Language as war

(November 24th, 2017)

The exact same words we use to tell a story, also tell a story of their own. The idea that each war or conflict generates its own lexicon – some of it military, some of it political, some of it cultural, and from that vocabulary we define our own views and those of others about such conflicts is easily transposed into anarchist discourse; so ripe and full of its own wars, conflicts, and struggles. As Nietzche wrote, “words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common.”

There are a handful of well-known anarchist thinkers who have written about language including John Zerzan, Noam Chomsky, Max Stirner, and some writers from CrimethInc. On anarchistnews dot org one can find the frequent commentator Emile discussing the finer points of languages impact on everything related back to certain stories, often ad nauseam. Moving only a few degrees away from this anarchist focus we can also find thinkers like George Orwell and Jacques Derrida who have had and continue to have a large influence on anarchist ideas surrounding language.

Orwell, never short on words himself wrote that “Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse.” His book 1984 captures the decadent and depraved nature of what language and society can become. I remember curiously digesting this book for the first time back when I lived in Cuba under Fidel and passing it along to my friends there, where we would carefully discuss our lives in a place that often limited our own narratives. Of note, during Orwell’s time he wrote of meaningless words like that of fascism. He said “fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Thus one is lead to ask as Orwell did, “Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?” Perhaps we need to be more specific in our definitions and naming, but as some have said the act of naming is also an act of domination. The prison of language is not so easily escaped.

Derrida and others see language as the origin of history. So the history of language is also the history of society. The origins of language exist within the struggle for power relations and this violence is closely intertwined and can be traced back in linguistic history. Humans are not only dominated by language, but also dominate by language. Perhaps now is as good as time as ever to thoughtfully consider the impact our words have on each other, if in civilization all meaning is ultimately linguistic.

Many years ago, someone I know asked me about how I would write instructions for nuclear disposal. It appeared easy at first, just follow the instructions of the scientists, of course. Then they reminded me of the English of Shakespeare’s time and before. How would you write instructions for someone to read 1,000 years from now? Perhaps this is easier than expected, but the point remains that languages transform and the remembrance of things past is not always what it appears to be.

We can also find various governments around the world writing about the ideas of language, like the January 2005 document from the USA Department of Defense entitled “Defense Language Transformation Roadmap”. In the document, the DoD classifies language as important as the latest weapon systems. They say that “warfighting in the 21st century will require forces that have foreign language capabilities beyond those generally available in today’s force.” A historic example of such ideas is that of the Navajo “code talkers” in World War II. The document goes on to state that “Language skill and regional expertise are not valued as Defense core competencies yet they are as important as critical weapon systems.” Here you can see that language is a tool as vital as the bombs dropped from up above on those using language to create their own narratives.

What is the solution to language as war, if any at all? Some have gone as far as creating an artificial language, like that of Esperanto. While I don’t think this is the answer or even a practical solution, it’s definitely worth considering all of the complexities of language when in dialogue, especially within the terrible community. As a parting thought, here is a note taken from the darkest of places - “In prison camps and torture blocks, the achievement of communication and recognition through an undetected note or an answered whisper is the first step in rebuilding the world.”

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