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Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. ChaucerShakespeareMiltonByron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

— George Orwell, 1984

The times are filled with revolt against words and their connection to a real world. This is a sort of devolution or degeneration that quite soon we will not be conscious of, our consciousness having lost the facility to express the collapse.

We seem immersed in a way of thinking that complies with George Orwell’s description of Newspeak, a language designed “to diminish the range of thought.” We seem immersed in a swarm of words, images, videos that confound our historical commitment to linking via language reason and reality, subjected, like Dante in the second circle of Hell to “A noise, as of a sea in tempest torn/By warring winds.”

The present presidential campaign has the feel of a campaign against both language and thought. Orwell’s Duckspeak, to speak without thinking, gets an Orwellian Bellyfeel response, a prereflective, gut response that is impervious to any countering. Surely, there is a surrounding ambiance within which the absurd has become both reasonable and real, within which we see growth and development in what is precisely the opposite.

We are tortured with repetitions. How many bloggers do we have in cyberspace, opining in a Duckspeak that gets a Bellyfeel response because those who have an opposing Bellyfeel response listen only to their Duckspeak bloggers. 152 million bloggers as of 2013. 500 million tweets per day. 1.71 billion active users on Facebook. 4 billion YouTube views per day. A Pandora’s Box opened that cannot be closed, perhaps because what cybertech installs can neither be abjured nor rejected. “It’s all good” apparently.

Perhaps not. Our plight is overloaded with a dark psychology. Being awash in a steady flow of transmission and reception keeps the very many on the wrong side of a vicious wealth divide busily distracted in gated Facebook domains. What forces outside ourselves could possibly affect us when our private and personal reach into the world is so empowered by our Smartphones, by our texts, tweets and endless streaming of our own lives? Has not our sociability, our tolerance, our empathy, our charity, our generosity and warm words, increased with our social media? Isn’t the flood of more words bringing us closer to the world as it is?

What cyberspace seems to have put us closer to is a hyperreality within which one can find simulations of the real that accord with one’s own. And because we are all free floating in groundless ether, there is little chance that a “solid case” can be made which will pull us out of our bubbles. We are lost in the confined space of our own opinions, vicious in our defense of these, and so moving further and further from common and reliable understanding of the world and ourselves.

When personal life-worlds are so fractured, words attempting a full disclosure, never quite achieved, suffer the same fracturing. Words suffer the same confounding of the virtual and the real, spin and reality, the fabricated from the true.

All around us is in a state of dissembling, moving further and further from the things themselves, who do not speak, who were it possible, would doubtlessly have more to say than text and tweet now allow. Spins are most seductive when they overwhelm all opportunities for critique. Reducing societal discourse to the toilet paper roll of Facebook and the 140 characters of Twitter is Market Rules’ greatest victory since compound interest

The creators of cyber-media sites have mostly had no nobler intention than to make a lot of money. However, these on line representations are branded in numerous bullshit ways. We have pretensions of democratizing discourse and augmenting the bonds of human affiliation. We also have the pretensions of defusing psychic trauma through blabber updates and dissolving existential angst and anomie through hashtag brawls. We seem to be spinning in vicious circles within which words have lost their power to cross borders of understanding.

We can come to scant common understanding, which itself is a point of common understanding, and it’s this: we are too unstable, too viscerally antagonistic to each other and too unfit to interpret and understand beyond our personal viewpoints to prescribe and proscribe in any way conducive to common understanding, or to a common good that would follow.

When you acknowledge that you are in a world of Newspeak and Goodthink, a world where you greet Duckspeak with Bellyfeel response, you are in no position to fix any determinate connection between words and world. I do not know what this realization does for us beyond our stepping back from our own convictions and the convictions of others.

If both words and world have been perforated with a barrage of spin and simulacra, we need to be less confident in what we transmit and what is transmitted to us. We should, in short, be less persuaded and less attached to our own opinions. This is difficult in a culture that has elevated personal opinion to the highest court, the tweets of every voice the realization of a pure, direct democracy.

Every category of discourse, from politics to science, is now, in cyberspace, interactively open, resulting in a dismantling of former hierarchies of authority. What has clearly resulted from a so-called democratization of all voices is a descent of all criteria and credentials of authority into a kind of circus where the clowns get the most attention. At the Mad Hatter’s tea party, it is not just words and meaning that are turned upside down but also any form of authority.

This is a state of affairs that will open new doors of anxiety and fear as our own domains of personally constructed realities recoil in fear of assault from other domains constructed outside our “comfort zones.” I find it ironic that a culture, nurtured in cyberspace, that has detached word and world from all links but the personal, now seeks injunctions against language itself, restraining orders against word and world connections that happily democratize the transmitter but traumatize the receiver.

What we have is a forum of ideas where the forum is cyberspace and the ideas are all equalized as personal opinions. These opinions, mostly short fused, clash, fire up and burn out, a kind of mock closure reached when attention drifts to something else. Every focus runs into a counter-focus, no synthesis but gridlock resulting, neither recognized, equally absent, equally forgotten.

This Mad Hatter circus reaches a point where the question arises as to whether we should go beyond our traditional protections of free speech in order to protect ourselves from the liberation and democratization of voices achieved in our Information Age, spectacularly created by our digital revolution.

We are pushed by this mad circus to identify “crimespeak,” not the 1984 kind Big Brother identified. Our new kind intends to protect and foster a multi-cultural diversity not narrow speech to accord with the tyranny of one voice, one party, and one narrative. We want to constrain, prohibit, and suppress certain words in order to attain or maintain our goal of a multi-cultural, multi-diverse society, all differences treated equally under the law and non-discriminatively in the culture itself.

Only words are to be treated unequally and discriminatively, which is not a trivial or innocent enterprise when we consider that words have attachments to the world and the world is represented in words. This is not like water being attached to hydrogen and oxygen but like cultural attachments that appear or vanish as a culture changes. And so when a culture finds the need to eliminate certain word/world connections, we need to discover what are the threats that culture is defending itself against. And, from another perspective, what are the forces identifying such threats and mobilizing their eradication?

A thick description is required here, one that begins with the pressure globalized capitalism places on transnational rather than national affiliations. Our transnational business and financial operations are the prime mover in leveling all nation state distinctions to a uniformity that facilitates doing business. Differences, adamantly maintained for cultural reasons, make it more difficult to franchise a sameness that is most profitable. Such differences, held for religious, historical, political, and other reasons, make it more difficult to profile and target consumers.

If we follow the money, we see at once that weakening firm national cultural identities abets the transnationalizing efforts of globalized capitalism. Right now, globalized capitalism’s efforts to multi-acculturate for profit sake the U.S. and the EU has met with resistance and that resistance is represented in language itself. Donald Trump is riding this wave of nativism in the U.S., railing against political correctness, against a mainstream culture’s resistance to minority or sub-cultures, against any suppression of freedom of expression.

De-transnationalizing and de-globalizing involves an unchaining of language itself from various restraints meant to impose a welcoming, diverse, “why can’t we all get along?” muti- and trans-cultural society. Those on the side of “Americanism” and against globalization sense that liberating language is a move from the hypocrisy to a “real world,” a concoction in an American cultural imaginary threatened by foreign cultures and fearful of inevitable decline. What that imaginary creates is a U.S. where the rich fear the poor, blacks fear whites, whites fear blacks, Democrats fear Trump, Republicans fear socialism, and everyone fears Muslims, who are all imagined as terrorists, and immigrants, who are all imagined as illegal.

This spirit of ill-will toward others as well as the transgressions and aggressions resulting has triggered a protective response from those who feel threatened. However, diversity training, which entails political correctness, “safe spaces,” “places where students from marginalized groups can gather to discuss their experiences; “trigger warnings/alerts,” disclaimers about possibly upsetting material in lesson plans have not emerged because of the Americanismt/globalist clash. Words are not being labeled Crimespeak because they are messing with globalized capitalism’s stake in multi-culturalism. Neither are we politically correct to protect our homegrown cultural word/connections from foreign connections.

I believe it is the cacophony, the Mad Hatter circus of our unvetted and uncurated barrage of communication transmitted from cyberspace from which protection is sought.

Globalized capitalism has no stake in curtailing this tsunami of photos, texts, videos and so on because such distractions deflect attention, the way a magician deflects our attention. And when the mind floats from significance to triviality, from bullshit to inanity guided only by an addiction to what comes next, a click impulse driven by click feedback, we get a softening of our senses of unity, continuity and coherence as well as a reduction of focus and attentiveness.

What develops is a kind of mindlessness revealed in Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper’s Fingers the Pulse interview piece with Trump supporters who blame Obama for not being in office on 9/11 or believe his jewelry reveals his Muslim faith. What cyberspace and its social media have done is provide a place where absolute idiocy finds its support group, a welcoming environment in which to flourish, an esprit de l’idiotie.

It’s possible that the digital superhighways of nano second communication are also countering the confederacy of dunces it breeds but I suggest if such were the case the looming disasters of global warming, a revolution against plutocracy, and the possibility of a Trump presidency, as well as a resurgence of racism, bigotry, misogyny, religious intolerance and a retreat to xenophobia would not now comprise reality in the U.S. today.

Among those who advocate diversity training there is scant interest in curtailing cyberspace’s unrelenting assault upon consciousness, though it is precisely from the impact of this assault that detachment is sought. What is being sought is refuge from the whirlwind of cyberspace word and world connections that no one can rein in, that offer sense and senselessness, madness and logic indiscriminately.

I don’t believe that diversity training sweeping universities in the U.S., as reported in The New York Times article “Campus 101: Learning How Not to Offend,” makes any sense in learning institutions committed to an open clash of ideas. Such is grounded in a long standing principle of free, uncensored intellectual inquiry. Controversies are the métier of such inquiry, which erects no “safe spaces” to protect ideas that will not join in such inquiry. The idea of a “safe space” in a classroom means that without open enquiry we have determined which ideas are safe and which are not.

There is a great deal of 1984 Big Brother Thoughtcrime at work here. Liberals do not identify with this because they argue they are restricting speech to foster and extend an equality of human rights. Ironically, these are reasons that serve globalized capitalism’s transposing national identities to multi-cultural identities, an important piece in globalizing the wealth inequities presently existing in the U.S. Rather than restricting speech, this activity foments a chaos of communication that subverts common understanding of everything except the benefits of what is not seen as cyberspace chaos but rather as hi-tech progress.

The Diversity Training logic here is that certain rooms of thought free enquiry opens are closed in order to open doors of empathy toward differences. These are, in fact, differences that free enquiry cannot deal with because they emerge from a cyberspace chaos that cannot forward any critical enquiry that can rise above that chaos. We divide then between those who fear their personal thoughts and words are being policed for the sake of values and meanings foreign to them, and those who fear that there are thoughts and words that are damaging societal bonds promoting “the general welfare.”

Both factions are deeply vulnerable to fears and anxieties, one side finding a champion in Donald Trump who will build a wall to keep differences out and American white male identity in. The other side finds something wonderful in training against Thoughtcrime.

A haphazard volley of venom and virtue produce fears and anxieties that liberals seek to treat by attacking our word/world connections, attempting barricades in the classroom that do not exist in cyberspace. This is rather like the 1950’s Cold War paranoia building Fallout Shelters, safe spaces when the whole outside world would be toxically radioactive. In our millennial age, the toxicity has emerged from a viciousness and lunacy unassailable because it sails under the banner of personal opinion, which has no superior arbiters.

Identifying miscreant domains of “Crimespeak” or safe zones of “Crimestop” is a risky business for any democratic institution to engage in. We cannot turn our educational institutions into Diversity Training centers. Neither should we be getting into the Thoughtcrime game in which designated thoughts are illegal. We would be absolutely creating a Kafka/Orwell situation in the classroom if we confined a speaker’s words to a listener’s understanding and reaction. This programming of acceptable words is a kind of prefiguring of our robotic and AI future, a future in which programming preempts intellectual decision.

We do not educate, lead someone out of a way of thinking and into another, without aggressions and transgressions. Thinking beyond the boundaries of a resident order of thinking is by nature both transgressive and aggressive in that resident order’s view. People, young, old and in between are very rarely original in thought or language but rather mimic and mirror what influences them. Where they spend their time is what is to be mirrored.

The circus of madcap inanity, minds cut loose from sense, anonymous and vitriolic assaults on opposing opinions that consume much space in cyberspace cannot be filtered out. We cannot put the swift, digital transmission of the worst devils of our nature back in the bottle and allow only sweetness and light to reach us. We cannot ask our educational institutions to build walls to protect some people from some of the words and images in cyberspace, which is the breeding ground for what is repeated in an analog “real world.”

Nor should we place the burden of racism on words that represent connections with the world already made in a society. When circumstances make everyone a target and neither reason nor reality are defenses, those furthest from a cultural core of likes and dislikes, same and different, acceptable and unacceptable become the easiest targets. The need here is to focus on those already existing values and meanings that have kept racism against blacks as part of the American mass psyche since slavery.

That undertaking is now complicated by a duplexing of reality — real space and cyberspace — and the intractability of the latter. Americans, not only Trump supporters, take pride in being political incorrect as a kind of patriotic revolt in the name of liberty. That connection resides in the American mass psyche and no correction of language forming a veneer of diversity and multi-racism can overwrite it.

Right now, a Stupidspeak and a haranguing Duckspeak, together with a new version of Crimespeak and a Crimestop preventative, overwhelm both the public and educational spheres. We can, however, arm our educational institutions against Stupidspeak by exercising the primary tool of intellectual enquiry, skepticism, as well as challenging all narratives with counter-narratives until some understanding arises that cannot be countered, for a time.

We can resist Stupidspeak by extending through the imagination our conceivable word-world connections toward what is yet inconceivable. We can interrogate word/world connections that are forged only by an imposition of wealth and power. We can discern how wealth and power disseminated widely and fluid in its movement from class to classs empowers those now stagnating at the economic bottom. Economic elevation and mobility leading to a gentrification of all colors removes color from the discriminatory field of vision of the American mass psyche.

A mind so armored against Stupidspeak has then a chance of sorting through a cyberspace of words flooding out of Pandora’s Box.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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