How language works, and why it seems to be failing us right now
So, unless you’re living way off of any network you might find this story on, you’ve probably come across and idea that ‘facts’ —a category of things which is in and of itself not easy to define or describe — are somehow under attack from a broad selection of social enemies; that their value and use has deteriorated and that we are in danger of being dominated by irrational narratives which throw ‘facts’ to the wind;
Even though our communications media has been spewing poisonous garbage for half a century, for some reason you see specifically right now as the time when ‘facts’ are under attack, and the magical force that powers them, ‘truth’, is scarce to be found.
Don’t worry: this is an understandable model of the world to create for ourselves. But it prevents us understanding our reality.
If for example you subscribe to the right of the political spectrum, you’ll be angry because you feel words like “man” and “woman” were once a part of these ‘facts’ but have now fallen into tragic subjectivity and to are to be determined according to the individual, which you see as a whimsical arrangement and very much not the way to do things at all.
And if you subscribe to what we refer to as the left of the political spectrum, you’ll be appalled because you feel complex social constructs like “truth” and “objectivity” have been thrown out by the need of commerce to lie about itself, and a bunch of people who have given themselves titles are simply making shit up and doing as they please which is of course both dangerous and extremely hard to follow.
And of course the remaining dwindling souls among you who cling to a notion of centrism will also notice that, well, deep conversations are not easy to have these days without attempts to completely redefine everything on a single set of terms. Centrism is no escape from the chaos.
It’s troubling, after all, no?
Language — especially widely spoken, beaten-into-you imperial languages like English — until recently seemed to do such an incredible job of holding a vast and diverse world together that one of its biggest problems as a technology is human beings forgetting that language exists, and expecting everyone to understand how we speak as if we speak universal languages.
It’s in fact hard to think of any kind of realistic communication or organising without shared languages of many kinds — musical, visual, spoken, sartorial. And when we imagine languages we tend to be lazy and simply imagine our own language, or the kind of language we use the most.
As a technology, language completely dominates us.
This in turn is because language is so completely natural — and an activity that humans so readily engage in — that it’s often hard to notice that we are holding the world together with our words. And so when language will not behave in the ways we expect it to it can quite literally be mindnumbing — it can produce profound feelings of fear and a sense of disconnect. Deprived of any visible source for our sudden disconnection from what seemed like a reliable world, we can only blame the person we are communicating with for this unexpected dysphoria.
This is because we are conditioned to see objects constructs and protocols as having intrinsic value, and language simply describing them.
For example, it often seems that gold and diamonds and other inert substances are imbued with qualities of timelessness because they will “continue to exist” long after language no longer does. We miss the clear fact that without description, reality itself is incomplete. We miss that reality is not a play which can be performed without an audience, but rather a series of agreements between members of an audience *which creates a play*.
Like ‘facts’, we are conditioned to value inanimate objects and consider their value immutable because it makes us easy to manipulate by simply changing the facts and objects that surround us: if we wake up tomorrow and own a ferrari, sooner or later we will figure out why we deserve that ferrari by altering the reality of our own worth.
And this is why the world seems so strange right now: because language — at least the language we use at scale — was never designed to properly describe it, but rather to enable us to be manipulated via our understanding of the world — the creation of a “real world” to replace our own perspectives, and train us into a very specific type of group thinking.
The problem of course is that basically, the world has always been an impossibly complex set of contradictions which shift and move in relation to one another. The world was always hard to understand and required close inter and intra community relationships in order to decipher and exist in;
Imperialism deliberately set out to destroy that complexity: Instead of many languages, we had one. Instead of many gods, we had one. Instead of the many ways of trading, we had one. One type of man, one type of woman.
All of the previously existing complex ways of behaving and existing and understanding ourselves — cultures and civilisations based on thousands of years of cooperation and coexistence within tight geographic areas climates and altitudes — were replaced with one aggregate monotheistic mass, and our children literally rote-schooled in artificial languages such as English Spanish and Portuguese, themselves held in stasis by rigid rules and pronunciation systems, to the betterment of the savage orthodoxies that created them:
And when people didn’t comply or understand or carry out their instructions? They were murdered. Or they starved. Or their families failed. And so until less than a hundred years ago, any idea of understanding or common ground inside of our societies was based on obedient fear: the veneer of respectability that characterised the periods of imperial expansion concealed utter depravity and allowed for complete departure from the moral norms they themselves espoused.
In otherwords, we only agreed on things because we were beaten if we didn’t.
We only acted properly because of the threat of violence and so when in private we acted like animals. There was never a shared reality in public, just a shared reality in the violence and sadism that went on behind closed doors.
And that didn’t make a society, just a maze in which to avoid punishment.
And so unfortunately for us, we live in a maze completely dominated by the actions of loud manipulators whose words have never meant anything, and our own consciousnesses have been infected by that meaninglessness.
It’s generally at this point in any discussion of language that people get the point, but very much reach a point of “Yes but so what?”
It’s interesting that this is another part of what I am describing: our persistent ideas that language is just there to describe things that *exist* and has no role in creating these things — that language does not create reality but the other way around.
“That’s all very well,” they say, “but if you’re on the street you gotta eat and you can’t eat those fancy words”
And yet: every day, in every way, we literally see the rich dine out on their words. We live in the intersection of news and celebrity and the body politic, using networks to convey the narratives that give everything value.
We see how Sommeliers gather each year to agree on the right vocabulary for this year’s grapes, simply so that a vast pyramid of raise eyebrows and condescention can be deployed in order for the price of the wine to be high. Amplified by advertising campaigns and slots in news broadcasts that make them seem more relevant and authoritative, we literally curate the words of other people in order to preserve the reality tunnels we exist in:
Earn more. Be more. Just do it.
And as these words tap more and more into sex appeal and primal ideas such as personal space and connection to others, our interactions with these words are harder and harder to define: the repetition of affirmations and the careful choosing of appropriate vocabulary becomes a way in which we completely transform ourselves.
The problem is, of course, that our language wasn’t really designed to do these things. Reduced into a compact and very easy to learn 26 character alphabet and stripped of all symbolic nuance outside of punctuation, western imperial languages are excellent tools for creating uniformity and stifling self expression — and they and incredibly well suited to manipulation and lying — but they are terrible tools for the large scale long term communication of meaningful information.
So what do you do then? What is the action to take that fights all this fake news and shifting semiotics and seemingly impassible places in discourse?
Well the answer to that is unfortunately contextual and complex, isn’t it? Because we are outside the realm of one-fits-all and attempting to design a futureproof communications paradigm. To each according to their needs, and from each according to their ability always becomes the guiding principle for a stronger communications paradigm.
Ironically enough, this probably means that the whiter you are and the more male you are the less you say: and that’s really at odds with the amount of words in this article. But in the meantime the idea is worth establishing I think:
Our languages are breaking because the things we need to say are almost impossible to say in them: and conversely, stupid and damaging things are the only things left to say, and this encourages the stupid and harmful among us. But at the same time this is hardly suprising because our languages were literally designed by the cruel to enable an unfair society of exploitation.
Really it’s just a maintenance issue.