Words. Do they mean anything anymore? Does Brexit still mean Brexit? When is racism systemic? Which lives matter more, black or all? Is speech still free? When is a news item genuine, fake news, or even a conspiracy theory? When is it waterboarding as opposed to enhanced interrogation? Is enhanced interrogation like regular interrogation, only better? Is one mans freedom fighter still Margaret Thatcher’s terrorist? Is white privilege a real construct to be dismantled or a false narrative to be ignored? And how do I know if I am talking to a Millennial or Generation X or Y or Z? And don’t even get me started on gender pronouns!
Arguably the best example of a word or phrase that recently meant nothing (and in this case also everything) was when President Trump tweeted the word “covfefe”, an alleged misspelling of the word “coverage” For those of who remember when this actually happened, incredibly this was over 3 entire years ago. How time flies when you are living through a global pandemic, generational changes in society (such as Brexit, #MeToo, and #BLM), and the worst financial crisis the world has known pretty much ever.
To this day, no one knows what covfefe was, or indeed if it still is a thing. In an article entitled Six Hours And Three Minutes Of Internet Chaos, Adrienne LaFrance (writing in the Atlantic in Jan 2019) said the following:
“In the annals of revelatory Trumpian tweets, “covfefe” is the ultimate. Nothing compares to what appeared on his feed at 12:06am on 31st May 2017: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” Seconds passed, then minutes, then an hour, then six hours, with no word from the White House on whether Trump was okay, or even alive. Surely it was a typo, or a tweet published errantly—but what if it was the sign of something more sinister? When the president tweeted again, at 6:09am on the same day, it was to say this: “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!””
LaFrance expertly goes on to explain why this one nonsensical word best explains the hold Trump seems to have on us all, supporters and haters alike:
“There have been more consequential presidential tweets, and someday there may even be a weirder one. But Covfefe remains the tweet that best illustrates Trump’s most preternatural gift: He knows how to captivate people, how to command and divert the attention of the masses. And long after the president’s tweets are stripped of meaning by the passage of time and the rotting of the internet, his severest critics will still have to grapple with the short distance between politics and entertainment in America, and the man who for years toyed so masterfully with a nation’s attention.”
Putting covfefe aside for a moment, it is also easy to be confused by the simplest of words in everyday life. In the office where I currently work, we often get confused over terms such as “next Monday” (the Monday immediately coming or the one after that?), “dinner” and “lunch” (some say these are the same thing, others don’t), and is it “chicken curry” or “curried chicken”? Again, some say they are the same, others passionately tell you otherwise. This means that a statement such as “I’m going to have chicken curry for dinner next Monday” can potentially be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Never a dull moment at work.
Another recent debate I came across was to do with the concept of time and the word “forward”. When a meeting gets moved forward, does that mean it is now sooner or later? Apparently if you think the meeting is now later, then you have an “ego-moving perspective of time,” which means you see yourself moving forward through time. But if you interpret the meeting as being moved earlier, then you have a “time-moving perspective of time,” where you stand still as time moves towards you and then passes over you.
Likewise, according to the comedian Aaron Naylor, the word “new” may not mean what you think it means: “Sometimes when I’m really bored, I like to go to clothing stores that sell fur coats and stand out front and protest. Not because I’m against wearing animals, but because they advertise them as new instead of used.”
To add to the confusion, I came across this cartoon where the word “best” clearly has a double meaning:
There are also debates as to whether certain words are actually words. The word “irregardless” is the latest such word to be put under the linguistical microscope. Arguments for and against its inclusion in the dictionary currently rage in nerd-infested corners of the internet, with some saying it basically means the same thing as “regardless”.
Defining words is becoming more and more difficult. We increasingly live in a world of memes, emojis, gifs, abbreviated text messages, soundbites, and YouTube videos, a world where we live in isolated bubbles that act as echo chambers. In such a world words mean less and less collectively and more and more individually. We spend more of our time in this online landscape, yet when we are offline we still think about things from this digital realm. The journalist Ezra Klein made the following remarks in a recent podcast about our digital nature:
“The media technologies we rely on reshape us on a fundamental, cognitive level…A world defined by oral traditions is more social, unstructured, and multisensory; a world defined by the written word is more individualistic, disciplined, and hypervisual. A world defined by texting, scrolling, and social feedback is addicted to stimulus, constantly forming and affirming expressions of identity, accustomed to waves of information…The internet is changing us, just as every medium before it has.”
As such we are surrounded by words and terms that are either meaningless (because they have been so overused they no longer hold any power), or are overflowing with meaning (because they have been weaponised by all shades of the political spectrum). Take the idea of “cancel culture”, a concept that is currently filling the airwaves. The writer John Ganz recently stated in the Guardian:
“What is cancel culture, really? Well, nobody quite knows. Does it even exist? Some would say it’s just a term given to a number of practices that people dislike because they’re personally inconvenient or challenging. Others would argue that only someone acting in bad faith could deny that it exists. As some wag once remarked about Sigmund Freud’s “death drive”, there seem to be as many definitions of cancel culture as there are intellectuals.”
He followed this up with this controversial remark: “One writer caustically remarked something to the effect that cancel culture was a jobs programme for younger media types who wish to displace their elders and take their positions.”
Ganz concluded the article by giving his own very pessimistic definition: “Every opportunity the internet offers for making us bigger, for increasing our power to act, for joining us with others, seems to be a trap that flattens and empties us out, and fills us up with much cruder stuff than was there before. So this is my definition of what’s at stake in cancel culture: it’s not really a political phenomenon at all, but the gradual negation of all human capacity for meaning.”
For a more simplistic view, I’ll let @shaun_vids have the final say on cancel culture: “Free speech is when I’m winning the argument, cancel culture is when I’m losing.”
As you watch the news you can see Orwellian doublespeak happening in real time, right before your very eyes. You end up questioning the fundamental nature of truth and of reality itself. Is the fight for truth in our information environment over? I take it that truth lost? How long before I search for “truth” on the internet and Google tells me it was all a conspiracy theory, just like the moon landings or the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School? And what about reality, is it a construct of the mind? If so does that mean, in a philosophical context, that all of us live in our own subjective reality, where words can mean whatsoever we choose?
Further light was recently shed on these topics by Darren McGarvey, a Scottish rapper, hip hop recording artist, and social commentator who goes by the stage name Loki. He was an activist during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. In a recent BBC TV show (Frankie Boyle’s Tour Of Scotland), he came up with the following analysis:
“When it comes to social problems and politics, if we’re all using different terminology to describe the reality around us, then we lose the ability through language to start to conceptualise what a solution to a problem might look like, or what even the problem is in the first place. The good thing about language is that everyone has access to it, or most people have access to it. It’s just that when you start making pronouncements about what is the right language and what is the wrong language, that is when it becomes exclusionary. From the classroom to the court room, lower class people are conditioned that there is a voice of reason and there is a voice of authority, and that voice, whether it is Jeremy Kyle or whether it is a news reader, it is always middle class. And it’s very hard to shake that.”
When we fail to agree on basic things such as what do those words mean that we currently disagree on, then, from a political perspective, according to Jonathon Cole “the only viable alternative” is “political oblivion: permanent escape into the non-political pseudo-reality of video games, reality television and Hollywood gossip — gorging the mind with enough trivia to maintain the pretence that there is nothing confronting happening in the world.” Sounds rather familiar, especially during these times of lockdown. Just in case the point was missed, he immediately follows this with “The unpalatable truth is that we inhabit a political reality that transcends our comprehension.”
Cole expands on this point by asking if the BLM protests are a “righteous reckoning for a racist country that warrants the enormous personal and communal sacrifices that innocent bystanders are involuntarily made to offer”, or are they instead the “lamentable manipulation and exploitation of well-intentioned citizens by a cynical cultural Marxist conspiracy with designs to overthrow the Republic”?
Why all these questions and rethinks? I read an article recently by Fintan O’Toole that got the old brain gears churning. In the article O’Toole writes about how the term “war on terror” has been redefined over the years. The term was originally designed by the Bush government to essentially create a permanent state of psychic emergency so as to justify military action anywhere on the planet. However, it has recently been redefined in such a dastardly way by the Orange Wrecking Ball, also known as President Trump.
The article also reminded me of a short excerpt from the brilliant book Unspeak by Steven Poole. Poole touches on the point that, if we all agree that society is best served by rational debate conducted in honest language, then it becomes vital that we all originate from a common understanding. Otherwise we could end up divided by rhetoric, and God only knows what that would look like. Both the book excerpt and an excerpt from the article are presented below. As always, both are well worth reading in full. As best as one can in these sorts of situations, enjoy…
The Unpresident And The Unredeemed Promise
Fintan O’Toole, 23 Jul 2020, nybooks.com
Trump was right in one sense: the war on terror has always been a war of definition, and for every US administration since September 11, that power of definition is arbitrary. You can call “whatever you want” terrorism—or not. The semantics are the keys that unlock a vast array of state capacities, up to and including the right to kidnap and imprison people indefinitely without trial, to conduct summary executions, and to invade foreign countries and overthrow their governments. Authoritarian regimes abroad grasped this quickly—once you define your critics as “terrorists,” there is no need for even the pretense of due process. Conversely, if you refrain from using the word, those you approve of—for example, armed white men invading the Michigan state capitol—enjoy complete impunity.
The Republicans wasted no time in exploiting that power of definition: they deliberately subverted the distinction between peaceful protesters and looters, and labeled them all terrorists. This was not merely an example of Trumpian hyperbole—the term was used by many senior Republicans including, most ominously, in a written statement of May 31, by Attorney General William Barr announcing that “to identify criminal organizers and instigators, and to coordinate federal resources with our state and local partners, federal law enforcement is using our existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces.”
Trump, however, extended the “terrorist” label, not just to “criminal organizers” of violence but also explicitly to the peaceful protesters who were assaulted with chemical sprays, rubber bullets, and flash bombs on Lafayette Square, to clear the way for his Bible-waving stunt at St. John’s Church. On June 4 he tweeted a copy of a letter “from respected retired Marine and Super Star lawyer, John Dowd” with the instruction: “Read it!” Dowd, in this open letter of rebuke to the former defense secretary James Mattis for his criticism of Trump, claimed that “the phony protesters near Lafayette were not peaceful and are not real. They are terrorists using idle hate filled students to burn and destroy.” The logic is clear: the FBI’s terrorism task forces can and should use their sweeping powers and immense resources to investigate the protesters.
And those protesters can also be assaulted on the streets by the police and by uniformed men who are not identified (either collectively or individually) and are therefore impossible to hold to account. In response to images showing police in Buffalo push over and seriously injure a seventy-five-year-old man, Martin Gugino, Trump tweeted that “Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur…Could be a set up?” Trump had already declared his intention to designate “ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” But since Antifa does not actually exist as an organization, anyone engaged in protest “could be” a terrorist. This possibility is enough to make every public opponent of Trump’s regime a legitimate target for state violence. If and when that assault happens, moreover, it is not real. The victim staged it.
This is the final overflow from unfinished war. The word that once described Osama bin Laden and the killers of innocent Americans now extends to citizens protesting the killing of innocent fellow Americans. The concept that is not defined—terrorism—is not bounded. In particular it is not bounded by constitutional or democratic values. Trump, Barr, and the Republicans have cleared the way for a great homecoming: the war on terror, with all of its weapons for the mass destruction of legality, is being fully repatriated.
All of these historical surpluses—the afterlives of slavery, of the deranged presidency, and of the threat of terrorism as permission to set aside legal and democratic rights—have raised the stakes in the present struggle. This mass of unresolved stuff is being forced toward some kind of resolution. That resolution can come in only one of two ways. What has come to the surface can be repressed again—but that repression will have to be enforced by methods that will also dismantle democracy. Trump’s boast that he can do whatever he wants will have to be institutionalized, made fully operational, and imposed by state violence. Or there will be a transformative wave of change. All of this unfinished business has made the United States semidemocratic, a half-and-half world in which ideals of equality, political accountability, and the rule of law exist alongside practices that make a daily mockery of those ideals. This half-life is ending—either the outward show of democracy is finished and authoritarianism triumphs, or the long-denied substance becomes real. The unconsumed past will either be faced and dealt with, or it will consume the American republic.
A long time ago in China, a philosopher was asked the first thing he would do if he became ruler. The philosopher thought for a while, and then said: “Well, if something had to be put first, I would rectify the names for things.” His companion was baffled: what did this have to do with good government? The philosopher lamented his companion’s foolishness, and explained. “When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, the structure of society is harmed; when the structure of society is harmed, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, the people don’t know what to do.” “The thing about the gentleman,” he warned, “is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned.” The philosopher’s name was Confucius, and he was referring to a phenomenon that is all around us today. He was talking about what I call unspeak. – Steven Poole, from his book Unspeak: Words Are Weapons