Divisive rhetoric has hijacked our judgment, intervening between us and reality.
Last October, as we woke up in the autumn gloom of a Disunited Kingdom after the summer referendum, and groped our way to the tea pot in order to Keep Calm and Carry On, we heard the voice of Theresa May announcing the death of the English language: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world,” she said, speaking to a supportive audience, “you are a citizen of nowhere.”
Words can be deployed to all kinds of illogical ends. They are a shifty lot.
Well, that woke us up pretty quick. We are more inclined by nature to support than undermine, much prefer to acquiesce than oppose but here was a definition of words that raised too many questions before breakfast. A citizen of the world is a citizen of “nowhere”? The entire planet, pace Butler, is Erewhon? And where does that place modern Britain? On Mars?
To be accused of having no link to this planet and its peoples may be a surprise for a fair number of us who have been born in one country, raised in another, educated in a third, married, had children, and buried family members in a fourth, fifth and sixth, lived and worked in seven or eight other countries, and might now be obliged to request naturalization in a ninth, because of Brexit. It may also be news for all those of us who had been forced to flee in desperation from our homelands as a result of war, famine, plague, terrorism, persecution and/or natural as well as financial disasters. It can even be a shock to learn that “rootless cosmopolitans” as some of us were called in a previous age, are actually part of a “global elite” in this one, even though we cannot afford London housing. Was our Prime Minister really suggesting that only those who believe in Being First deserve to be British? Can people with a world-embracing vision really not “understand what citizenship means?”
In light of all that is rational, this premise seemed false. But though our ability to use words has duped us into thinking that we are, language is not an entirely rational process. Words can be deployed to all kinds of illogical ends. They are a shifty lot, a bunch of two-faced turncoats that can say and gainsay in a single breath, swear and forswear, equate and equivocate. There is no statement that cannot be made to stand on its head and mean its opposite. And when such distortions are consciously deployed, when such reversals are deliberately adopted by government authorities, words can poison us, as Victor Klemperer proved in The Language of the Third Reich. They can kill our humanity. Words that divide to rule are “the enemy of the people”:
Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously. … Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.
Language policy rather than partisan politics increasingly defines governments today. When facts become alternative, truth post, and leaked information is real although the news is fake, control over vocabulary is as vital as the value of currency. Brexit, we were informed, “means Brexit,” and indeed, had this statement extended further, like Gertrude Stein’s “rose,” it might almost have suggested profundity, of sorts, but its truncated form just sounds like a solipsism. The word “neighborhood” appears to have shrunk in meaning too, and although it pays lip service to the art, music, literature, and philosophy shared with cultures across the Channel, it seems disinclined to admit to our common history, and our common responsibility for the colonial competition in which we have been engaged with those countries for four centuries; it shrugs off the consequences of the political intrigue and wars we have fought between ourselves and against them over the past two millennia. And it certainly does not include those “others,” who have suffered from these policies of colonial competition, political intrigue and war.
But it is not only words like “neighbor” and “citizen” which have been redefined in post-Brexit English. There is increasing evidence that the vocabulary of diplomacy, of governance, even of justice, leave alone basic courtesy and common decency has been reversed and nullified, overturned and rendered meaningless. Long before the Orwellian deadline of 2050 when Newspeak will be the lingua franca, homo loquens is becoming an endangered species on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, we are being divided by a common language of gibberish. We tweet and twitter furiously, but English as we knew it appears to be obsolete, defunct, dead as a Monty Python ex-parrot. We no longer know whether the words we use signify anything near what we are trying to say.
In fact, this language, which has ceased to house us in meaning, is taking us nowhere. We seem to be sleepwalking into no one’s land. The corollary of our homelessness, moreover, is the loss of truth, for the rhetoric of “us” vs “them” seems to have hijacked our judgment, intervened between us and reality. The debate over those infamous “alternative facts” in the first days of the new presidency diverted the attention of many people in America from the massive Women’s March that was simultaneously taking place all over the world. The furor over the travel ban, which was subsequently denied as being a “ban,” in stark contradiction to recorded statements, successfully shifted the spotlight away from an act of cold-blooded murder which had occurred in a Québec mosque at the same time. And repeated references to a fictitious Bowling Green “massacre” and a subsequent Swedish incident which never took place deflected all attention from that appalling Canadian terror attack committed by a white supremacist and the arrest of three Neo-Nazis in Sweden incited by precisely this kind of hate speech. Language is slipping and sliding around at such high speed that there isn’t even time for a tweet of apology for “misspeaking,” let alone sympathy and solidarity expressed to our “neighbors” to the north over some of these distortions.
How did we get here and where in the world are we? What kind of international diplomacy depends on tweets?
How did we get here and where in the world are we? What kind of international diplomacy depends on tweets? And which self-respecting language would allow the term “misspoke” to serve as a substitute for factual misinformation, calculated misrepresentation, at best a blatant mistake? Even The Guardian now tells us that a person can “walk back” from a statement, as if you can approach or leave words behind you, as if they were static objects you could step over, like stones, and didn’t follow at your heels like hell hounds, and didn’t haunt your dreams, like the Eumenides.
Words belonging to a real neighborhood cannot just be discarded, once uttered. They do not disintegrate without first seeding our minds. Words of true citizenship cannot be shrugged off or tossed aside, buried and denied without turning upon us, in revenge. When Theresa May announced that citizens of the world were citizens of nowhere last October, she did not reckon on the powers latent in her mother tongue. She did not remember that the language of Milton and Shakespeare has a magical capacity to take root where it falls, to amass echoes and ironies, to become Globish. All she proved, in fact, was that post-Brexit English, if it excluded the world, if it deployed the vocabulary of divisiveness, would soon become meaningless, inhabited by no one, the language of nowhere.