I posted a version of this blog during the campaigns of 2016. But I think it's important to revisit it now that we're hearing from supporters of our new administration, and members of it, about "alternative facts" and truth being just something "in the eye of the beholder." We need to understand the two different views of language in order to see what the new administration is trying to do.
In the upcoming days of the new administration, we're apparently going to hear a lot of people distorting the truth, and actually lying to us. Of course, that's no revelation. It's already been happening. And it's unfortunate. But we come across this a lot in business, as well, and in any other area of life where something of value is at stake. And there's an important reason that distortion and lying is so widespread at present. It may surprise you.
There are two very different philosophies of language out in the world. Which one we operate by matters. The noble view, on my analysis, holds that the overall two-fold purpose of language is to connect and cultivate. It connects us first with reality, and with each other, and even within ourselves, in a variety of ways. And it cultivates us, or develops us as human beings, in just as many ways. This view of language is focused on linking our words to truth, beauty, goodness, and unity—the four transcendental values of ancient philosophy. We can call it The Spiritual View of Language. At its best, language connects and cultivates the spirit.
Going back in human history and prehistory, language has always had many uses - for example: to warn, call, express, exclaim, inquire, infer, inform, and create. It's also had a deviant use, interestingly dependent on these more straightforward uses. It can be employed to deceive. But that's a secondary and parasitic use. If language had not already first been used to inform, warn, and express, for example, it could never have been used to deceive. The reason is simple. In deceiving, you're pretending to inform or express, or warn, and so on, but your use of language departs from the expected connection with truth that those uses ordinarily presuppose and convey. At the same time, you're depending on your listener to simply assume that you are sincerely informing or warning, and so on. But to the contrary, you say what you know to be false. You warn when you know there's no real danger. You express an anger or an empathy that you don't actually feel. The primary uses of language had to be established and accepted in order for any twisting of them into deception to work.
If you hold the Spiritual View of Language, you're going to see deception as something forgivable or appropriate only at the extremes of human behavior—in competitive games or sports, and in life or death situations. In games or sports, when we're outside the normal spheres of life, and we're playing, however hard, it's ok to bluff, or fake. We don't morally judge the quarterback who fakes a run but passes instead. But secretly deflated footballs are something else. There are rules within which the deceptions can take place. In basketball, a great fake under the basket shows not corruption but skill. Certain such forms of deception are fine. And in situations of life or death, it's normally thought to be strongly preferable to use deception if that's the only way to avoid an act of killing or being killed, or maiming or being maimed.
In game situations, we've suspended "normal life"—whereas, in life or death situations, we've arrived at an extreme, on the other end, beyond normal life, where an intensity of conflict or likelihood of severe bodily damage has gotten so bad that a lie or a deception can be not only excused, but actually demanded in order to prevent something much worse and potentially irreversible. Lying in politics or business doesn't normally qualify—to put it mildly.
But there's another philosophy of language altogether and it's the one that now tends to dominate highly partisan or extremist politics, and even some business circles. It's a view that the primary purpose of language is to gain, exercise, and hold power—power over people, situations, and things.
On this Machiavellian view, language isn't tied to truth, beauty, goodness, or unity. It's not a spiritual vehicle for connecting and cultivating ourselves. It's a cruder tool. It's about manipulating. It's all about getting others to do your bidding. On this view, language is about crafting perceptions, and evoking those beliefs and feelings in others that will open doors for you and feed into your own purposes. It's a clearly ignoble view of language. And it's as parasitic as deception is in any of its forms. If most people didn't hold, at least implicitly, what I'm calling the Spiritual View of Language, no one could hold this Manipulative View of Language and make it work. The manipulators pretend to be doing the things that the rest of us expect them to be doing—truly informing, accurately warning, honestly expressing, and so on. But they're often only pretending to do such things, at least much of the time. They'll actually seek to show a concern for truth, beauty, goodness, and unity now and then, when they believe it's their interest to do so, but only to fortify their basic strategy of manipulation. They want power. And they talk to get it and use it and keep it.
We all need to persuade other people, and help position others to see the value of our projects and propositions. But we can do that by connecting and cultivating, rather than by manipulating. And that's the only path of honor. It's also the only one that's sustainable, long term. Those of us who hold the Spiritual View of Language can use our words in all sorts of creative ways, to inspire, enthrall, or entertain. But if we ever catch ourselves manipulating another adult human being, we need to do a philosophical self-check. Is our context that of a game or sport? Is it truly like war? When too many people start to think of politics or business as primarily a game, or a sport, or as the equivalent of war, there comes to be a subtle and secret shift in how they think of language. As a result, we all suffer.
Who knew? Our philosophy of language matters!