The comic below struck a chord and reminded me of Gary Larson’s clumsily drawn but often trenchant The Far Side comics on scientific subjects.

This one masquerades as science but is merely wordplay, i.e., puns, double entendres, and unexpectedly funny malapropisms (made famous by Yogi Berra, among others). Wordplay is also found in various cultural realms, including comic strips and stand-up comedy, advertising and branding, politics, and now Wokedom (a subset of grassroots politics, some might argue). Playing with words has gone from being a clever, sometimes enjoyable diversion (e.g., crossword puzzles) to fully deranging, weaponized language. Some might be inclined to waive away the seriousness of that contention using the childhood retort “sticks and stones ….” Indeed, I’m far less convinced of the psychological power of verbal nastiness than those who insist words are violence. But it’s equally wrong to say that words don’t matter (much) or have no effect whatsoever. Otherwise, why would those acting in bad faith work so tirelessly to control the narrative, often by restricting free speech (as though writing or out-loud speech were necessary for thoughts to form)?

It’s with some exasperation that I observe words no longer retain their meanings. Yeah, yeah … language is dynamic. But semantic shifts usually occur slowly as language evolves. Moreover, for communication to occur effectively, senders and receivers must be aligned in their understandings of words. If you and I have divergent understandings of, say, yellow, we won’t get very far in discussions of egg yolks and sunsets. The same is true of words such as liberal, fascist, freedom, and violence. A lack of shared understanding of terms, perhaps borne out of ignorance, bias, or agenda, leads to communications breakdown. But it’s gotten far worse than that. The meanings of words have been thrown wide open to PoMo reinterpretation that often invert their meanings in precisely the way George Orwell observed in his novel 1984 (published 1949): “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Thus, earnest discussion of limitations on free speech and actual restriction on social media platforms, often via algorithmic identification of keywords that fail to account for irony, sarcasm, or context, fail to register that implementation of restrictive kludges already means free speech is essentially gone. The usual exceptions (obscenity, defamation, incitement, gag orders, secrecy, deceptive advertising, student speech, etc.) are not nearly as problematic because they have been adjudicated for several generations and accepted as established practice. Indeed, many exceptions have been relaxed considerably (e.g., obscenity that has become standard patois now fails to shock or offend), and slimy workarounds are now commonplace (e.g., using “people are saying …” to say something horrible yet shielding oneself while saying it). Another gray area includes fighting words and offensive words, which are being expanded (out of a misguided campaign to sanitize?) to include many words with origins as clinical and scientific terms, and faux offense used to stifle speech.

Restrictions on free speech are working in many respects, as many choose to self-censor to avoid running afoul of various self-appointed watchdogs or roving Internet thought police (another Orwell prophecy come true) ready to pounce on some unapproved utterance. One can argue whether self-censorship is cowardly or judicious, I suppose. However, silence and the pretense of agreement only conceal thoughts harbored privately and left unexpressed, which is why restrictions on public speech are fool’s errands and strategic blunders. Maybe the genie can be bottled for a time, but that only produces resentment (not agreement), which boils over into seething rage (and worse) at some point.

At this particular moment in U.S. culture, however, restrictions are not my greatest concern. Rather, it’s the wholesale control of information gathering and reporting that misrepresent or remove from the public sphere ingredients needed to form coherent thoughts and opinions. It’s not happening only to the hoi polloi; those in positions of power and control are manipulated, too. (How many lobbyists per member of Congress, industry after industry, whispering in their ears like so many Wormtongues?) And in extreme cases of fame and cult of personality, a leader or despot unwittingly surrounds him- or herself by a coterie of yes-men frankly afraid to tell the truth out of careerist self-interest or because of shoot-the-messenger syndrome. It’s lonely at the top, right?

Addendum: Mere minutes after publishing this post, I wandered over to Bracing Views (on my blogroll) and found this post saying some of the same things, namely, that choking information off at the source results in a degraded information landscape. Worth a read.

  1. wjastore says:

    Thanks for the plug, Brutus. Love the reference to Grima Wormtongue. I’d never thought of lobbyists as so many Grimas, but the comparison is apt.

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