Lesson 8: Truth and the Crisis in Language (Part 2)

plastic lego peopleIn the last lesson, I suggested the crisis in language that has led to our present inability to separate what is true and false in public conversation might have first been observed in Orwell’s political newspeak and Ellul’s technological commonplaces. I think the crisis deepened with what Uwe Poerksen (1995) labeled “plastic words.” These are all-purpose words used in the modern technological environment that mean nothing in particular. They can be thrown about because, like newspeak and commonplaces, they have no connection to the real world. Like plastic Lego blocks, they are combinable and interchangeable.

Experts love to use plastic words when explaining their projects because they sound scientific and therefore must be important and accurate. Ordinary people think that only these experts must be able to deal with such words, because they themselves have no idea what they mean. In the old days, words served humanity; now people feel they have to adjust to plastic words which reduce a gigantic area to a common denominator, dispensing with any questions of values.

Nonetheless, even while pointing out that these hollow words have no content, we find ourselves using them. We constantly resort to words such as education, identity, living standard, modernization, planning, progress, relationship, value, welfare, basic need, care, and development because they serve our purposes. We can read into them anything we please, especially our own prejudices.

Ivan Illich (1989) enjoyed playing around with plastic words, amusingly speaking a language that he called “uniquack.” It closely resembled the techno-babble that abounds in bureaucracies and other authoritarian groups. Illich would throw out contradictory words that said nothing specific but suggested all kinds of modern shenanigans, words such as professional friend, needs creator, self-accredited elite, sick-making medicine, impoverishing wealth, crime-making prisons, disabling professions, and care consumers.

None of the four perversions of language discussed above use words to express or search for truth. Rather than attempting to make common sense of the experience impacting us, they use words to manipulate people by conjuring up images that have no connection with the real world.

Henry Frankfurt (2005) highlights this feature when he claims we have turned language into “bullshit,” a technique to get what we want or need. The aim of bullshitters is to impress and persuade their audience to get their own way. Frankfurt says that this can hardly be called lying, because liars deliberately makes false claims. Liars know the truth, but conceal it. Bullshitters, on the other hand, are not interested in the truth at all. They seek solely to advance their own agendas. Frankfurt claimed that in this sense, bullshitters are greater enemies of the truth than liars.

Not that long ago we would have pointed to advertising as the epitome of bullshit. More recently, scholars like Neil Postmann (1985) have observed information has become entertainment, so that the Glen Becks and the Rush Limbaughs can demand that we treat them as entertainers rather than newscasters or commentators. They need only to please their audiences and sell products. There are no standards to which they are held accountable.” And, of course, now political discourse has become bullshit that seeks only to get votes. We are expected to respond with only “like” or “dislike,” never profound discussion that critiques what is said.

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