The Silence of the Language

Trump’s ill-timed tweets directed at the progressive “Mod Squad” in Congress revived a thought that has been rattling around in my head for a couple of weeks.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing how it seems that many graduates of prestigious colleges and universities (and the law schools of those universities) are just plain stupid. They are ignorant of American history, seeming to have learned about it through comic books. She reminded me of studies done a few years ago that indicated students graduating from institutions of higher learning were less intelligent than when they went in, meaning that the four years spent “learning” actually made the kiddies dumber.

In the vein of “the more things change…”, I thought about how a young Ben Franklin had gutted the Harvard University of his time for taking in students who “were little better than Dunces and Blockheads”, treating their parents to years consisting of an “Abundance of Trouble and Charge” and returning the students to society “as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.”

On this occasion, I re-read all of Franklin’s “Dogood” letters and beyond the incisive commentary far more mature than a 16-year-old should possess, I was struck by the elegance of the language Franklin used to deliver it. What is even more remarkable is that this language wasn’t the high-minded prattling of the educated elite of the time, it was the common tongue, the everyday vernacular used by folks like you and me.

Our contemporary “common tongue” is coarse and uncouth in comparison. Modern common English is dumbed down to the point it appears as a Neanderthal would appear in comparison. To borrow and repurpose a phrase from Thomas Hobbes, the modern common American-speak has become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

The true “wordcrime” isn’t that we have lost the beauty of our language, even though we clearly have, we have lost the discrimination and precision of the language as society and culture consolidated into fewer words. Coarse language, defined as ideas delivered in smaller doses, prohibits the kind of exacting thinking necessary to identify and solve true issues. Coarse language is the summation of more precise words, the assimilation of many subcategories into a single word, ostensibly for the sake of clarity and efficiency – but compressing the language to such a degree assures that words can be morphed from a scalpel to a cudgel and used for nefarious purposes.

I thought about the most glaring scar on America – the Civil War – and how debate has always raged about why the war was fought. Many say it was purely over slavery – but they would be wrong. The institution of slavery was the most prominent issue, but most Southerners never owned slaves. For many, they saw the war as a matter of honor, duty and loyalty to family and state. Many fought because they were being invaded by an army. Some fought, no doubt, because they had no other choice. To assume that slavery was the ONLY reason for the Civil War consolidates many reasons into one and in doing so, the nuance of true causation is lost. Perhaps it only matters to the descendants of those Confederates who fought while never owning slaves or condoning slavery that they are now marked as racist traitors – but the fact remains those people exist.

I am one of them. Neither my great grandfather nor his father ever owned a slave, yet both fought for the Confederacy.

I know it might seem a bit of non sequitur to link President Trump and our contemporary times the Ben Franklin and his, but I thought since Franklin’s “Dogood” letters were the tweets of his day, Trump’s tweet about the progressive “Mod Squad” and the media’s reaction to it presented an opportunity to focus on how the imprecision of our language is destroying any chance of honest debate left to Americans.
While I think Trump’s tweet was strategically unwise, it is nothing like it is being portrayed. What the media did (especially the Associated Press) was to take his imprecise words and further coarsen them the point they meant what the AP wanted them to mean.

  • Trump did NOT make racist comments.
  • Trump did NOT make sexist comments.
  • Trump did inarticulately tell them to go back to their counties – but not to stay – he noted he wanted them to “come back and show us how it is done”.

What Trump did do was speak directly to the anti-Americanism the “Mod Squad” represents and their efforts to tear down American institutions in favor of some fevered socialist dream.

But, like the example of the Civil War, the AP says because the women are “of color” as they say these days, the ONLY reason Trump said what he said was, of course, RACISM!
Evidently those calling the President’s tweets “racist” never read one of George Wallace’s speeches. By the way, Wallace was a segregationist Democrat.

In 1993’s “Demolition Man”, Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) told John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) “Taco Bell was the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars. Now all restaurants are Taco Bell.”

And so it goes with any disagreement with Democrats today, progressivism survived the culture wars. Now all disagreements are racism.

Words are merely the physical expression of ideas. When we consolidate words, we also restrict thinking. If America can’t get back to an age when statements can be broken apart for critical examination, we are stuck with Humpty Dumpty’s definition of words:

“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.“
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

Not every Confederate fought for slavery and not every disagreement with a progressive is racism. There’s more to it – as John Freakin’ Kerry would say, more “nuance”. We would do well to remember that.

Talk Amongst Yourselves:

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