The current issue of The Atlantic lists a series of “ideas of the year,” or “intellectual trends that, for better or for worse, are informing the national conversation and shaping our lives.” Some of them are funny: “old people are cool” or “the long national night of cable TV is over” or this one: “the NFL is evil–and unstoppable.” Well, I guess they are funny as in not-as-serious-of-the-rest-of-them.
Because many of the other ideas of 2015 are, well, not funny at all. Like the one that suggests “the cold war never ended” or right next to that, ironically, “Americans are okay with surveillance and torture.” The list leaves out very little, adding the campus sexual-assault crisis, racism, global religious intolerance, and economic inequality to the ideas our nation is talking about.
Many of these trending ideas have been trending for a while, and while the conversation may have shifted, the topics we are talking about aren’t all that new. But here’s the problem; there’s another item on the list that may actually be the most disheartening: “There will be no debate.”
“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention,” author Hanna Rosin begins. “If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.”
Rosin then goes on to explain our society’s unmistakable loss of appetite when it comes to debating, or even just discussing, the issues of the day and the tactics we all use to try to shut out the other side. “Want to avoid a debate?” she asks. “Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.”
Just in the past few days, I’ve read Facebook posts by friends who wrote thoughtful blog essays about important topics that were met with hateful emails and comments, employing the kind of name-calling described above.
We could blame social media. That would be easy. And certainly social media may be at least partly culpable. But maybe this trend began before we all began to think in 140-characters or less. That’s what Wendell Berry suggests.
“My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning,” Berry wrote in his essay “Standing by Words”* back in 1979, “And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities. My concern is for the accountability of language—hence, for the accountability of the users of language.”
So one could argue that in order to recover meaningful debate, we must create an accountability of language. And if Berry is correct, the only way to redeem our language is to hold the users of language to account, to move them toward building up our people and our places rather than tearing them down.
And for that, Berry says, we need precision. “For once precision is abandoned as a linguistic or literary virtue, vague generalization is one of the two remaining possibilities, gibberish being the second,” he writes.
In what ways can precision help us recover meaning in our debates? ”There are, I think, two kinds of precision,” Berry continues. “There is, first, the precision in the speech of people who share the same knowledge of place and history and work …. I call this community speech. Its words have the power of pointing to things visible either to eyesight or to memory.”
The other type of precision Berry considers is the precision that comes when a context is given. Words mean something when they are part of a greater story.
“The other sort of precision,” Berry writes, “—the sort available to public speech or writing as well as to community speech—is a precision that comes of tension either between a statement and a prepared context or, within a single statement, between more or less conflicting feelings or ideas.”
When combined, we accomplish precision of language when we use shared community speech to participate into an ongoing conversation, not by using inflammatory easy-speak to respond to trending topics on Twitter. Achieving precision through shared community speech does a few things: It invites us to listen and adapt to the conversation already in progress. If we introduce new words or concepts, we must define them and wait for them to be accepted by others. And community speech transforms words back into tools rather than weapons. But employing precision through context means our ideas are not divorced from the real activities of the world. We aren’t just speaking theoretically. We don’t create false dichotomies. We are loathe to rely on stereotypes or characterizations that don’t actually exist.
In another essay called “The Specialization of Poetry,” Berry elaborates further on the importance of context in writing, particularly poetry, and the responsibility of writers to be part of the world beyond words. His reflection on poetry as a call to action speaks well to the call for genuine dialogue that actually moves participants toward respect if not understanding.
“Narrative poetry records, contemplates, hands down the actions of the past. Poetry has a responsibility to remember and to preserve and reveal the truth about these actions,” Berry writes. “But it also has a complementary responsibility that is equally public: to help to preserve and to clarify the possibility of responsible action. Ezra Pound, perhaps more than anyone else in our time, insisted on this as the social value of ‘the damned and despised litterati:’ ‘When their work goes rotten … when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e. becomes sloshy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot.’ The word ‘order,’ as used here, clearly refers to the possibility of responsible action, the possibility of good work.”
I like to avoid arguing as much as the next person. But too often, I get lazy with the words I speak or write, and I want others to just know what I mean, not what I say. In fact, just this weekend I was laughing with family about an invention of the future that would do just that: a scrolling display attached to my forehead that would explain my real meaning when I get tongue-tied or fogged up in my thoughts.
Or instead, I could hold myself accountable to a better rhetoric, a more responsible use of language. And rather than avoiding the debate or shutting it down, I could start by listening and then entering the conversation with the precision that reflects the larger community and ongoing narrative I find myself a part of.
But there’s a final point Mr. Berry makes about what it means to be accountable for our language. He says that in order for a statement to be complete and comprehensible, its speaker must stand by it—”must believe it, be accountable for it, be willing to act on it.”
That’s a standard high enough to make most of us just sit silently. Me included.
Read and Respond
I love to read words almost as much as I like to write them. Sometimes, I get to do both by reading a book and writing about it: read and respond. It starts when a book captures my imagination. Usually I write about the books that change my life, or at least my heart. They are reviews, recommendations, and ways to connect with what I read.
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