Power in the Word

Published by Robert Hoyle on

Aristotle once remarked that the mark of an educated man is to seek for precision in all things. If there is a task at hand the man of genuine learning must perform it with alacrity and skill. So too in the arts of thinking and speaking the educated man must seek to both formulate and express his ideas with a clarity and exactness that allows them to be edifying to those with whom he converses. Lack of clarity in the employment of words and thoughts only leads to confusion and confusion in these realms results in erratic and chaotic behavior on the part of the confused.

In response to such fuzziness precision is always the best antidote. The spirit of precision must always be careful to weigh its words, to giveproper definition to things, and to order and arrange the content of thought in a way that reflects the symmetry and orderliness of the world which we inhabit. Art or craft of any form which man may take up, if it is to progressed upon intelligently, must reflect this spirit of precision. Failure to do so can only result in disaster.

With this in mind it must be noted that disaster is the present condition of a great deal of the things which currently surround and confront man. Two millennia ago Christ exhorted His disciples to wisdom saying that when the fig tree brings forth its leaf to know that the summer is near. Although given in parable His intent was that men may observe the signs and discern the times. This is still true today. Whether skillfully or not men perceive the times and prepare to act accordingly. Our time is undoubtedly one of great foreboding. An ominous leaf appears and a cruel summer promises to be upon us. As Jackson Browne once penned in song,

Everybody I talk to is ready to leave with the light of the morning.

They’ve seen the end coming down long enough to believe that they’ve heard their last warning.

Driven further on by this intuition of impending disaster many a would-be prophet steps into the gap. But there is a common problem: the disintegration of language is far advanced and the reformers who do not do the first work ofrestoring the integrity of communication will find all their labors frustrated. It has been remarked that the most effective means of degrading a once noble people is to destroy their language. By this I am not simply referring to the increasing presence of vulgarity and unseemly expression but the literal inability to properly clothe thought in word.

You see, man is a thinking being, possessed with the use of reason and the ability to think in both analytic and synthetic forms. Complex discussions regarding inductive perception and deductive reasoning are more than space allows at present but no matter the reader’s understanding of the thinking processof the creature that is man, be assured of this: all critical thinking employs the tool of language.

True enough, many of us can recall images of things that we have witnessed and folks with a healthy imagination can visualize things they have never directly experienced. But go ahead, (I dare ya!) think through any sort of complex problem without using words. What is discovered is that the only way to develop thought is to employ language. And if the grasp of language is poor than the subsequent thought will be of like quality.

In real time words are the tools which men use to think. This makes very exact definition of words and then very precise use of those words of the utmost importance. The development of genuine intelligence demands it.

Far too often I observe that well meaning enthusiasts plunge ahead on some mission of mercy all the while picking up the various tools (words and concomitant thoughts) which devoted enemies have left lying about. Tools which, it needs to be made clear, were fashioned for the destruction of the very enthusiasts who unwittingly employ them.

This is very common in the political field today. Terms such as racism or xenophobia are rarely intelligent or precise tools used to serve any honest cause. They are rather sledgehammers, the bludgeon of demagogues, used to smash opposition to some political crotchet.

To be labeled a “racist” is a death knell in the modern world, it is absolutely a progressive slur that is almost never rooted in reality, (I am usually more skeptical of the person making the accusation of racism than I am of the accused) and yet I see many supposed “conservatives” making childish arguments along the lines of “Democrats are the real racists.” Such modes of conversation only buttress the corruption of our language and give the appearance of validating the irrational and hysterical accusations that are hurled like lightning bolts at the wink of an eye. Serious reform should never stoop to such foolishness.

James Thornwell once remarked in his Discourses on Truth that:

It is the trick of politicians to bandy epithets, words being the “counters of wise men, but the coin of fools.” You might be able to injure a man’s principles, but call him some hateful name and you effectually destroy him. There is no subject in regard to which you should be more constantly on guard than this sophistry of the heart.

Thornwell condemns the attempt to destroy men through the application to them of hateful names as a “sophistry of the heart.” Sophistry, of course, is the intentional perversion of language or the obfuscation of that which would be plain in order to argue some pet peeve. Clear communication, precise thought, and the wholesome guarding of sincere language can never be reconciled to sophistry.

Consider as another example the popular bandying of the ideas of “rights and privileges.” Is there ever a discussion about what rights and privileges actually are? Are they ever defined or distinguished in a precise way? Mature and intelligent political thought is almost impossible without the distinction between a right and a privilege in mind. But have you ever heard anyone, and I mean anyone, from your US Senator down to your high school civics teacher, clearly define the difference?

Unbeknownst to many a right is something which accrues to me as a human being by virtue of the fact that I exist and have a certain level of dignity and integrity. My “rights” are the claims of justice I have against my life being taken from me without due warrant, my property stolen from me, my good name slandered, and my wife defiled. That’s about the sum of my rights.

Privileges on the other hand are a much larger and more arbitrary category. Privileges are the things which accrue to me by virtue of specific economic station. Determinative factors as to my privileges would include my being a man and not a woman (contra modern political fantasy I can urinate into a urinal, women can’t), having the parents and grandparents that I have (my parents read to me a lot when I was a kid, big advantage for me), I am a citizen of the United States (this makes me different from a resident of Brazil or Myanmar), and the list goes on. If the above is confusing it is because you haven’t been taught much about what privilege really is but the short takeaway is this: equal holding of privilege amongst human beings is almost impossible.

Synopsis of this:

Rights are essential to people as people and equality of rights for all men is good.

Privileges are specific to persons or groups of persons and attempting to foster an equality of privileges is impossible as well as evil.

These are only a few representatives of the many words that get bandied about by all parties on the political landscape in modern America and we can readily see how far their common usage strays from their actual meaning or the correct guarding of precision in language in thought. We could go on but time forbids. The reader must go on to do his own work but suffice it to say that there is much power in words. Be careful that this power is not used carelessly or improperly. Precision is the mark of intelligence but empty epithet and sloganeering are the coin of fools.

Robert Hoyle

Robert Hoyle is a Southern Presbyterian who resides on the family farm in Dinwiddie Virginia. He and his wife Rachel currently have four sons and a daughter.