What we say and what we mean does not share the same path anymore. What we understand, let alone does not anchor the word we say. The article ‘Trump, the University of Chicago, and the collapse of public language’ written by Nathan Heller for New Yorker after a period of puzzling impressions over multiple events, led me to a judgment how unbearably light our – public – messages have become. The article explores down to the point how public language has lost its weight of authenticity and visualisation. One group with certain ideals and demands fights against the group on the other side who also has the same ideals and demands. It wasn’t a power game. Neither was it about fulfilling conflict resolution exercise hours required by any course regulations. Lack of communication? Maybe. Two parties stand against each other for the same ideals.
What explains this irony is that maybe the same ideals are not the same after all. They mean it in all different ways because what they say is not what they mean. Or maybe they mean it but without knowing what it means. That’s possible because now messages are easily individualised.
Should individualised languages include unique and tailored expressions, it’s more or less misleading if the “customisation” was caused by not understanding the true – but not the original per se – meaning. Take the words, freedom of speech, Black Lives Matter, and gender equality. Those are frequently used words on media and it doesn’t take world to figure out what they stand for, yet somewhat in a vague concept. Imagine the typical conversation over these issues, for instance. “I’m sure black lives matter. But other lives matter too, right? I almost got robbed last week. We need more security system in the city in general,” or “I feel our society is doing okay when it comes to gender equality. Guys hardly say no to their girlfriends anymore.”
These “typical conversation” examples may not purely be about language itself. Yet, given the fact that language is the form of outlet from which our chains of thoughts come out, I think it’s okay to see the language and the mind as a sum.
Catchy words are everywhere and the much frequent appearances of particular words make us feel like we know about it more than enough. Without ever breaking the wall of ice on the surface, it only remains abstract not knowing how many stuff are going on down below the surface. George Orwell in 1946 wrote in his Politics and the English Language, which is also quoted in the linked article, about the vane fashion of language use and its influence in politics, and vice versa.
“When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.”
Abstract image indeed blinds language brain that tries to ask “do you really know what it stands for?” or “is it what you think or is it what you see?” in a very judgmental and enlightened manner. Adding self-definition of words on top of it opens windows of confusion, shallowness, and the public disputes over the same ideals.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
The use of phrases coated with futile words do have relationship with the going-ons in the world, he says. Fashion of words put aside, it’s also true that when the writer does not fully mean what they’re writing, then the language turns out abstract and unclear. The epidemic of insincere, unclear languages have consequences as seen in the typical conversations as well as public disputes. What do we do about it when someone uses the word with different intention or meaning? We probably just stand by it. Appeal my voice more until it’s become persuasive enough.
Still, sincere and clear words not only encourage healthy mass culture, it also affects greatly to our thinking. For that, we must not think light on languages used in public, in order to save a lot of energy put in for going back to point zero where everyone agreed with what it meant.
Photograph: Kristina Flour