Fighting Words:

The Power of Language

Clare Hayes-Brady

Share Via:

At some stage or another, most of us will have gotten a little misty-eyed at the wedding of a family member or close friend, or even at our own. I am struck, always, at weddings, by the power of language, not only emotional, but actual. In fact, at weddings, more than anywhere else, I am conscious of how fine the border is between those things. My husband and I had a humanist ceremony when we married, so our marriage is a purely civil one. Neither one of us practices a faith, and for those of us who choose this marriage ritual the power of language is even more stark; a church wedding invokes the law and witnessing of a god to sanctify a marriage, but in a civil ceremony, the language is the act. When the celebrant pronounces the couple married, there is a practical, tangible effect. New names come into being – husbands, wives – and new families are made. When a person whose gender presentation has changed, and they use a new name, this moment of decisive change constitutes a rebirth of sorts. The naming of a child, a pet, a relationship: these are moments of power and affirmation. Truth and lies are questions of language, and the enormous grey area in the middle is one of interpretation. We live in, and with, and by the words we use, small filaments of context and connection.

     Language has the power to move us, and to change us, in ways emotional, legal, practical and ideological. Most of us do not think too deeply about the words we use in daily life, engaging in hundreds of small exchanges that mark out the boundaries of our worlds. We think, usually, of the power of language only at moments of crisis, spending the rest of the time swimming in the murky waters of approximation, but we should be more careful. Complacency about the language we use is at best confusing and at worst actively dangerous, as a brief glance at any of the issues dominating public discussion today shows. Several days ago a white gunman opened fire at a concert in Las Vegas, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. Reports in the days that followed highlighted his love of country music, the “quiet life” he led before the attack. We do not ask where he was radicalised, or use the term terrorist. Whether or not we should use that term to describe a mass shooting like this is an argument for another day, but it is certainly the case that the term terrorist does not get applied to white aggressors with the frequency that it does to brown ones, especially those with Arabic names. Instead, there is an almost eulogic quality to many of the reports, a mystified tone of awe that stems from a desire to understand. This tone resonates strongly with the kind of language used to describe a man who has killed his family – the murder in Ireland of Clodagh Hawe and her children last year was reported in the same way – and was met with fury. It is not as simple as saying that those who report crimes in this way are acting out of bigotry, and the defence “it wasn’t meant that way” or “it’s just the turn of phrase” are often perfectly true, but turn of phrase represents a deeper reality. Our language operates as a series of codes, governed, broadly speaking, by social agreement. This is problematic, because exchanges can be used or overheard by those who are not privy to the governing code, and misinterpretations are inevitable. These interpretative gaps can lead to what we might call understood misunderstanding, where the gap is clear, but they can also lead to misunderstood misunderstanding, where the interpreting party believes they have understood what is being said, but has miscoded the language. The kind of dog-whistling that has come to dominate much American political commentary is an example of this misunderstood misunderstanding, where the term “liberal”, for example, means many different things depending on the profile of the interlocutors.

     Language is not neutral, this much is clear. But at least where language exists, we can celebrate or condemn, unpick and explore, explain and debate. There are, though, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extravagantly lyrical Hamilton puts it, “moments that the words don’t reach; there is suffering too terrible to name”. There are things for which we do not have words, things for which the words are too awful. The song that contains these lyrics, “It’s Quiet Uptown”, tells the story of a couple coming to terms with the loss of their son, the terrible shadow of becoming a parent. In the English language, at least, that dramatic relational shift – from being a parent to being a parent without a child – is so terrible that we do not have a word for it. The relational losses we expect – the loss of parents, the loss of a spouse – are labelled. We become orphans, or are widowed. There is no language for the loss of a child. Namelessness bespeaks a level of horror beyond the norm. We hesitate to name our deepest fears, and those things that are unnamed take on deeper shadows. The value of a name, and the dark power of a thing unnamed, echo through Western culture, from Ulysses’ “Nobody is my name” to Le Guin’s “true names” in the Earthsea books to Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. What we do not, or cannot, speak of, tells as much of our society as what we do. We are all familiar with the idea that the Inuit have fify words for snow; we in Ireland have at least that number of terms for rain, or a hangover. The term hygge has taken over lifestyle discourses, but this deep, culturally-laden word appears to translate into English mainly as wearing socks and watching TV. There is fascination in the words that exist in other languages that are concepts out of reach for us. There is power in the unspoken.

     This acceptance of silence is not without its reasoning. Imperfect and imprecise though it is, language is a sort of torch, casting light into cultural wardrobes and under social beds to show that the monsters are not real. To name a thing is to at least attempt to look directly at it.  Often this makes the thing more controllable, easier to understand and manage. Intuitively, this seems positive, but in the middle of the last century, after the unthinkable realities Holocaust had become clear, Theodor Adorno identified a problem that we are gradually seeing come into its own today. Although Adorno is most famously quoted as saying “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, the phrase is largely decontextualised, and in its prima facie form, nonsensical, since manifestly poetry continues to be written (notably, excellently, in the present publication). Adorno’s point was not that  poetry should or must cease forthwith, but that an ethical challenge confronted the aesthetics of a post-Auschwitz period: to speak or not to speak? To speak without speaking of Auschwitz – to give it the fearful status of unnameable – is naïve or hypocritical; to speak of it is to acknowledge a world in which it is possible, and can therefore be possible again. To use such a history as cultural fodder is to normalise it, even as to be silent is to bury it. “When even genocide becomes cultural property in committed literature, it becomes easier to continue complying with the culture that gave rise to the murder”, which is to say that by coopting the language of atrocity, even in the name of memorial, even in the form of criticism, we make it part of the fabric of society. Culture does this work, and must do this work, but the risk associated with it is the normalisation of extremes.

     With the arrogance of each generation I suggest that this idea is more potent than ever because of the complicating additional factor of the instant ricochet of informational echo chambers. This is not the same problem as Adorno’s speech or silence problem, but it magnifies and problematises it in ways Adorno could not have foreseen.The rapidity of social media, the 24 hour news cycle, the collapsing barrier between opinion and news, the “post-truth” world, all give rise to the slapdash use and reception of language, to the cacophony of adversarial he-said-she-said that provides the background noise to our information. Writing ten years ago, in the Best American Essays 2007, David Foster Wallace said that “to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time”, and that “whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist” due to the overwhelming speed and volume of information available to citizens of 2007. In 2007, Twitter was one year old. In the intervening decade, the volume – both (metaphysically) decibel and quantity – of what Wallace called Total Noise has risen exponentially, unimaginably. The hideous ouroboros of yelling that constitutes information in 2017 is disorienting, stupefying, impossible. Several things happen as a direct result of this. Firstly, we exist in a constant state of crisis arousal, overstimulated by the constant torrent of information, trapped by the perceived necessity of awareness because everything is presented as significant. Secondly, we rationalise the pitch and volume of information; the yelling factory is the new normal, this is how the world is now, so crisis-level arousal becomes the daily hum of our lives. Thirdly, we narrow our focus in an effort to shut out some of the howling, seeking out codes we understand, and so the different bastions of language become ever more isolated. We bellow at one another across oceans of unseen context, haranguing each other in language that looks the same but isn’t, divided, as Shaw didn’t quite say, by a common language. The roiling abyss of Total Noise threatens constant eruption, as we cling to fragmented islands of comfort and sense.

     This is the rhetorical mire in which we find ourselves, then. With this in mind, what happens when we name the things we fear? The power of the unnamed thing gathers and gathers, and then when it is named – nuclear war, for example – it is drawn into the perfect storm just described, a vortex of hysterical normalisation that makes a concept simultaneously terrifying and tedious by a strange combination of incessant repetition, which normalises, and escalating language, which perpetuates crisis arousal, and which is even further complicated by the knowledge that we cannot trust news sources in the way we once believed we could, so the whole complex edifice of disquieting information is radically destabilised anyway.

     I do not wish to suggest that a return to monopoly capitalist journalism is the solution to the current spiral of hysteria, but it is worth considering how to cope with this onslaught of histrionic information. The temptation exists to simply retreat further into the comforting cushion of accord, to surround ourselves with those who reinforce our views, where there is some hope for respite. Unfortunately, while this offers a temporary solution to the feeling of being overwhelmed by crisis arousal, it tends to exacerbate the larger problems that generate the hysteria. At the other extreme, attempting to reasonably engage with hysterical and hostile langauge runs into a number of problems, from the constant frustration of simple ideological dispute to a problem that seems unique to the internet age – the sheer appetite for confrontation and chaos indulged by trolls. Trolls are an interesting beast, truly emblematic of the shifting sands of interpretation that online communication in particular is vulnerable to. Trolling allows and encourages the rapid escalation of language in a way that face-to-face communication does not, and is largely free of consequences for the instigator. It is not clear precisely why trolling flourishes as it does online, but it seems to stem from the combination of anonymity and immediacy that no other form of communication has yet provided. Like infants for whom any reaction is a reward, trolls thrive on response rather than debate – trolling is a process of witnessing and validation rather than discussion. Feeding the trolls is, of course, a waste of energy, a digression, a rabbit hole, but it is also actively damaging in the way that shouting at a toddler can be: it prompts and rewards further escalation. However, while it is tempting to dismiss any cruel or stupid remark as trolling, this falls victim to the same isolationist echo-chamberism that wilfully refusing to engage with other vocabularies does. Moreover, the often instinctive attempt to use humour, especially sarcasm, in such situations can, in the absence of contextualising markers like body language, inflame exchanges further, and bleed into other forums of exchange (we might think here of dotards and rocket men). The language we use unthinkingly is the basis of our vocabulary.

     The trouble with Twitter, and with television journalism, and with print journalism and with Our Man in Havana – with, in fact, all public communication – is more basic than ideology, more pervasive than agenda. It is what George Saunders called the brain-dead megaphone. Saunders asks us to imagine a party, at which various conversations are humming along. A new guest arrives, a guest with a megaphone. He begins to speak through the megaphone, not to anyone in particular, but people naturally turn to listen to him. Even those who continue their conversations find that the drift of their chatter changes, mirroring his language, picking up his topics. The topics do not even need to be controversial. The conversational gravity is not predicated on relevance, or on persuasion, or even on sensation. They are predicated on noise, on “the volume and omnipresence of his narrating voice”. Then, Saunders suggests, “Let’s say he hasn’t carefully considered the things he’s saying. He’s basically just blurting things out. And even with the megaphone, he has to shout a little to be heard, which limits the complexity of what he can say”. Now, to go beyond Saunders’ metaphor, imagine that this happens, and later in the party, everyone is given a megaphone. Communication is no longer about exchange, it is about domination. The trouble with public communication is, and always has been, that it impoverishes language. Writing is more static than speech, less open to negotiation, more opaque. Writing both protects and effaces the writer, where speech foregrounds and potentially wounds. The privileging of writing as the higher state of communication is recent, reaching its apotheosis in the postmodernist theories of logocentrism, or more profoundly in the metaphysics of presence, which (usefully, sometimes) challenges the assumption that presence or immediacy is an inherent positive of speech over writing. But Derrida, dying in 2004, could not have foreseen the rise of Twitter, which poses an interesting challenge to poststructuralist engagement with the metaphysics of presence: to oversimplify hugely (this is, after all, a public communication) if the chief merit of speech over writing is immediacy, and the chief merit of writing over speech is endurance, the microblog marries the two. But while Twitter can bring together the best of both media – and a good Twitter exchange is a joyful experience of dialogue in explosive motion – it can also magnify the worst, combining the rash clamour of an emotional response with the opacity of an invisible speaker and the baldness of an uneditable publication, albeit a tiny one. Public writing is conceptually problematic because it is inherently hegemonic: exchange, where it is invited, is contingent, stilted, decontextualised. The ideology that underpins publication is always uneven, because the medium is uneven. This is difficult to avoid. Punitively democratising media like Twitter, invaluable in some practical situations, inevitably leads to a vicious spiral of devolving coherence, not because there are no measured contributions but because the tide of inanity, hostility and pure inchoate noise tends to overwhelm them. At best the meaningful, measured engagements eddy briefly at the surface and are subsumed.

     There is no simple solution to this language escalation, because individual deescalation strategies – temporarily or permanently opting out of social media, attempting to use nuanced language in debates, asking good-faith questions – simply get lost in the Total Noise. The conditions of late capitalism mean that the vision of benevolent, well funded news sources is practically impossible, even if it were not ideologically also intractable. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice – although I am not convinced of this – but the arc of the observable universe bends toward entropy. Perhaps all we can hope to do is to closely observe the entropy and act accordingly. If we cannot, and should not, silence the cacophony (although we can and should regulate it to some degree) the best option may be to consider the codes we operate by, linguistic, ethical and moral. Living in a heightened state of stress is exhausting, and we are less likely to have the energy for the battles that really matter if we are shrieking constantly into the void. The best weapon against this psychic exhaustion may be observation rather than response. In trying to understand the codes of others, in working to compassionately and carefully interpret what is being said and the assumptions that underlie the language, in observing the operations and nuances of the public spaces in which we operate, we may find some space to be silent. Using silence as space for listening, rather than (or as well as) protest, and paying attention to the language we and others use when it does not seem important, may offer a path (even an individual one) out of the abyss of Total Noise. Listen carefully, speak judiciously, and don’t feed the trolls.