Confucius And Whorf

Copyright © by Len Holman, 3/31/11


  Maybe Confucius had the right idea all along.  When asked, if he were in charge of a certain Chinese Warring States-period territory, what he would do first, he answered, “The one thing needed is the rectification of names.”  From the Confucian point of view this was necessary for the good of the society.  The reasoning is as follows:  in making relationships and duties and institutions conform as much as possible to their ideal meanings, the ideal social order will emerge.  Once this intellectual reordering is done, good things will happen, just as the night follows the day.  This idea seems like a good place for us all to go, if not for moral reasons then for practical ones: there is no unanimity of opinion on anything anymore. Right now, you could put all the politicians we have in this country into a very close room, in the middle of which is a pile of horse manure, and you couldn’t get them all to agree it stank. Maybe some definitions ARE in order.

  For example, pols and pundits on the right accuse the President of “dithering,” both with respect to the “surge” in Afghanistan, and in Libya.   Now this word is fraught with possibilities.  It MAY mean that the President was hesitant.  It MAY mean he was indecisive.  It MAY mean he was afraid to make a decision for various reasons—none of which were noble.  It MAY mean he was incapable of making one and had to be talked into the “no fly” zone deal.  A different word might have been used for this process: perhaps “contemplative,” or “thorough.”  Edward Sapir, Franz Boas, and—most notoriously—Benjamin Lee Whorf—suggested that language has an impact on thought.  This is still controversial, but it is surely true that what is being said affects both the speaker and the listener, influencing both of them in a thought-web from which, with only great effort, can they get themselves extricated.  Let’s recall that old conjugation: “I am firm.  You are stubborn.  He is a pig-headed fool.”  It depends…it always depends.  Is NATO conducting a “war,” or an “intervention?”  Maybe it’s a “humanitarian intervention with war-like activities.”  If it’s a war—and the airstrikes and bombing runs seem to lead to that conclusion—then does that term naturally, inevitably, exclude some humanitarian focus or intention or behavior?  We’ve had the War on Terror, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam and Korean wars, the Great War, and the Cold War.  But Korea was called a “police action,” which conjures up stops for speeding and the giving of tickets—nothing very serious.  “The Great War” was called “the war to end all wars,” a major overstatement, and is one of those unfortunate appellations which don’t even begin to conjure up the massacres and body count—which is what public labels for this sort of thing are for.  Confucius thought that if a society was clear on its definitions, then people would behave properly, as befit some particular category—“father” or “leader,” for example—and once that intellectual transition was made, then society would become well-ordered because people would know what a father was supposed to be and do, and fathers would be and do that, and if every other category were to be defined, the social pressure to conform to these definition would be such as to bring harmony to the society—a place for everyone and everyone in his or her place.  Language matters.  Not just words, but the ideas language carries and with which behaviors are accepted or rejected.

  This is clearly shown by the labels various politicians place on things, trying to get voters to think about things in a certain way.  Does this labeling work?  Of course it does, for several reasons.  People are overwhelmed; there is too much information, too many ways to twist it and spin it and manipulate it—as images and words—as in Shirley Sherrod’s case, for example.  The language of politics is no more or less influential than that of advertising—in fact, it IS advertising, with all the attendant effort of persuading, by any means necessary, the customers to buy the product.  If language doesn’t MAKE you think a certain way, it surely INFLUENCES you to do so.  It’s not just words, but grammar, phrases, context, and especially repetition.  When a Birther demands to see the President’s “real birth certificate,” what is she or he saying?  That the birth certificate shown in news mags, certified by the Hawaiian Secretary of state and the Republican governor, and presented by the state of Hawaii is fake, implying a giant conspiracy to keep Obama’s lack of Constitutional correctness hidden?  Isn’t it more than that?  Isn’t the Birther movement saying that only a certain group, a certain class of people, are legitimate?   Isn’t the incessant deluge of words and pictures of frowns and outright grimaces and all those tones of voice actually saying “WE are the select, WE decide who is acceptable, ‘WE the people’ doesn’t include SOME people—and we all know who they are”?  This sort of language game (to use Wittgenstein’s idea—he’s dead now, so I’m sure he won’t mind) is designed, not to stimulate thought or encourage open discussion, but to curb it, channel it, turn it away from a critical and narrow surveillance of the claim and premises. It is meant to evade responsibility and dis-educate.  George Orwell wrote, in 1948, that in his novel “1984” his invented language, Newspeak, was meant to push out Oldspeak—so that it would eventually be forgotten—and that when it did “a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc (English Socialism)—should be literally unthinkable, at least as far as thought is dependent on words.”  He went on to say that, in his dystopian society, secondary meanings would be unknown—for example, “’equal’ once had the secondary meaning of ‘politically equal’.”  He also makes the Whorfian statement that “There would be many crimes and errors which it would be  beyond his [a citizen of the society] power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.”  In this country, the Left has almost no names for anything, and because they do not—or cannot—control the language that they need to articulate their views, the public is left with the distorted reality the Language of Zealots has created.  Confucius would be horrified and Whorf would simply nod and say, “See?  I TOLD you so.”


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