Let’s Hallucinate Together

A fragment of the Dunhuang Manuscripts (8th century) defining Buddhist medical terms

Words mean things. That’s pretty much the point, it’s why we bothered with this whole “language” thing to begin with.

As commonplace as it is, language is easily the most powerful tool we’ve ever created. It’s why we can work together, can pool our resources, and is the reason we were able to do anything else of substance. This power isn’t in the “language changes thought” sense, at least not the way that’s usually meant. But the way we talk about things matters; it’s why rhetoric is a thing, and why propaganda has been pursued by virtually every regime and power structure ever created.

But language isn’t an absolute. It’s not like a physical law that we can experiment and prove. More importantly, it doesn’t operate outside of our own conception of it. Whether you believe in gravity or not doesn’t affect how quickly you fall. Language is different. Plenty of people will argue that a word “doesn’t” mean this or that, and might even refer to a dictionary definition. I don’t want to get into the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist thicket any further than I have to (beyond saying that prescriptivists are virtually always wrong). Simply put, there’s no objective standard by which to judge the language we use.

Instead, it’s just something we all kind of have to agree on. But there can’t be any perfect agreement, and this is without getting into the ways in which our own life experiences affect the way words or phrases can provoke a response. What we’re really hoping is that the average understanding of our language meshes enough that we can function as a society, that we can connect emotionally, and that we can get things done.

Making It Up as We Go

Like any other tool, language has uses — some are positive, some are negative. As a language geek and then a lawyer, I was lucky in that my education primed me to be sensitive to this stuff. All lawyers do (other than drinking) is argue about what words mean and why, and what the import of that is. It’s the closest you can get to the classical topic of rhetoric. Learning foreign languages can help you challenge the assumptions of your own, and plants the idea that there may be other ways of organizing information.

It’s not just lawyers and polyglots, though: Language has long been a tool to persuade, to push a cause, and to stir up thought, emotion, and from there, action. Whether it’s advertising, a sermon, or a stump speech, the speaker always comes with a specific goal and way of reaching that goal. Even the most natural-sounding oratory is the result of careful study, preparation, and a surgical attention to detail.

For some examples of how this can work, Nerdwriter’s video on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is as good as it gets (video below). In it, he explains how Dr. King used certain tricks of rhythm, vocabulary, and symbolism to hook his audience, to make them feel a certain way and to try to persuade them about the rightness of his cause.

Pick any famous passage or speech you care to name, and you’ll find a series of deliberate choices: word order, word choice, structure, any of a host of devices (such as alliteration), you name it. It’s worth emphasizing that like with any tool, language is value-neutral, only what we do with it is judged. So we tend to feel differently about Hitler’s skill as an orator than we do someone like Dr. King.

Lossy Compression

The big change with the coming of the internet has been the degree to which communication has become simple, easy, and ubiquitous. We never have to be truly alone if we don’t want to be, and we can have thousands of “friends” if we want, or thousands of “followers” if we want that.

I find myself in a weird place on this. As someone born in the early 1980s, I remember the time before the internet really blew up, but was still young enough when that happened to embrace it. It helped that I was a computer nerd before it was cool (hipster box, checked). I can remember being on early chat services like ICQ when I was in high school, and how awesome it was that I could chat with someone on the other side of the world. It was a great way to practice my Spanish, too, and to learn more about the world.

As with all things, though, the innocence is soon lost. Communication becoming constant means we have a lot of practice in using words and in manipulating them. But the degree to which we’re bombarded with information also means we have to be much more aggressive in filtering it, and we can’t pay as much attention to it as we’d like. If you’re willing to put in the work, it remains a beautiful thing: the Library of Alexandria at your fingertips and accessible anywhere. The dark side is that, like anything that makes something easier, it allows us to be lazy, and not put in the energy that perhaps we should.

Enter the Age of Twitter. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled bemoaning the fact that a service whose name literally means “empty prattle” has become the de facto way to engage with the world. But this is the perfect illustration of both points I’ve made so far: the word twitter’s meaning has totally changed, because we’ve all decided that we’re going to use it for something else. Meanwhile, its character limit also allows us to embrace immediate communication, but we have to get creative with what we say. But here, rather than going for aesthetics, most of it is figuring out what to leave out. Even if we’re talking elsewhere, most methods have embraced the idea of short, quick messages. When was the last time you wrote anything to a specific person that was more than 100 words or so?

And what we leave out matters as much as what we keep in — negative space defines the image as much as the positive. The Devil’s not in the details anymore, since those are gone, but he is definitely in the unspoken assumptions and the gaps in meaning.

The internet allows more communication, which means experience with communication, which in turn means that anyone who wasn’t good at it before is sure becoming better at it. Loaded phrases are created and deployed every day, and whoever shoots first automatically puts the other person on the back foot. So one side already starts at a disadvantage, and this is then multiplied by the fact that there isn’t space or time to actually question the underlying premises in a reasonable way.

One can argue that these are just tools of getting your message across. That’s true as far as it goes, but just as the pictures old propaganda posters from Communist regimes in the 20th century make us all a little uncomfortable, I have the same reaction when politicians start using these turns of phrase. Actually more so, because of how much more subtle and powerful it has become. The old stuff is still there, even if we don’t like to think about it — there’s a reason both major political parties use red, white, and blue as their color schemes.

These approaches are sinister because the goal isn’t to persuade as much as it is to preclude any counter-argument. They also become self-reinforcing: how do you argue against the “death tax” without first arguing against that concept? But once you’ve done that, you’ve engaged your opponent’s frame of reference, and it’s all downhill from there. If I tell you “don’t think of an elephant,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Strategies Against Architecture

But now we’ve created a new breed of weapon, which is the word that is so loaded while also so common that it has no defined meaning. There’s a name for this device: motte and bailey. The name comes from the fortification of the same name, but in this context, it refers to a word or term that has a reasonable meaning and an unreasonable one that are exchanged freely. As Nicholas Shakel explains (PDF):

…the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed.

This is where the arbitrary language rubber meets the destruction of conversation road. Really the motte and bailey thing comes down to arbitrary redefinition. The paper above goes on to cite the Humpty Dumpty bit from Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

I discussed above the tendency towards judging arguments by whoever can define them first. This second point shows why it’s so dangerous: the “winner” is no longer bound by a consistent initial definition. Instead, you can plant a term to define a thing, and then that term can be altered at will to preclude any counter-argument. If someone assumes (correctly or not) that you meant one thing, you don’t have to say why their counter-argument is wrong: all you have to do is say that your opponent’s using the term incorrectly, and that makes their argument per se invalid.

The list of terms used this way is myriad: feminist. Patriarchy. SJW. Republican. Democrat. Liberal. Conservative. Antifa. States’ rights. Pro choice, pro life.

It’s mottes and baileys all the way down.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Never

To pull from current events, let’s look at the gun control issue. (There’s a reason I didn’t use the word “debate.”) Like with anyone else, my media consumption definitely skews more towards certain positions on certain issues. For gun control, most of the outlets I frequent are in favor of more regulations and generally dismissive of the arguments to the contrary.

As someone who is a gun owner and who shoots as a hobby, it’s frustrating as hell. Not because they disagree with me, but because of how just plain ignorant the arguments tend to be. It is shocking how much these sources and Democratic politicians talking about guns sound like Republicans talking about climate change. It really is painful: the failure to understand basic terminology and mechanics of something like a firearm doesn’t seem to stop anyone from suggesting laws and regulations about them. Here we get all kinds of words like “assault rifle,” which basically means whatever the speaker wants it to mean as long as it sounds sufficiently sinister. “Armor piercing ammunition” was a big boogeyman after Sandy Hook, but I never heard anyone say what that actually means. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the terror over Teflon-coated bullets that could supposedly penetrate a bulletproof vest (spoiler: they couldn’t).

Ultimately, the underlying ignorance isn’t the problem. The problem is the sound bite arms race: no one wants to be on the defensive (since you never truly get out from that), so everyone goes full auto into the ether. But the thing with a weapon fired that way is that it’s both loud and inaccurate — you don’t reliably hit a specific target and meanwhile can’t hear what’s going on around you.

I would love to have a conversation about gun control, as some Democrats have requested. But I question the degree to which they actually want a conversation, meaning talking and listening in equal measure. We’ve devolved to the point where even something as simple as “conversation” has become a euphemism (see also: “common sense” anything). There’s no question that we need to study the problem more, and hear different ideas about what may work. There’s some research out there, but it comes out sporadically and to little fanfare. Even then, all the research in the world is meaningless if the ground is littered with sacred cows.

Instead, it’s whoever can fortify the rhetorical ground by defining the term, and then that term becomes the rallying point. But because these terms have no inherent meaning, they really become a way to organize followers and get people riled up without ever actually telling them what you stand for. Everyone “knows” what you mean, so there’s no reason to talk about whatever it is that we’re upset about. It’s equally obvious and equally different for everyone. The true horrific power of this, of course, is that no one can check if you’re right. There’s nothing to check. People will fill in this empty shell with whatever they think is right, so of course you’re right, since what you’re saying and what they already think is right and true are totally in sync. If someone discredits a certain definition, then you can just change it to be something else, and say that this new version is what you meant all along.

The other piece of this, the refusal to move from a position once occupied, is just as bad. To use another recent example, I was dismayed by the response to the violence in Charlottesville. But it wasn’t just Trump’s words that bothered me, it was also the underlying idea that you couldn’t criticize the Antifa movement (which also advocates political violence) without getting shouted down as a proponent of racism and Nazism. We never got far enough to ask whether Antifa-affiliated people initiated any of the violence, since that didn’t matter. Those kinds of questions represent a retreat from the position that neo-Nazis are bad (since it implies that some things shouldn’t be done to fight even them), and we’ve been conditioned by now to never retreat.

Aside: Small wonder, then, that part of the Russian campaign to screw with us socially and politically has included fake accounts purportedly by Antifa groups. It’s a win-win: either they discredit an opponent of racist groups (thus giving those groups more power and leading to violence) or they give those groups’ opponents cover to engage in violence themselves, which has the same result: chaos and distraction. Meanwhile, we as a country seem to have taken the position that calling for violence is okay as long as your target is unpopular enough.

Great, Again

I’m increasingly convinced that this also explains why Trump won, and why that seemed to come so far out of left field. Economics only gets you so far, considering how many wealthy people supported him too. Racism too only gets you so far, since Trump won more with non-black minorities than Romney did. Instead, I think he came along at a point where the national conditioning to fill in the blanks had crossed some tipping point or another, and then campaigned based on emotion rather than policy or any kind of specific worldview.

So when people heard “make America great again,” they filled that in with whatever that meant to them. When they heard him talk about a wall on the border with Mexico, they filled it in with their own immigration policy, whatever they wanted that to look like. He threw and continues to throw around lots of words like “best” and “great”, and for some reason no one was really willing to ask what that meant. To the extent he expressed principles, it was in conclusory value judgments: things are good or bad, great or sad. To this day, I’m not sure you could get a consistent answer from anyone about what he actually stands for (the closest I’ve gotten is that he’s “a businessman,” which means absolutely nothing). It also helped that he made it someone else’s fault, which got us out of having to do any kind of introspection or self-evaluation. Those are hard, and our culture views difficulty as a sign that something is wrong rather than a measure of complexity or value.

I think this also explains why his poll numbers fell of a cliff so quickly: he in essence promised every supporter something different, so small wonder that he couldn’t meet all those expectations. Plus our expectations are different during a campaign: we vote for whoever promises the most, which is easily exploited, but then blame him or her for anything and everything (whether actually in their control or not). So Trump doesn’t represent a change from prior form as much as he was just better at one-upping the previous candidates than everyone else.

So there we have my diagnosis, but what’s the cure? It’s actually really simple, we just have to start demanding more and better from ourselves and each other. “More” partially refers to avoiding ideological bubbles, but it more means allowing those conversations to take on some substance. Don’t just throw catch phrases and slogans past each other, even though that allows us to never question ourselves and leaves more time for the next post on Facebook or Instagram. Instead, we have to be willing to take a specific position that we define clearly. This is hard enough to do, but where it gets really tricky is that it means allowing yourself to be wrong.

While I’m also already shooting for the moon, maybe we could identify with ideology or movements a little less?

Most importantly, for all our national cynicism about the degree to which our political leaders are out of touch, we have to face up to the fact that they reflect us perfectly. At the same time, they’ve convinced us that we’re already right (no matter what view we actually hold), and if if you’re right about something, why change it? Remember, though, that I started this post talking about how language is different from other aspects reality reality, and that there are facets of our universe that operate independently of our wishes. The world is out there, and really it’s a question of whether we look up in time.

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