Happy Birthday America - Keep talking. Don't ever stop.
|Writers tend to love language. For some, it’s a lifelong love affair. In spite of the torment and the struggle to tame it into submission, to uncover the secrets of its inner workings, to dance it across the page in perfect choreography, to never miss a step, stumble or succumb to gravity’s tyranny.
Language is that thing we spend the entire length and breath of our misbegotten youth struggling to learn, wrestling with grammar, spelling, egad, prepositions (what in God’s name are they!?!) participles, verbosity in all its awful magnificence, sentence structure, meanings, definitions, and the whole damned mess of linguistic spaghetti-stringed pretzel-twisted rules, schools, regulated modulated tortuous and tangled pratfalls, spills, thrills and chills just to attain some form of literacy. Mercy!
But in the end, after we feel we’ve actually gotten somewhere, and might be able to make some sense, put a little order into the chaos, stride boldly into the fray and actually express ourselves, what happens then? Some of us do rather well with it. Others, fair to middling. But at least the written or spoken word is there for all to hear or read, or so we believe.
Only it isn’t that way anymore.
Because language can now blow up a person’s life. Metaphorically, like stepping on a landmine. The real thing (the actual thing that Lady Di used to campaign against, and well she should have) is still scattered throughout parts of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, bits of Africa and other places in the world, and if it doesn’t blow up a person, will often take sight, limbs, and other necessary body parts away forever. With no apologies from the people who planted it in the first place, as somebody’s bright idea in fighting some kind of war.
It is in this way that the metaphor brings the meaning home most acutely. Because now that language is as weaponized as other weapons of warfare, and words have become as (metaphorically) deadly as bullets, speech and any form of writing is potentially an act of violence. In some circles, even silence itself has become the equivalent of violence. That one fascinates me no end. Because of course it is not the silence itself that offers any concept of threat. It is the thoughts being thought of accompanying that same silence, that are the issue. This must be taken as a moot point, because no-one is actually capable of reading minds.
Landmine language Is language that is offensive, to somebody somewhere, for some reason, any time or any place. But this language has a special quality to it. It is language that is recorded. Captured as securely as tonight’s chicken dinner. At this point it isn’t necessarily even language anymore. It is evidence. Evidence of what, we might ask? Evidence of wrong think, or of bad intentions, or of bad attitude, or of stubborn refusal to believe in or agree with those who are offended by, not the language itself exactly, but by what it says, implies or suggests. Sometimes there’s even nothing wrong with the language at all, in any way whatsoever. Just with the speaker.
We like to think that we have evolved in certain ways, as a society. And certainly we have. Western English-speaking societies have not tended to evolve in ways that encourage dialogue across differences of opinion. It is now as if those differences of opinion are more like Japanese fighting fish. Beautiful fish, to be sure, that cannot occupy the same fish bowl, in fact cannot be in sight of one another (the males, I believe) without going a little crazy.
This is where the whole concept of landmine language comes from. There have been many times and many places in the world when speech, written or spoken, could land someone in hot water. The difference between then and now is the recording. Treated as evidence. A word, a phrase, a sentence. Sometimes carefully and surgically lifted out (as with metaphorical scalpel and latex gloves), deposited in an “evidence bag” hermetically sealed, so as not to become infected by any other extenuating or even explaining language. It’s that bad.
And how does it blow people up now? In multi various ways, to be sure. Including the complete wreckage of a reputation. Or a career. Or just all those ways and means that a person’s sense of self-worth, understandably, is constructed around who they are, socially, and what they do in life.
But I’m going to focus on the job. The livelihood. The income. The paychecks that pay for many things. The home mortgage, the car payments, the insurance, the kids’ dental bills, their college funds, the retirement package. The big juicy stuff. One false word, like a predatory landmine’s one false step, and it’s over.
It goes something like this:
“I don’t like you. For all kinds of reasons I find you repugnant. Just as the person you are. As simple as that. But to hide the actual power I’m ready and willing to abuse, I’m going to pretend that your speech offends, brutalizes, beats and pulverizes my self esteem to such an extent – that the only fitting punishment for your lack of sensitivity to me (and sometimes me alone) is for you to lose your job. Instantly. I’ve come for your job. I don’t want it personally, if for no other reason than the fact that of course I do not possess the skills to perform it – but you should lose it. You should lose. And I’m here celebrating in this moment, that I have the power (indirectly) to make that happen.” And so it goes.
And that victim (I use the word with ferocious intent) is thus hit. As if by a mugger, burglar, robber-thief, bandit, or opposing soldier in an action of war. Just that.
We labor under the idea that this is a justified thing, a necessary thing, a righteous thing. We ponder that maybe this is so. I have my doubts. I have those doubts because too often, it smells like revenge. Which may very well be so.
But the results get more interesting as time goes by. Those who have something of any real substance to protect – are changing their habits of self-expression. Which makes sense. It doesn’t mean they don’t go on thinking. It doesn’t mean they don’t still share confidences with those they trust. It doesn’t mean that some extreme form of resentment is not growing within the substructures of the society they still occupy. It just means that the “evidence” isn’t so readily or easily there to find. The tracks are covered.
The sheer divisive compartmentalization of identity politics causes this. We do well to remember that this is happening in a ‘free’ society. American soil has not been invaded since the War of 1812. That silly little war in which uneducated Canadians believe that it was they who marched off in gay parade to scorch the White House. Nothing of the sort. Canada as such, did not exist in 1812. We had to wait until 1867 to even refer to ourselves as a country, and not a colony. It was the British who invaded (as some kind of sour grapes irritation long after the War of Independence was a foregone issue, though not quite an exact conclusion). For there were still lots of great gangs of British lurking about Upper Canadian soil back in the early 19th century. I digress, except to point out the obvious. The current invasion is happening entirely from within.
We look to the home of the brave and the land of the free to figure out some way of protecting the most important freedom there is. The freedom of language to pour forth in disagreement on all things. To be met with intelligent argument. To engage in the hearts and minds of clear-thinking people who have the courage to think in ways oppositional to popular or unpopular conventions, to challenge orthodoxies, in short – to do all those things that broad-minded and free-thinkers do. Because it is in those very times when thought and opinion is narrowed down to a fine laser beamed simplicity, and mischief romps the land, and opportunists with ill intent will seize powers they didn’t earn and will not exercise rightfully or lawfully, or with any real universal social responsibility….it is in those very times that freedom of thought, word, conscience, is most necessary.
And, like it or not, America still leads the entire world in matters such as this. Corporate culture has not captured it. Partisanship fails to do so, as well. It is the stubborn spirit of a nation that refuses to quit. That has the audacity to strut the stuff of truth about a mere human condition, and speak it. Thank God I understand that language!
Happy birthday, America.
(written and published on the 4th of July, 2020) A modest little present.