Ideology and the Corruption of Language


by Randall Smith, Public Discourse, March 3rd, 2017

In a remarkable 1978 essay entitled “Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel—poet, philosopher, and future president of the Czech Republic—wrote:

In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means . . . ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.

Havel’s most famous example from that essay is of a greengrocer required by the communist authorities to put in his shop window a sign with the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” “Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world?” asks Havel. “Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?” No, answers Havel. It is not the content of the word or gesture itself that is ultimately significant; it’s what the word or gesture implies (or might be interpreted as implying) about the person and about the person’s loyalty (or secret disloyalty) to the “correct” ideology. The discourse of ideology, argues Havel, gradually turns into “a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”

We might ask ourselves, with some embarrassment, whether, after decades of enforcing politically correct speech codes, the plight of black people (or any of the other disadvantaged groups we say we want to help in American society) is any better than it was before we developed our current hypersensitivity to people’s every word and gesture. READ the REST HERE

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