asked him a question that, as it turned out, was a kind of one-punch knockout. As I recall, the question was put without rancor but with wry astonishment. "Are you," Weingartner asked, "offering yourself as an illustration of the benefits that will accrue from the application of your ideas?"

I have thought of this question on several occasions in the recent past; for example, when reading some of the curious statements made by S. L Hayakawa who, in addition to being a United States Senator, is probably the best-known general semanticist in the world. It is both reasonable and predictable for people to wonder if Hayakawa's current insights are the result of his lifelong study of general semantics. Is he offering himself, one may ask, as an illustration of the benefits of general semantics?

The contradictions between what people do (and say) and the principles they claim to believe in is a subject of endless fascination and permutation, and was the theme of Neil Postman's editorial in the Spring issue of Et cetera. His description of "semantic tyranny" at the NCTE Convention in Kansas City (1978) put special emphasis on the question, To what extent can a "humane" sociological doctrine impel people to abandon their commitments to the sane and responsible uses of language? Of course, this is the question to which George Orwell addressed himself throughout his life, and to which he provided, by way of an answer, an enduring metaphor: 1984. 1984 does not denote a period of time but a state of society and a state of mind. The state of society Orwell warns us about is totalitarian; the state of mind, fanaticism. Orwell's point is that totalitarianism and fanaticism are not identified with particular political goals. They are ways of thinking and behaving from which no doctrine makes us immune. The specific targets of Orwell's attack include not only what we might call "semantic tyranny" but what Orwell sometimes called doublespeak. Semantic tyranny-especially in the realm of politics-is the attempt to control people's behavior through the manipulation of language. It uses a number of strategies, among them the formulation of public policies which revise the language for political ends, the application of prior restraint on what people may write and say, and the practice of censorship. Doublespeak is somewhat different. It is characterized by a use of language that disguises the purposes of a speaker or writer, a use of language that does not bear a clear relationship to observable situations in reality, a use of language that allows its user to pursue, simultaneously, contradictory ends.

Of course, many educated people have read George Orwell or, just as good, have studied general semantics, and are therefore aware of the potential for mischief and danger in the misuses of language. However, a problem arises for some-its name is hypocrisy-when their ardor for a particular doctrine demands only a one-sided surveillance of language usage: They do not and cannot offer their own language as an illustration of the clear and honest expression of ideas they find wanting in others. The goings on at The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) always provide good examples of this point, since the organization explicitly claims to oppose doublespeak, censorship, and other forms of semantic boondoggling. In fact, the Council actually has a committee called The Doublespeak Committee, whose purpose is to alert teachers and their students to semantic tyranny and doublespeak whenever they appear ; that is to say, whenever they originate from "conservative" or "reactionary" sources. However, there has been some considerable reluctance on the part of some of the Committee's members to apply equal analytic rigor to the misuses of language when it appears in the service of "liberal" goals. Orwell, of course, would judge such a bias as a case of missing the point altogether. It requires no special disciplining of one's mind to find nonsense in the utterances of your political antagonists. The challenge is to find the same in your own.

Like Neil Postman, I can draw a pertinent case from an experience at an NCTE convention-this one in New York in 1977.1 had been asked to chair a panel, co-sponsored by the Doublespeak Committee, on "The Language of Sexism," and I accepted in the belief that the meeting would be a forum for the exploration of different points of view on the issue. I was badly mistaken. One speaker, with whose ideas I was in rough agreement, dealt with persons who offered a different view by labeling them "willfully ignorant," "maliciously ignorant," "oppressive," "stupid," and, at best, "naive." There was much cheering and hissing at appropriate moments, meaning when speakers uttered, respectively, politically correct or incorrect views. To another speaker, a member of the audience timidly addressed the following question: Did she agree with Orwell's view that the manipulation of language for political ends is a totalitarian strategy? Her reply, which was warmly cheered by the majority of the audience, was, "It depends on whose political ends you manipulate for."

At the close of the panel's presentation, a woman announced that signatures were being collected to protest certain "tasteless" remarks made by a speaker who had addressed a luncheon meeting earlier in the day. Now, a petition of protest against another's use of language is certainly a reasonable procedure in a democratic society. But further inquiry revealed that the purpose of the petition was to support a proposal that all future speakers be required to follow certain "guidelines" in what they may say and how they may say it. This is the sort of edict to which Joseph Goebbels was so partial-always issued, of course, in the best interests of the future.

The tendency to believe that the sincerity and even correctness of one's goals exempt one from fairness and responsibility is widespread, by no means confined to organizations like the NCTE. For instance, just about every "right thinking" liberal has been outspoken in protecting the right of homosexuals to the expression of their views without the threat of losing their jobs. Yet, when the Gay Alliance demanded that Anita Bryant lose hers for the expression of her views, "liberal" voices by the regiment were silent. An even better example was called to mind recently by The Village Voice, a New York based publication noted for its liberal leanings. During the course of an article on the limits of free speech, a writer referred approvingly to the shouting down of William Shockley when he tried to speak at a Staten Island college. Shockley, you will recall, believes that there are genetic differences in intelligence among races, a hypothesis that is probably shaky enough to fall of its own weight. Nonetheless, students who are assiduous in protecting their rights to express themselves acted energetically to eliminate Shockley's. Their reason? "People who built the movement to oppose Shockley believe there is a connection between ideas and actions ... Opponents to Shockley's appearance believe that the issue was racism, and the right of people to live a human life, not free speech ... The ruling class will hide righteously behind the Constitution in defending its right to rule, but beneath the Constitution it holds a loaded gun." This opinion The Village Voice writer quotes with a measure of reverence and as the conclusion to his article, as if to imply that it says all that needs to be said.

A similar and even more recent case in point emerged as a result of a public letter signed by Joan Baez, in which she criticized the present Communist government in Vietnam for its oppressive policies toward some of its own citizens. These policies have resulted in the displacement, illness, and death of thousands, especially the ethnic Chinese. Apparently, Miss Baez believes that to the victim of cruelty it is a matter of indifference whether its source is a "capitalist" or "communist" regime. For this belief she has been severely reproached by many who were active in the anti-war movement because, as one of them put it, it is an "historical necessity" that revolutionary governments must act this way in order to free themselves of the past. How George Orwell would have loved that one! One might just as well say that the U.S. invasion of Vietnam was an "historical necessity," since large and powerful countries, historically, have found it necessary to take what they can from small and weak countries.

I believe S. I. Hayakawa also once defined general semantics as the study of how not to make a fool of yourself. Note that he did not say it is the study of how to make a fool of others. What he meant to imply, I am sure, is that of all the varieties of deception, self-deception is the most pervasive and the most difficult to recognize, especially when we are in the thrall of some doctrine that is obviously "humane." The fact that one is in favor of equality of the sexes, or a redistribution of wealth, or greater sensitivity to the grievances of "oppressed groups," does not in itself mean very much or even tell a great deal about the person. Most tyrants have preceded themselves on the stage with announcements of their humane intentions-which is to say, "good" opinions may come from "rotten" people just as surely as "bad" opinions may come from "decent" people. In the end, if what we do and say are not illustrations of our principles, we are deluding ourselves and do no service to others. That is Orwell's message and, as I understand it, the message of general semantics.
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Title Annotation:FROM THE VAULT
Author:Nystrom, Christine L.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2015
Previous Article:Michael Polanyi and Carl Rogers: a dialogue.
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