Monday, February 23, 2004

The Danger of Language
quote from Aldous Huxley

Language is what makes us human. Unfortunately, it is also what makes us all too human. It is on the one hand the mother of science and philosophy, and on the other hand it begets every kind of superstition and prejudice and madness. It helps us and it destroys us; it makes civilization possible, and it also produces those frightful conflicts which wreck civilization.

It is one of the ironies of our destiny that the wonderful thing which Helen Keller so eloquently describes as a giver of life and creator of thought is also one of the most dangerous and destructive things that we can have.

It is dangerous to try to impose symbolic order and meaning upon the world before you really understand what the world is like. Nevertheless, we shall always do this because it is very difficult for human beings to tolerate the mysterious as such-- what theologian Rudolpf Otto calls the Mysterium Tremendum of the world. It is so terrible and inexplicable that he has always to put up a smoke screen of symbols between it and himself. In one of its functions, it may be said that language is a device for taking the mysteriousness out of mystery.

We may say that the proper relationship between words and things, I presume, is that words should be regarded as arbitrary symbols standing for things. But the men of the Middle Ages looked at it the other way around. They regarded things as being illustrations of some general abstract principle to be found in Aristotle or in some part of the scriptures.

In our own time, we find that all the most horrifying aspects of contemporary life have arisen precisely from this wrong relationship between symbols and words. All the totalitarian tyrannies of our time have been based upon the wrong relationship o things and words; words have not been regarded by them as symbols arbitrarily standing for things, but things have been regarded as illustrations of words.

Take, for example, the whole Nazi racial doctrine. This would have been impossible if individual Jews and Gypsies had been regarded as what they were-- each of them a separate human personality. But they were not so regarded. Instead each of these persons was reduced to being merely the illustration of a pejorative label; the word "Jew" or the word "Gypsy" was regarded as a category. And the individual humans, who were of course the only realities, were assimilated to this category; they were made to be merely illustrations of a bad category, which as such could be exterminated with a perfectly good conscience.

We see the same thing under Communist regimes, where individual humans beings are lumped together merely as illustrations of capitalism, imperialism, cannibalistic bourgeoisie, and so on, and as such are regarded as something sub-human which it is permissible to destroy. There is no doubt at all that this tendency is one of the most dangerous which we have to face. It is one of the highest prices we have to pay for the inestimable benefit of language. We are forced to accept-- because we accept the grammar and syntax of our language-- the idea that whole classes of real individual things are in fact merely the expressions of some diabolic principle.

After all, one can say that wars can really only be fought if the purely human individuals engaged in them are disregarded and the opposit side is simply equated with the concretization of a bad abstraction. This is in fact what all war propaganda is: it is making people on our side believe that people on the other side are merely the concretization of very bad abstractions.

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