Our Two-edged Sword
Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.
AFTER YESTERDAYS POST I found myself at loose ends, in terms of what to write for today. I wasn't quite ready to let go of the set of ideas Pat Buchanan's racism had stirred, but I also wasn't quite sure where it all led.
Was the focus racism? No—as bad as the racism was, that was not the point which nagged at me.
That was closer, but still not the center of the target.
Buchanan's reasoning had certainly been circular—in more ways than one. He had used his beliefs to make assumptions which he then had used as evidence of those beliefs. On a deeper, and more dangerous, level he had used the negative results of prejudice as an argument in favor of perpetuating prejudice.
But the pattern that nagged at me was deeper than that, more universal.
It had to do with the problem of being human—with one of our most central dilemmas.
Humans can talk.
The ability to talk, and with it the ability to marshal ideas in ways that the other animals can't, has often been seen as the distinguishing characteristic of our species.
Whether that is true, or whether it's only one of many distinguishing characteristics, language is certainly as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe.
But language is a two-edged sword. It has two purposes, which may or may not be in tune.
On one hand, language is a mode of communication, a way to share and to create knowledge and understanding. You only have to visit a college campus, and notice how much of the time there is spent in speaking, listening, reading, and writing, to see how absolutely dependent we are on language for these purposes.
On the other hand language is a tool of manipulation. It's a way to motivate and change behavior—both others and our own.
Every self-help book ever written depends upon this function of language. Every politician who ever gave a speech. Every time you've given yourself a pep-talk, or counseled a friend, you've been using the manipulative power of language.
There's nothing wrong with either use of language. There's certainly nothing wrong with sharing knowledge per se, and there's nothing wrong with trying to frame an idea as compelling—as long as the idea is true.
But we humans are complicated creatures. Sometimes our loyalties to causes or ideas or our class or our gender, sometimes our fears and angers, lead us to care more about the manipulation than we do about the truth.
Conservatives are not alone in this. The problem is universal.
It's a fundamental part of the human struggle.
I'll provide another example next time...