Nobody in his senses wants airplanes dropping bombs and poison gases upon his head; nobody in his senses wants slums, Tobacco Roads, and undernourished, ragged schoolchildren in a land of potential economic plenty. But bombs are killing babies in China and Spain today, and more than one-third of the people in America are underfed, badly housed, shoddily clothed.
Nobody wants men and women to be unemployed, but in Western civilization from twenty to thirty million are, or have recently been, without work, and many of those who have recovered their jobs are making munitions of war. In brief, with a dreadful irony, we are acting to produce precisely the kinds of things and situations which we do not want.
It is as though a hungry farmer, with rich soil, and good wheat seed in his barn, could raise nothing but thistles. The tendency of organisms is strongly toward survival, not against it. Something has perverted human-survival behavior. I assume that it is a temporary perversion. I assume that it is bound up to some extent with an unconscious misuse of man’s most human attributes – thinking and its tool, language.
Failure of mental communication is painfully in evidence nearly everywhere we choose to look. Pick up any magazine or newspaper and you will find many of the articles devoted to sound and fury from politicians, editors, leaders of industry, and diplomats. You will find the text of the advertising sections devoted almost solidly to a skillful attempt to make words mean something different to the reader from what the facts warrant.
Most of us are aware of the chronic inability of schoolchildren to understand what is taught them; their examination papers are familiar exhibits in communication failure. Let me put a question to my fellow authors in the fields of economics, politics, and sociology: How many book-reviewers show by their reviews that they know what you are talking about? One in ten? That is about my ratio. Yet most of them assert that I am relatively lucid, if ignorant. How many arguments arrive anywhere? “A controversy,” says Richards, “is normally an exploitation of a set of misunderstandings for warlike purposes.” Have you ever listened to a debate in the Senate? A case being argued before the Supreme Court? . . .
This is not frail humanity strapped upon an eternal rack. This is a reparable defect in the mechanism. When the physicists began to clear up their language, especially after Einstein, one mighty citadel after another was taken in the quest for knowledge. Is slum clearance a more difficult study than counting electrons? Strictly speaking, this may be a meaningless question, but I think you get my point.
It is too late to eliminate the factor of sheer verbalism in the already blazing war between “fascism” and “communism.” That war may end Europe as a viable continent for decades. To say that it is a battle of words alone is contrary to the facts, for there are important differences between the so-called fascist and communist states. But the words themselves, and the dialectic which accompanies them, have kindled emotional fires which far transcend the differences in fact.
Abstract terms are personified to become burning, fighting realities. Yet if the knowledge of semantics were general, and men were on guard for communication failure, the conflagration could hardly start. There would be “honest differences of opinion, there might be a sharp political struggle, but not this windy clash of rival metaphysical notions.
If one is attacked and cornered, one fights; the reaction is shared with other animals and is a sound survival mechanism. In modern times, however, this natural action comes after the conflict has been set in motion by propaganda. Bad language is now the mightiest weapon in the arsenal of despots and demagogues.
Endless political and economic difficulties in America have arisen and thriven on bad language. The Supreme Court crisis of 1937 was due chiefly to the creation by judges and lawyers of verbal monsters in the interpretation of the Constitution. They gave objective, rigid values to vague phrases like “due process” and “interstate commerce.” Once these monsters get into the zoo, no one knows how to get them out again, and they proceed to eat us out of house and home.
Judges and lawyers furthermore have granted to a legal abstraction the rights, privileges, and protection vouchsafed to a living, breathing human being. It is thus that corporations, as well as you or I, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It would surely be a rollicking sight to see the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey in pursuit of happiness at a dance hall. It would be a sight to see United States Smelting and Refining being brought back to consciousness by a squad of coast guard men armed with a respirator, to see the Atlas Corporation enjoying its constitutional freedom at a nudist camp.
This gross animism has permitted a relatively small number of individuals to throw the economic mechanism seriously out of gear. By economic mechanism, I mean the operation of factories, stores, machines, whereby men, women, and children are fed, sheltered, and clothed. If people were armed with semantic understanding, such fabulous concepts could not arise. Corporations would not be interpreted as tender persons.
A community of semantic illiterates, of persons unable to perceive the meaning of what they read and hear, is one of perilous equilibrium. Advertisers, as well as demagogues, thrive on this illiteracy. The case against the advertising of commercial products has hitherto rested on mendacity. In modern times outright mendacity—such as a cure for cancer—is tempered with spurious identification. The advertiser often creates verbal goods, turning the reader’s attention away from the actual product. He sells the package, and especially the doctrinal matter around the package. The plain woman, by using a given cosmetic, is invited to become Cleopatra, vested with all the allure of the East. In brief, consumers often pay their money for the word rather than for the thing.
Without ability to translate words into verifiable meanings, most people are the inevitable victims of both commercial and literary fraud. Their mental life is increasingly corrupted.
Excerpt From: Stuart Chase. “Tyranny of Words.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/7FRw6.ll
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