musings on communication, reason and our lack of words

What do we lose when we lose our ability to express ourselves and our emotions? When we no longer have the capacity to explain to others, how we feel and what we believe?


Question. What do we lose when we lose our ability to express ourselves and our emotions? When we no longer have the capacity to explain to others, how we feel and what we believe? (Artists and writers aside.)

In my current grappling with the relevant, material consequences (if any) of our culture’s inordinate lack of intellectual, or any, sense of curiosity, our surprising lack of reasoning abilities and our lack of interest in anything outside of our immediate activities, I’m finding examples, if not consequences, everywhere. The most obvious, perhaps, being a number of cultural trends which seem to perfectly illustrate our increasingly frequent verbal and rational failings.

Many before me have pointed to a ubiquitous use of swear words in our writing and conversation as prime examples of this as we hide our lack of actual words behind a mask of superlatives, so I won’t dwell on that, but consider it example number one. I like Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity,” as a one-line summary of this, the idea being that if you sound passionate enough, angry enough or moved enough, no-one will question your intelligence and sincerity, and what better way to exaggerate emotion than with an exorbitant use of four-letter words?

Another example.

When the New York Times Magazine re-launched earlier this year they concurrently launched a new column dedicated to lengthy dissections of various terms which have become engrained in our 21st century conversation. It’s super entertaining (a recent one had Mark Leibovich dissecting politicians and their penchant for the word “folks.” gold.), and, in the words of the Times, the series is meant to discuss “what language reveals about our moment.” That it does, although sometimes its interpreters reveal more about themselves in their writing than anything else. Examples of entries have included surprisingly ubiquitous phrases such as “Pics or it didn’t happen” and “You do you.”

I have often asserted my perception of the implicit, although as of yet unacknowledged danger, (which may be too dramatic a word, but you catch my drift) inherent in the use of those “kill-all” phrases; ‘you do you,’ ‘it is what it is’ and even, to a lesser, but no less risky, in my opinion, extent, the old maxim of que sera sera, ‘whatever will be, will be.’

I hate to chalk too much of this up to the overwhelming suffusion of the psychology of the “self-esteem” generation into the general culture, but I don’t know that something along those lines isn’t at least guilty in part for the current reality (and has pretty damn substantive philosophical roots).

Colson Whitehead, in his entry into the Times language of day series, perfectly summed it up, “’It is what it is’ effectively ends the {I’ll insert any} discussion so that we can stop.”

I can see where these phrases might be a useful end to a lengthy discussion that had overstayed its welcome, you know the kind, when conversationalists start to get testy, maybe because people are tired of talking, or maybe because, as arguments tend to do, things have started moving in a circle. Sure, end it. Move on.

But that’s not what happens. What happens instead, amongst the members of my generation, is a substitution of a tautological phrase such as ‘haters gonna hate’ or ‘it is what it is’ for an actual response.

I’d posit it started as an amusing argument ender, made in jest, but I also propose these statements, when abused (as everything is nowadays), become at first stand-ins for an admittance of ignorance or futility and finally, an accepted substitution for explanation; an accepted defense, an accepted method by which one can shirk responsibility for one’s actions or words, an accepted and entertaining conversation ending.

I’m sick of the slippery slope cliché, so I apologize in advance, but it’s a slippery slope.

Too many “it is what it is’s” and we lose the ability to think, to use our minds to discover why something is or to fight back when someone hates.

These phrases are no longer argument enders, they are the arguments, and we don’t see that as an issue because we stopped talking, I mean really talking, to each other years ago.

Another entry into the Times column’s roster was another, in my opinion, mis-interpreted phrase, “I can’t even.”

In the opinion of the term’s interpreter, Amanda Hess, “I can’t even” is the weapon of the teenager, intent on hiding his/her true feelings from his parents.

Ahem, seriously? Don’t give credit where credit is not due.

More like, “I can’t even explain to you what I’m feeling right now because I literally cannot explain it.”

It’s not cunning. It’s laziness which has transformed, over time, into ignorance.

One of the more chilling developments in a world which has lost the language and ability to build a rational argument, is the creeping of this trend into the language of the intellectuals and politicians and the media that covers them. Our penchant for teary-eyed pleas and “How dare you’s” seems to have supplanted the need for true argument, Anthony Kennedy’s recent supreme court majority opinion being only the most recent (and most important) example of a prominent use of an appeal to emotion as stand-info for an appeal to reason or, as one might think would be appropriate here, law.

I’m not saying here that Kennedy’s defense of gay marriage was wrong (I am strongly in favor of gay marriage), I’m just questioning the long-term viability of a court, a politics or a country, which accepts emotional appeals in place of a reasoned defense (and believe me, I’m not the only one to question the soundness of Kennedy’s opinion from a legal perspective, but that’s beside the point I guess). I worry about a people who allow their emotions to control their society. Since if there is anything of which we can be sure, it is the volatility of our emotions.

I’m not sure there is anything to do about it, although philosophers and theorists will continue to debate. Seems like emotions are the only things to which we can appeal anymore, it’s certainly the only thing we can be sure of, although, granted, that only applies to our own.

Like I said, I’m still grappling with the consequences of this, our lack of reasoning ability and language, we all are, and I’m not sure I see the answer to how it matters, although we understand, at least subconsciously, that it does matter. Whether it’s our emotions, our beliefs or anything else we are incapable of expressing, we’re past the point of thinking it’s an issue, so many it is what it is’s and you do you’s later. It’s really just the end result, the consequence, if you will, of living in a society whose values are based on subjective beliefs, not reason.

And maybe it doesn’t matter, not for most people. But for our leaders? For those tasked with decision-making? I’m inclined to think it has to and that fact will evidence itself as a majority emerges with more or less the same emotionally-based belief system (and yes, a belief in a set of inalienable, and apparently ever-changing set of human rights, is exactly that, a belief) which they cannot, but at the same time, have no need to, justify rationally. Their justification will be the fact of their majority and nothing more, and it seems that’s enough for us; the majority, in its existence, it’s essence, proves it’s rightness, it’s righteousness.

It seems it’s not only language we have lost, but a knowledge of history, which could, in fact, inform us of the many, many misdeeds of majorities past.