17 Apr VAL: Violence Against Language
I don’t often devote this blog post to words, despite my writer’s passion for language. But Easter provided an unexpected inspiration.
I overheard someone’s remark wondering how in hell rabbits and eggs came to signify a Christian holiday about death and resurrection. Sounds like a fair question. Well, how about this fact as an answer? It’s not a Christian holiday. It dates back pre-Christianity to spring fertility rites, which is where the egg comes in and also where rabbits, notorious for their fecundity, hop into the picture. The name Easter itself is derivative of one of the Old English names of the fertility goddess, OEastre, from which the word estrogen also is derived, and it relates etymologically to the word “east,” the direction from which the sun rises, giving birth to each day.
So Easter sent me off into language, how it’s chronically abused these days, and why that’s not a trivial concern but in fact central to our political resistance against authoritarian attempts to take over our country. I’ve written about not normalizing the Trump regime—but it’s as or more important to not normalize, or chuckle at, Trump declaring one day that NATO is obsolete, and then announcing that NATO is no longer obsolete; his personal decision, you understand, his royal whim. Or his proclaiming that polls unfavorable to him are “negative and phony,” while polls favorable to him are “accurate.” (His own press secretary, Sean Spicer—also articulation-challenged—laughed out loud while reporting that last one.) Or Trump’s description of how beautiful Mar-a-Lago’s chocolate cake was as he was informing the President of China during dessert that he had just bombed Syria. Or terming the massive bomb he dropped on Afghanistan “the mother of all bombs,” when cross-culturally and historically women, whether mothers or not, by a staggering majority have always been actively opposed to war, and when bombs are usually more honestly named, like the destroyers of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.”
We could spend hours just listing Trump’s VAL, violence against language, but there’s no need to re-experience those horrors, since he gives us new ones every day. I want to make a larger point here.
Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-Right National Front and a leading candidate for president, has expended enormous effort trying to “undemonize” her party, given its reputation as being sexist, racist, Islamaphobic, anti-Semitic, and, frankly, fascistic. She has also, as I wrote here not long ago, lately pretended to be a feminist and a progressive. But recently she slipped, revealing her and her party’s true politics. During an interview, she was asked about the infamous roundup of Jews in France during World War II: nearly 13,000 children, women, and men were rousted from their homes by French police on July 16 and 17, 1942, in what has become known as the “Vel d’Hiv roundup,” because they were arrested and herded into a Paris sports arena, the Veledrome d’Hiver, where they were kept in overcrowded, stinking conditions until they were deported to their deaths in concentration camps.
Le Pen replied, “France was not responsible. If there was responsibility, it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated in people’s minds for years.”
So France is the victim! This not only attempts to erase centuries of French anti-Semitism, including Emile Zola’s great 1898 “J’Accuse” letter to the French government about the Dreyfus Affair, but it flies in the face of more than four decades of historical research proving how eager the wartime French government based in Vichy was to collaborate with the Germans. Furthermore, it even surpasses other Right-wing French politicians who have tried to shift France’s national narrative about those years in their effort to undo French state policy, which for two decades has been to recognize responsibility for the roundup.
Le Pen tried to backpedal, claiming, “I consider that France and its Republic were in London during the Occupation and that the Vichy regime wasn’t France.”
How very convenient! This is akin to saying that Germany as a nation wasn’t responsible for initiating World War II and the Holocaust, because after all some Germans left the country and it was actually only one German political party, the National Socialists, who were in power—although oops Hitler had been elected by the German people. Germany has at least tried to take responsibility for its atrocities.
These word/thought reversals are crazy. But they work with many people, a sort of smog settling in the air of the brain, confusing logic just enough to upend some voters’ politics. Regularizing such weather until it becomes climate—which we’re seeing more and more—has a profound effect on the politics, morals, and general sensibility of a society.
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four with its dystopian slogans, “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery,” might seem dramatically overstated. Yet when Sean Spicer (while apologizing for an earlier anti-Semitic remark) refers to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers,” that euphemism is one example of the effect I’m describing. When the United Airlines CEO–in his first response to the forcible removal of a non-disturbing, paying customer from a flight just because it wants the seat—names this assault “re-accommodating the passenger,” that too is an example. Certain press reports offer yet another example when they describe the terrifyingly close stand-off between North Korea and the US, referring to the former as “a nuclear power currently led by a psychopath” but neglecting to describe the latter the same way. In this case the press, which has too often exercised false equivalency, is neglecting to exercise true equivalency.
A daily diet of mis-speak constitutes what the great writer Toni Morrison, in her Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, termed “Policing languages of mastery—sexist language, racist language, theistic language.” I would add that such a diet constitutes the deliberate force-feeding of cognitive poison to the citizenry. It leads, Morrison wrote, to the use of bullets “to iterate the void of speechlessness, . . . It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts, for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience. The systemized looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties.” Morrison aptly terms this “tongue suicide.”
Socrates said it, too: “The misuse of language invites evil into the soul.”
It’s not a small thing, after all. So when I add my personal communication mantra, that Words Mean Things, that Words Have Consequences, that Words Matter, I really do mean what I say. You have my word on it.
The Blog Post will be on hiatus for a week, returning on May 1.