Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

My title is from a piece by Stefan McDaniel, reviewing a book by Marilyn Chandler McIntyre on the website of the Witherspoon Institute.

Even one who might not agree with the author on “what is truth?” (to quote a certain Roman official) should agree that there is a problem in the misuse of language and the prevalence of lies:

McEntrye forthrightly identifies the villains: biased journalists and cynical advertisers, entertainers, and politicians. These usual suspects, she says, are the titans of the word industry who have inundated us with cheap language designed not to tell the truth, but to manipulate, evade, or sell. Public language is thus (to adopt McEntyre’s preferred, ecological metaphor) polluted and depleted by “thoughtless hyperbole, unexamined metaphors, slogans and sound bites, grammatical confusion, ungrounded abstractions, overstatement, and blather” which seep malignantly into ordinary speech and thought.

Polluted and depleted language is obviously an inadequate medium for proper public debate. McEntyre agrees with George Orwell that last use of language leads to foolish thoughts, including foolish thoughts about urgent questions of the common good. When we lose the “subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power.”

I’m tempted to go on quoting, but I’ll end with just one more excerpt:

It is, of course, a worthy therapeutic exercise to identify and analyze vague terms in our own vocabularies, but in urging us not to tolerate lies, McEntyre tells us to demand precision from others, especially when they speak in public. She outlines our civic duty of “clarifying where there is confusion; naming where there is evasion; correcting where there is error; fine-tuning where there is imprecision; satirizing where there is folly; changing the terms when the terms falsify.”

In ancient China, wasn’t the “rectification of language” one of the aims of each new dynasty?  (But how did that work out in practice?)

Follow this link for the entire article.

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