Archive for the the commons Category

There are two kinds of bullies.

The kind who control the way you play a particular game.   And the kind who insist you play their game.

Most Americans reject the first kind (save for those who like to be BMOP (big man on playground).

But, if truth be told, the first kind is pretty easy to get away with.  You can just walk away.  Life isn’t grade school.  If I think Joe is a bully, I just decide to hang out where Joe isn’t.

It’s the second kind of bully that can be the problem.  The second kind of bully wants to keep you on his playground, playing his way by his rules.

And, unfortunately, our “system” encourages such bullies to get together and seek power.  They know that it’s a lot easier to keep on bullying if you’ve got a gang of bullies who stand with you.

Economics says that a cartel contains the seeds of its own destruction.  That cartel members have an incentive to cheat, since they can reap extra economic benefits from doing so.  But bullies aren’t driven by economic incentives.  They’re driven by the pursuit of power.

That’s why a Constitution of enumerated powers combined with a t Bill of Rights was such a critical thing. The founders knew their would be bullies out there.   Bullies who would see majoritarianism as a tool.

Unfortunately, “we the people” have emasculated both Constitution and Bill of Rights by converting them into a tool of utilitarianism.  And in so doing, we’ve enabled bullying on a huge scale.  Indeed, we’ve converted the greatest innovation in government ever into an unprecedented affirmation of the bullying ethos.  If we don’t like what other people want to do, the solution has become to pass a law to make what they want to do illegal.

We’ve professionalized and legitimated bullying.  Look at your typical Congressperson, your typical President, your typical bureaucrat.  They’re almost all bullies.

They’re just bullies that look good and promise better.   All at the expense of the evil on the other side of them and us.  We don’t want our bullies to be jackbooted thugs.  We want them to be expertly coiffed with business suit and nicely shined shoes.

Why is political correctness such an evil?  Because  it is nothing more than another excuse for type 2 bullying.  To convert taking offense into taking over the schoolyard.

Do I consider some speech offensive?  Sure.  Absolutely.

And as an adult, I have a pretty easy solution available to me:  I can walk away.

But political correctness doesn’t work that way.  If the PC bullies are offended, they’re solution isn’t walking away and associating elsewhere.  They’re solution is that of serfdom.   They want to build a 10,000-volt fence around the schoolyard, and then, when the offending person can’t escape, pummel him unmercifully until he speaks better.

Look at today’s newspapers.  Look at the stories and editorials where people are calling for government action.  Look carefully at what people are asking for.   Are they asking for enforcement of the Constitution and its protection.   Or are they asking for help in bullying other people?

If you have to, start with those whose causes you don’t share.  (It’s always easier to see bullying on the other side.)  But after you’ve identified the opponents’ bullying tactics, move to those who you agree with.  Look in the mirror.  Look real carefully at what is being proposed with respect to the choices of your opponents.   I hate to say this, but more often than not, you’re seeking to take advantage of the same bullying tactics and threats.

This isn’t meant as America bashing.  Bullying using state power has been the default of political action since long before our republic was founded.   Indeed, what made the American Experiment so special is that it attempted to formulate rules that prevented legitimized bullying and that discouraged just the sort of bullying we now practice.

It’s just that we no longer hear the voices of the Founders well enough.   We’re too busy trying to be bullies.


“That’s just semantics.”

“You’re just playing with words.”

“You know what I mean.”

I’m a big fan of paying attention to the details of language.   And comments like the three above, variations of which can regularly be heard both on- and offline wherever disagreeing people can be found, bother me.

Because, to me, language is never “just words.”  Diction is not of secondary importance to the “real” issues being debated by those disagreeing people.  Rather, it is at the heart of them.  If you get the language right, the disagreements tend to disappear and the issues resolved.  And that’s true whether you’re attending a world summit at some expensive Swiss hotel that us peons can only dream of affording, an obscure academic conference, or arguing draft strategies on some NFL bulletin board.

Not that “getting the language right” is easy.  Because getting the language right is more than proper grammar, logical consistency, and the rest of the usual suspects I and my teaching colleagues use when we mark up student papers.  Getting the language right also demands speaking and listening in what I call “the commons.”  That is, using words, phrases, turns of phrase, idioms, etc, for which speaker and listener agree about the precise meaning at hand.  And within that commons you must somehow combine the grammar, logic, etc., with a shared openness to changing the commons itself.  Even if you and your opponent both strive to get the language right, you’re in for a lot of work.

But easy or hard, language choice matters.  A lot.  As much as any other class of choice we find ourselves having to make on a daily basis.  The late George Orwell had it correct:  sloppy attention to language — as speakers, as writers, and, especially, as listeners — is responsible for most of the great and small evils of the world.

Assuming they recognize the name at all, most people know Orwell as the author of two books seen in school, Animal Farm and 1984.  (I’m not sure the prescient predictor who wrote 1984 would be dismayed or amused by the decline in his own presence in popular consciousness.  I doubt, however, that he would be much surprised that his teachings have gone unheeded.)  Those more historically inclined, or who like me who suffer from a lifelong Anglophilia, know Orwell as one of the great observers of mid-20th century culture.  While he didn’t get everything correct — what journalist or historian does? — I don’t think one can really understand the social fabric of the 20th century unless one at least samples Road to Wigan Pier (history of the working class), Homage to Catalonia (revolution, totalitarianism), or Burmese Days (empire).

But, much as I think each of those books worth reading, and re-reading, Orwell’s single most important work wasn’t a book.  It was a short essay.  Written shortly after the end of World War II and three years before 1984 first hit print, “Politics and the English Language” explains how attention to language matters.  And how the attention that matters is both attention to what you say and attention to what you hear.

It had to have annoyed a lot of readers when it came out.   As its title (“Politics and … “) suggests, it spoke on the political corruption of language.  Though published in 1946, however, it did not focus on the abusive rhetoric of the just-defeated Hitler and Goebbels (who, after all, were poster children for how language can be used for evil), choosing instead to focus upon the diction of those who proved victorious and those who, like the modern academic, prefer the tones of dispassionate science.  Orwell provide not an essay against jackbooted thugs, but against those who would instill fear through use of the “jackbooted thug” label and those who would deny danger by refusing to call jackbooted thugs exactly that.

/begin aside on the ironic

To my knowledge I never used the word “jackboot” in my life until I read Orwell’s use of it as illustrating (i) pretentious diction, (ii) the non-thinking that reading mixed metaphors gives rise to (“the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot”, and (iii) worn-out and useless phrases.)

/end aside

The inattentive use of bad language spoken to combat evil can be as dangerous as the highly attentive use of bad language by evil.  Perhaps more dangerous, for language used by evil can only kill the good.  Inattentive language can corrupt the good themselves.

For, relatively speaking, it easy to see the consequences of bad language used by the pursuers of evil.  Just watch Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, followed by Resnais and Cayrol’s Night and Fog.  (Though substantially shorter, Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) is far better, and far more chilling, than the more-known Schindler’s List.)

It’s harder, however, to see the consequences of inattention to bad language used by those (rightly) opposing evil.

I’d like to believe that had Americans, their journalists, and their academics, paid more attention to Orwell’s teaching, they wouldn’t have tolerated, much less provided, the “bipartisan” and “nonpartisan” support in 2001 for the obscenities of the Patriot Act.  Because much as those with selective memory would like us to think, it wasn’t just George Bush running roughshod over civil liberties in the wake of 9/11.  Bush did what he did with the advice and consent of all but one Senator (Feingold of Wisconsin, who, for that moment of courage in 2001, if not much else in his career, should be applauded).  And, more importantly, and far more ominously, he did it with very little criticism from the mainstream media and the “man on the streets.”  And while there may have been occasional bits of criticism from the academy, they inevitably were corrupted by poor diction:  invariably, any criticism coming from the intelligentsia was, and continues to be, couched in the cant of political correctness, the jargon of pedantry, or both.

But for all the necessity of preventing and combatting evil, focusing merely on language because of it’s connection to evil still misses part of Orwell’s point, because most problems of the world aren’t ones that would end if we could manage to get rid of evil people and evil-doing.  For example, if the only problems I (or you) needed to deal with were ones of evil, I would almost never need to work.   I could just laze on my dreamed-of Tahiti beach all day, with my cell phone only set to go off on those rare occasions when James Bond or the Marines or Lara Croft needed my help.

Or, more seriously, while I may not know how to solve the problems of the current economy, I’m pretty sure that a crusade to stop evil won’t.

And all those other problems are affected by inattention to language, too.

Good intentions, and bad diction, pave the road to many places not worth visiting, not just to Hell.  Correct use of language means distinguishing evil from other problems and finding ways to solve both.

If you haven’t read “Politics and the English Language yet, read it now.  The original essay can be found here, or a version reformatted for “easier online reading” here.

And don’t be fooled by the talk that sometimes sounds like your less adept writing teachers, or the “six rules” with which Orwell concludes the essay.  Because those rules aren’t the main point of the essay, as the sixth rule itself makes clear.  (And no, I’m not going to tell you that sixth rule here; you’ll have to at least click on the link above to find it.)  The point is far bigger.  It’s the principle behind all six rules.

Pay attention to language.

Yours, and others’.

Others’, and yours.

Or suffer corruption, and sometimes evil, accordingly.

All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts