Masha Gessen reveals how meaning and language are crucial
Masha Gessen has written a must-read essay in the New York Review of Books. Her thesis is that once politicians and pseudo-journalists have robbed words of their meaning, we damage our shared understanding of reality. And that’s happening right now.
Gessen should know; she was a journalist in Russia in the Soviet era. As she describes in her essay “The Autocrat’s Language,” this was a time when words lost their traditional meaning and became weapons of the state:
The elections, which were mandatory, involved showing up at the so-called polling place, receiving a pre-filled ballot—each office had one name matched to it—and depositing it in the ballot box, out in the open. Again, this was called the “free expression of citizen will.” There was nothing free about it, it did not constitute expression, it had no relationship to citizenship or will because it granted the subject no agency. Calling this ritual either an “election” or the “free expression of citizen will” had a dual effect: it eviscerated the words “election,” “free,” “expression,” “citizen,” and “will,” and it also left the thing itself undescribed.
This is terrifying. And it’s happening now. And while you may think the problems with language are secondary to the problems of leadership, when the leader is gone, the language will still have lost its meaning.
For example, here is how Gessen analyzes Trump’s interview with the AP about his first hundred days in office:
Trump: Number one, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the fifty-nine missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. [unintelligible] … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. [unintelligible] ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.
Gessen: Here is a partial list of words that lose their meaning in this passage: “responsibility,” the number “fifty-nine” and the number “seventy-nine,” “death,” “people,” “risk,” “city,” “civilian,” “hamlet,” “decision,” “hard,” “normal,” “life,” the “United States.” Even the word “unintelligible,” inserted by the journalist, means nothing here, because how can something be unintelligible when uttered during a face-to-face interview? The role of the journalist is, too, rendered meaningless in the most basic way: the interviewer feels compelled to participate, interrupting this incomprehensible monologue with follow-up questions or words like “right,” but these serve to create the fiction that something is indeed “right” or could be “right” about what Trump is saying—when in fact he is saying nothing and everything at the same time, and this cannot be right.
Using words to lie destroys language. Using words to cover up lies, however subtly, destroys language. Validating incomprehensible drivel with polite reaction also destroys language. This isn’t merely a question of the prestige of the writing art or the credibility of the journalistic trade: it is about the basic survival of the public sphere.
In Russia, first they came for the words of politics, value, and passion. Then they came for the words of action, the words that describe buildings, the numbers that denote dates. And then there were no words left to speak.
I have not survived Soviet Russia and my courage is on a small scale. But I see what Gessen is getting at.
Every instance of mealy-mouthed bullshit that we accept is a failure. Every one erodes meaning. When we allow a company to describe a layoff as a “people efficiency action,” dragging a man off a plane as “re-accommodating” him, closing a bunch of stores as “re-creating a physical store footprint,” and a restaurant as delivering “social and immersive experiences anchored in the exploration of our cola’s artisanal craft and flavor,” we are not only assaulting language, we are numbing our ability to think.
Words have meaning. That meaning comes through when those using the words are precise, clear, simple, and direct.
When I’m assaulted with bullshit, I ask the writer “did you mean x?” where x is a clear, direct statement. Do this a few times and you’ll not only afflict the babblers, you may actually make them think a little harder about truth. It’s a small but crucial way that you can slow the erosion of words and meanings perpetrated by unethical politicians and marketers.
It’s the least you can do.
Sam Harris’ interview with Anne Applebaum is good for similar reasons: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-russia-connection