In this otherworldly, discordant political season, here are two fine articles that pay attention to the deeper structure of the tortured, mangled language games that beset us. Neither essay claims to have answers, but both in their humble, searching manner point us toward definitions of the problem: a kind of drenched solipsism that has dissolved our public institutions at a moment when we most need them, and so hurtles us toward an abyss of our own making.
The first article, written by essayist and cultural critic Nathan Heller, and published in The New Yorker on September 1, concerns the collapse of public language in the United States. The second article, written by the reliably measured and thoughtful, yet morally unyielding, social critic Jim Sleeper, and published in The New York Times on September 3, helps us to think more clearly about the politics of free speech and political correctness.
Nathan Heller finds himself scratching his head about politically liberal communities with broadly shared values that find themselves riven, starkly and painfully, by conflicts where combatants are mystified themselves about the intensity and seeming irreconcilability of the disagreements. College campuses have recently and reliably provided one venue for these values spats, typically about the failure of these institutions to be sufficiently attuned to the cultural perspectives and emotional vulnerabilities of marginalized segments of society – most broadly, anyone who is not a white male.
Needless to say, those on the receiving end of student attacks in college administrations and on faculties are both deeply wounded and frustrated by these assaults on their virtue, as they generally view themselves as naturally aligned with the causes and goals of alienated student groups. And while generational differences surely account for some of the contention – and some of the cognitive dissonance among elders – Heller identifies a broader and somewhat terrifying set of national challenges to our ability to constructively dispute and argue, which he ultimately resolves into a trend toward the “privatization” of language, its self-reduction into a sulfuric miasma of self-inflation and self-assertion.
Jim Sleeper, who has taught part-time at Yale for many years, similarly grasps the essence of the attacks on campus “political correctness” from wealthy donors (of the old white male ilk) as partly generational, but more significantly as a defense of free markets and private enterprise masquerading as a defense of free speech. Sleeper correctly locates the more likely true threat to free inquiry, on campuses and elsewhere, with this intellectually fossilized donor class. The ultimate irony is that those who view the marketplace of ideas as beleaguered and threatened by campus activists owe their own significant leverage on college campuses, by virtue of their wealth, to the scorched earth triumph (literally) of a liberated marketplace of capital since the Reagan era.
So, one might argue, following this theme of privatization introduced by Heller and Sleeper – with private language an echo of private financial and political power – that there might actually be a correlation between the collapse of public language Heller discusses and Sleeper’s emphasis on the reinvention of colleges and universities as corporations. Even smaller institutions now adopt a corporate model, with layers of bureaucracy, skyrocketing costs that justify remarkably aggressive pandering to the wealthy, an obsession with the institution’s “brand”, and a market-driven focus on students as “customers”. As one can all too easily see with athletic departments tail-wagging the research and teaching dog, on college and university campuses alike, very little in higher education is now not for sale or license.
One might therefore say good riddance to dyspeptic donors, whose own arrogance and sense of entitlement in campus affairs clearly makes them part of the free speech problem, not part of its solution, and so taints their money anyway. But truly, a hearty middle finger for entitled donors also would not solve the language problem in American life, because as Nathan Heller takes pains to emphasize, this problem is by no means confined to college campuses.
Donald Trump’s curious staying power politically, despite his astounding disregard for both rhetorical and truth-telling conventions, provides for Heller more general evidence of a quite sudden, and seriously alarming, disintegration of language functions on which humans have, for millennia certainly, depended for their survival and development as a species. In other words, even as most Americans distance themselves, with some combination of revulsion and fascination, from Donald Trump, we must still address the reality that we ultimately cannot turn away from Donald Trump because we are Donald Trump.
How does this work? Heller spotlights a central fact: on college campuses, disputants don’t really understand the nature of their disputes. People with similar goals, using similar terms, virtually at war with each other. And yes, again, generational issues seep into the way we use language. Consider the absence of a cross-generational shared lexicon. We use broadly similar vocabularies, but one derives from Merriam-Webster (imposed from above) and the other from the Urban Dictionary (crowdsourced and bubbling up from below).
The problem is really not different definitions, though. The problem is the weakness of our definitions, our inability to explain ourselves to each other, along with the absence of any felt imperative to even try to explain ourselves to each other. Speech in the age of social media and texting has emerged instead as a cacophony of sound bites and slogans. Let’s call it reversion to the meme, which is not merely the assumption, but truly the requirement, that others will instantly understand our meaning (although only to the degree we even understand it ourselves). So perhaps also reversion to the (self-evident) mean.
Heller refers to this “self-identifying language” as evidence of the generational trend toward privatization, what he calls the “effects of individualization on public language and political life.” This trend pervades what now counts for discourse in the United States, the dumbing-down and pre-digestion of language to short-form pablum. And while Donald Trump is not a millennial, the Twitter-Shitter zeitgeist has fully accommodated the infantile, oral, and narcissistic foundations of his personality and his communication style.
As Heller emphasizes, Trump’s words are not supposed to possess any fixed meaning. They are deliquescent irruptions of half-formed feelings that activate similarly liquid, bilious, emergent feeling states of others. In this sense, Trump’s tweets or extemporaneous speech phrasings are like a code that functions to awaken the sleeper agents of the American subconscious. We understand Trump’s message before he opens his mouth. We only evince slack-mouthed surprise that his message actually resonates so deeply in one shadowed corner of the American soul because we underestimate what some are now calling the “normalizing” impact of his dog whistle, his barking summons from this darkness of the hounds of Hell. The hounds, they were always there. Trump has merely tuned his voice to the right frequency.
Heller’s cross-political framework for thinking about language identifies whatever deep cognitive structure exists for the absence of any obvious deep structure to our language, our unpleasant lightness of being in the digital age. As Heller writes, rhetorical functions without institutional anchorage decay into a fragmented and refractory topography of assertion, “unassailable because it allows only persuasion, only self-revelation.” In these circumstances, we transpose action into mere theater, a sequence or choreography of rhetorical gestures that lack meaning and consequence because they change nothing. To the degree that this loss of accountability for the meanings and consequences and efficacy of our language extends across the land, we all are Trump, or perhaps more accurately, Trump is all of us, an unimaginable yet fully real conflation of tragedy and farce.
Heller tells us that an anchored public language is ultimately our coin of the realm. A truly public, democratic language needs its own gold standard, a stable measure of value that all can recognize and on which all can approximately agree. Language cannot float free in private markets, disembodied and de-contextualized. Language cannot be whatever we want it to be. To this degree, if Nathan Heller and Jim Sleeper are correct in their assumptions about the private worlds into which we have been flung in recent decades, Trump represents and foreshadows a looming catastrophe from which we likely cannot escape so long as non-material, non-physical, non-intimate, market-driven communication platforms and styles mediate our access to others within the human community.
Enough has been researched and written regarding the algorithmic clustering and herding of like-minded online human souls into sequestered and amplified echo chambers, enough to speculate with some confidence about the political impact of this loss of biodiversity, this enforced monoculture, this destruction of habitat. In these denatured, private (because uncontested) environments, language becomes its own end, a reflection of ourselves rather than a tool for achieving public goals that requires us to acknowledge and appreciate the inherent subjectivity and value of others. And when language is self-referential, with no requirement that we actually explain and justify ourselves, we lose any shared basis for identifying what words mean, and so what progress (achieving our goals) would mean. In this solipsistic environment, the more we try to connect, the more we simply repudiate and scorn.
Communicating is hard work. It should be hard work, with mandates premised on the tenuous connection separate embodied selves establish via linguistic bridges, threads we fling to each other, that force us to pay attention to each other and to fully see and recognize each other. Language, in other words, requires its body in the world, with voice and presence, in which the plain physics of life, of materiality, of synaptic call and response, create, haltingly, a map of the world we all can recognize, with limits we all can respect, and possibilities we all can trust. Tonality exists, yes, but tone should express, and vary with, the conversation, not precede and preclude it.
Our linguistic poverty has led us toward an apocalyptic moment. We are essentially speechless before those who bray and declaim, bully and incite. Slut-shaming. Race-baiting. We wonder now if words can exist as anything more than the shards of savage emotions. We certainly doubt the capacity of words to halt human-induced, planet-scale forces indifferent (and perhaps cosmically, and comedically, hostile) to our existence. Those who shout harry us toward our doom. But silence or solipsism also offer no refuge.
Humans are, like most animals, cautious and risk-averse, for obvious evolutionary reasons. However, we also have accelerated our development and flourished as a species because we also can, when needed, anticipate the future and consciously plan for specific outcomes that allow us, collectively, to author, in some measure, our own destiny. This authority, tenuous and contingent though it may be, ushers us into history. But this capacity to plan, to act on and within our environment with resolve and purpose, requires resilient public institutions that can effectively distill and articulate the voices, values, and dreams of the people whom they serve. The conversational vitality of these institutions is the predicate for effective planning. In former days, this active proclivity of representative public institutions had a name. We called this proclivity to plan legislation.
How do we re-embody our language so it can re-acquire a public function in our lives? How can language, in our time, serve conscious, intentional goals of caring for and preserving each other, not reactive, impulsive urges to harm and destroy each other. The immiseration and collapse of so many of our public and civic institutions has reduced us to just being only ourselves, a fraught and difficult condition. Social media has raced into this breach, with its own sociopathic version of “community”, but the breach itself is the consequence of quite intentional political acts, over the course of the past 40 years, which have harnessed the goals of “limited government”, “starving the beast”, “privatization of public functions”, “deregulation”, “capital flows”, “globalization”, “financial engineering”, “tax avoidance”, and other terms of public deconstruction we all recognize, the ultimate goal being for government to become the agent of its own abasement, humiliation, and dissolution.
Nowhere do we more fully and uncomfortably witness the decline of the public capacity to plan – to harness language to action – than in the Congress of the United States, where the House of Representatives, in particular, commandeered by the Tea Party, has defaulted on its law-making obligations and held the nation hostage to the idea that we must unmake ourselves. A handful of coal-rolling congressmen, for example, mostly from resource-dependent southern and western states and with widely dispersed rural constituencies, make it their rear-guard mission to block pretty much every effort to legislate on behalf of specific climate policy goals – with defined methods, budgets, and outcomes – no matter how modest and inadequate even these halting steps toward a public policy may be. These sorts of legislative initiatives are precisely the context for reclamation of a public language, of conversational health, of civic trust. But the obdurate failure of these obsidian congressman to engage, conversationally or otherwise, with their colleagues, reinforces the self-referencing, reactive, condemnatory bloviation – words without meaning, with no requirement for explanation, with no constructive goal – that has become more generally characteristic of public discourse in our nihilistic moment of privatization (and privation).
In this sense, the privatization of life itself has activated and animated what we can now recognize as a shared hysteria or collective mania, a foolishness of crowds that we might otherwise associate with witch trials or McCarthyism, the crowding into our lexicon and our public speech of formerly unfamiliar (or at least formerly illegitimate) tropes, constructions, and phrasings. These the materiel of fevered language wars – characterized by indifference to reason, evidence, data, and logic – in which assertion and denunciation replace conversation, in which the dog whistle irradiates the more tempered and nuanced and explicitly heard frequencies of our lives together.
The fevered dream will pass, as Cornell economist Robert Frank reassures us, in his fantastically insightful essay, Take Back the House, Democrats. Please.
History suggests why certain kinds of change are less improbable than they may seem. National trends often begin many years earlier in California, where immigration-bashing Republicans made a hash of the state’s budget and did much to degrade its most cherished institutions, including the best public university system in the world. The state’s voters eventually got fed up. Once the tipping point was reached, the change was remarkably rapid.
Let’s hope America’s voters get fed up, not eventually, but soon. Or now. Time is not our friend. And so words must be. Winter is coming, as they say. And it promises to be a scorcher.