Saturday, January 15, 2011

"What is government if words have no meaning?"

THE QUOTE IS FROM Jared Loughner, the apparently paranoid young man who seems to have been responsible for the shootings in Tucson a week ago (January 8, 2011). I find them prominently displayed in a "quoteout" on page 28 of the special issue of Time (January 24, 2011), where they are characterized as his "…nonsensical question to Representative Giffords at a 2007 constituents' meeting".

But the question is not nonsensical. In fact, the same issue of Time devotes considerable space to it, for the root of the discussions going on in the wake of the event is linguistic. Language is the means by which individuals communicate in complex and especially in societal contexts. And the clear, effective, and just discussion, which is central to the maintenance of a civil democratic society, depends on a shared approach to the use of words.

The civility of public and political discourse is, as I see it, one of three major discussions going on just now. Another, more specific, centers on the question of "gun control," shorthand for legislation expressing the public's right to tranquility in a society granting the right to bear arms. Here the language problem centers on the Second Amendment, probably the most evasive passage in the Constitution as it is currently worded. Any discussion of the passage, and its language, must consider context as much as content: the evasiveness (or at least vagueness) of the passage undoubtedly evolved for a reason, probably to satisfy unresolved negotiations between "framers" who could not agree. (Too bad they didn't simply write that we are each entitled to bear three-fifths of a gun.)

A third discussion centers on the correct — I mean effective and just — attitude society should take to mentally disturbed individuals. Mental disorders of the sort Loughner apparently suffers are subtle and complex, but I think they are essentially linguistic, confusions of meanings and contexts. Awareness of the distinctions between individual and citizen — between myself as my self, on which everything centers, and myself as a member of family, society, nation — comes late in development. Comes late in an individual's development from child to adult, and comes late, I think, in human development from pre-conscious to conscious thought; in societal development from tribal to rational organizing principles.

To paint with a broad brush: if ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, then social development recapitulates individual human development. This "development" is far from a one-way linear process. Complex as it is, it is vulnerable to error, to breakdown, to reversal. I believe it is the essence of adolescence, whether in an individual or in a society. Those of us who have survived adolescence, perhaps even matured beyond it, have problems dealing with it as we observe it in others; problems arising from our forgetting or ignoring its nature and complexity. Even observing it, in individuals or social contexts which involve us directly, is difficult enough; trying to understand it is worse. Yet it is something we must confront.

ONE FUNDAMENTAL ISSUE needs to be considered: context is as significant as causation. As Susan Sontag put it, meaning is never monogamous. It's easy to point out that no direct causal link can be found between, for example, Sarah Palin's "crosshairs"* marking congressional districts "targeted" for particular attention in last November's election, on the one hand, and the literal targeting of Congresswoman Giffords (whose district was one of those so marked), on the other. That needs to be kept in mind as we investigate the background of the shooter and his assault.

But as we work to improve society, whether to improve civil discourse or to identify and interrupt potentially lethal behavior, we should attend to Climate as well, perhaps more, as to Cause. Our present moment is both speedy and violent (if the two are not two faces of a single attribute), and we cannot escape this. Over and over in public discussion we see metaphors and symbols — there's language again! — dealing with excess: inflation, out-of-control, cancer, obesity, unsustainability, Ponzi schemes. Matt Matsuda, in his important book The Memory of the Modern, writes about the acceleration of history, suggesting that every civilization accelerates itself to death, spinning out of control. As "taxes are the dues that we pay for he privileges of membership in an organized society", as FDR said, so Regulation is the price we pay for living in a secure one; it is apparently the only brake available against what is apparently this natural tendency of human organisms to constant growth and acceleration.
*But are they not exactly the symbols used as registration marks; and is that not why they are easily found in symbol fonts on the computer?