Speaking the Warpath

Speaking the Warpath

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Between the tyrannical measures imposed to counter the new Flu and the complete disregard (and even support) for BLM lawlessness and violence, most sane people want to do something. The trouble is that most action people think of (myself included) seems either too extreme and dangerous or completely useless. Somewhere between gunning down protesters and whining about how crazy things are, there must be something reasonable that can be done, something that is morally sane and not unnecessarily risky, yet which has a reasonable chance of actually accomplishing something.

In many places, it is now illegal to refuse to wear a mask. Even refusing to wear a mask — petty as that may be — might not be worth the effort.

If they’re getting tyrannical, why not stay ever so slightly more anonymous?

But within the realm of legal action, there is one critical way to fight back, and that is with language.

Both of these issues — “Black Lives Matter” and “COVID-19” — were made to blow up through the use of language.

The repetition of certain words and phrases circumnavigate independent thought and prime the audience to interpret a phenomenon in a particular way.

How often have you heard of recent city riots referred to as “peaceful protests?”

The point is not whether or not they actually are peaceful; there are a million different ways one might convey the non-violent nature of street-demonstrators other than the specific, two-word phrase “peaceful protest.” One might say “non-violent demonstrators,” “peaceful demonstrators,” “sign-carrying activists,” “Black Lives Matter protesters,” and so forth. In a media landscape filled with dozens of programs, talking almost incessantly about said protests, one might expect more diversity in the language used to describe these events… especially as the events themselves shift and mutate.

The point of the language in question here isn’t to describe. It is, in fact, to do the exact opposite: to shape interpretation of events while giving as little meaningful information as possible.

So if you’re looking for a way to fight back, to resist the oncoming tyranny and worse, the anxious assistance of friends and family around you, here’s the best way to do it:

Replace words.

And the best phrase to start with is “social distancing.” Why not call it “personal space?” Semantically, the two phrases are essentially identical, but personal space is actually the superior phrase because it is a common idiom, appeals to a pre-existing social expectation, and sounds less “official.” This final connotation is the way by which they sneak in arbitrary rules about exactly how far “distancing” is (currently six feet), a point which no study conclusively supports, and about which much disagreement exists:

But the CDC isn’t the only word on social distancing. The World Health Organization recommends that people stay at least half that distance apart—three feet, (one meter, or about a toddler’s height). Meanwhile, an opinion published in late March in the Journal of the American Medical Association by a particle fluid dynamicist at the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology suggested that people might do well to stay more than 27 feet apart (8.2 meters, or several tall people) to avoid infecting one another.


Why not insist that other people also call it “personal space?”

“…and be sure to keep social distancing–“
“You mean personal space?”

“Social Distancing” is a new and made-up phrase, designed specifically to change behavior. Those in the loop understand this, and even try to preempt the most effective counter, saying “actually, it’s been used for some time!

It’s thin and weak bullshit.

Whenever someone says “social distancing,” or “maintain social distance,” just gently, politely, ask them “do you mean personal space?”

Odds are they’re going along with the bullshit knowing its bullshit, thinking that, for some reason, they have to. But in this country — at least for now — there is no compelled speech. You may have to wear a mask, but you do not have to use their words, legally or culturally.

The Black Lives Matter riots also probably merit a similar language swap, although it is harder to find semantic equivalents in the same fashion. They should be called “riots,” and not “protests,” but those two phrases are not interchangeable, and so the debate becomes about facts rather than a subliminal mind-battle for control of language alone. “Mostly peaceful” is the lame attempt to salvage the word “protest” from the flagrant violence, destruction and looting, signaling the importance of the term.

In this conflict, the law and the police are not the enemy. They are neutral terrain. If they feel like the enemy, it is because they are being used by your enemy better than they are being used by you. The real fight — the determinant of who is really going to win, and who is not — is unlikely to be decided with guns. It will be decided by the law and what is popularly deemed to be morally acceptable. That is accomplished by framing, and by words.

If you want to prepare, and if for some incredible reason you have not already stocked up on resources and firearms, then by all means, catch up. But if you want to fight back, then reject their words, and learn how to use your own.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Largely due to JBP’s disparaging remarks regarding ‘postmodern neomarxists’, I was very defensive and skeptical regarding the Foucaldian discourse analysis so popular in academe, deeming it utter bs. Yet, having read your recent posts, I’m starting to think that perhaps he was onto something after all. Language can definitely be a source of power and influence.

    1. Language can shape how we interpret what we experience. I remember JBP’s remarks as well, but part of me is uncertain if he ever really understood Postmodernism. The more I learned about the postmodernists, the more I thought, “oh of course, this movement had to eventually happen in response to an essentially theological position that there is only one, decontextualized ‘truth’.” To me, the problem with postmodernism alone is that it doesn’t go anywhere, but I think it reveals the superiority of pursuing internal integrity within an aesthetic ideal, which is acknowledged as subjective (but no less important for its subjectivity), rather than trying to ground everything in the Logos or whatever other words they try to associate with Absolute Truth.

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