“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
As children, this was the perfect defense against verbal assailants. It was a rhythmic chide that would shield us from bad hair days, unstylish outfits, and spilt milk. As long as we weren’t literally made to “suffer the slings and arrows,” life would go on.
But while the defense was good, the hurt was still there. Words, we found, were very powerful things. They had meaning. Words, much like ideas, had consequences.
What is true in the playground, generally speaking, remains true in adulthood. In The New York Times, David Brooks recently explored how our word choice has changed over the last 50 years. Using an interesting tool from Google called the “Ngram Viewer,” which measures the frequency of word usage in 5.2 million books published over 500 years, several studies showed what Brooks perceived as three major trends in our language: “individualism,” “demoralization,” and “governmentalization.”
Brooks sees the surge of words like “personalized” and “unique” as evidence of “Me First” individualism. Decreases in “virtue” or “honesty,” paired with an increase in “subjectivity” and “information,” are signs that we don’t use moral words anymore. Growth in “economic justice” and “right-wing” or “left-wing” shows a strong focus on politics and government.
If these trends are real, Brooks argues, then we can “tell a story” of the last half century through language: communities have broken down, the individual has lost moral leanings that come with healthy social life, and now we look to our government to pick up the pieces.
No sticks and stones needed: words tell the story. This was once called the Culture War.
But not all of this can be taken without question. Several critiques of Brooks have merit: John McWhorter argues in The New Republic that since language is evolving and dynamic, we have simply replaced old words with new ones that have similar meanings.
“Honesty” is now a phrase: “telling the truth.” “Virtue” is down, but now there’s the “stand-up guy.” Communities may no longer “band together”, but more of us are willing to “link up”.
A bit flimsy? Maybe, but at least we’re not bowling alone.
Both of these approaches fall short. We shouldn’t be comfortable, as McWhorter is, replacing “humbleness” with “down to earth.” The former implies reservation, an unwillingness to be frank or blunt. Being “down to earth” is just a matter of being genuine or “real.” But there is a loss of propriety in that exchange: the latter is very “self” oriented, while the humble person defers to social hierarchy. He also asserts that “virtue” is more or less overlapped by “cool,” which is absurd on its face.
And while Brooks overreaches in places, there is more in what is not said. What about a word like “Values,” the 20th century behemoth that replaced “Principles” as our source of right and wrong? What about “Role-Model,” that psychological monster of the 70s that stands in for “Hero?” Today, we assign “hero” to first responders more often than to larger-than-life figures like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill.
What about “History,” which has become a new god for the Left? They pronounce themselves “on the right side of History” like Crusaders wielding divine swords.
And what of the shift from “Statesman” to “Leader?” Every great statesman must be a great leader. Yet not every leader is a statesman: he might manipulate, interpret, or control the people, even making men as clay in his hands, but he is not necessarily a good man or one of principle.
The statesman, however, is the man of principle, the hero of his time who has the virtues necessary to direct history towards the right; the leader is a man of values, a role-model who directs men along the tide of history with great efficiency.
Our words thus matter greatly: they are used to communicate thoughts and ideas of a people. As George Orwell wrote, a decadent civilization necessarily brings along its language to “share in the general collapse.”
So while we avoid the use of sticks and stones, let us not assume that our words cannot be just as harmful. Just as the former bruises the body, the latter bruises the soul.
James Velasquez is a research fellow with the Heritage Foundation. Word bubble image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | James Velasquez
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond