Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Postmodern Decay of Language: Why People Talk More and Say Less

"Paul Preaching In Athens" by Raphael

In response to several inquiries, I posted some information postmodernism which has opened up into more questions people have asked me about exactly how language has degraded within our culture. Now, more than ever, a growing number of people speak and use eloquent-sounding language, but their messages demonstrate a gross lack of content. Cults and spiritually abusive groups capitalize upon this process. One astute reader asked me how it is that more and more speakers and ministers can offer content-free speeches and sermons but how few people can recognize that their messages actually lack content. People “sound good,” offering “feel good” rhetoric, but they essentially say nothing and are rewarded for it. This reader asked me about possible sources of information to help them understand more about exactly how communicators manipulate language in order to say nothing.

This question is huge, and I believe it is a very philosophical one dating back the Garden of Eden when the serpent asked Eve if God meant that man would “surely” die if she ate of the Tree of Knowledge. As Christians who believe that we are created in God’s image, we have the example of God creating through speech. God said “Let there be light,” and light came into being. Both God’s example of creating in this fashion and the serpent’s example of distorting language convey the significance of language and how language profoundly affects us. Plato wrote of rhetoric, the animosity he held toward the Sophists, and how rhetoric of “empty speech” stands apart from true and valuable knowledge. The study of the philosophy of language through men like Wittgenstein discusses how words build “knowledge-making” and how language shapes our thoughts. Nietzsche argued the death of God and moral code, ultimately heralding the death of meaning of language. Postmodern thought and the post-structuralism within postmodernism argues that language has no meaning apart from other language which is subjectively defined by the listener. Barthes heralded the "Death of the Author." Hermeneutics investigates the process of the interpretation of meaning and can include both verbal and non-verbal meaning of communication. The field of semiotics studies the theory of signs and symbols as techniques of communication, using semantics, syntactics and pragmatics to convey true meaning and to promote myth. Homiletics applies the general principles of rhetoric to theology in order to persuade listeners to accept their theological viewpoints. Where to start?

I find myself going back to one of the first books that made a profound impact on me as a young person when I read Tim LaHaye’s “Battle for the Mind,” in 1980. I know I still have the book in some box or pile somewhere, but I cannot turn it up at the moment. I recall this work as the first description I recognized of how connotation could be used to manipulate readers and how modernists and how the growing popularity of what we now the call “the politically correct” used connotation. His approach countered secular humanism and addressed worldview, but he also explained, in a basic and concrete of how language could be used to persuade and distort understanding and meaning.

That said, I primarily understand mindless rhetoric in the context of worldview, affected today by the increase in relative morality and value pluralism that now typifies our modern day culture. Personally, I don’t believe that we can truly understand how language is now used in our Post-Christian Era apart from moral relativism. In “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air,” Beckwith and Koukl note that relativism concerns two different concerns: that of ethics (right and wrong) as well as the difference between subjective and objective truth. If I mention that “Pepsi is, far and above all others, the best carbonated soft drink,” this statement is true in context because the statement is neither about Pepsi nor soft drinks but about my personal subjective esteem of what is true in a statement about me. If someone happens to like a different soft drink, my statement is not a lie because the statement is not one of objective truth.

However, what if I speak in terms of something objective? These authors of “Relativism” also note that the “sum of two plus two equals four” presents a very different kind of claim because it is objective. If you claim that two plus two equals anything other than four, I can argue against you “without being accused of impropriety” (pg. 27). This objective mathematical equation has only one correct answer, and discussion of our different understandings would not be about sharing our subjective understandings about math but about the objectivity of a constant and true principle. Mathematics rests on objective truth, not upon subjective belief or feelings about mathematics. Moral relativism blurs these distinctions between subjective and objective truth (or amorality), and it opens up the doors of thought to argue against objective truth, not just ethics alone. (Hopefully, more about this will be presented later posts). I believe that one of the primary reasons why language sounds good and can mean nothing stems from this obscuring of subjective and objective truth, and by redefining ethics as relative. But for now, let us consider how rhetoric promotes meaninglessness through blurred distinctions.

How can we communicate subjectivism? Language provides one of our most potent tools used to redefine distinctions between that which is subjective and objective, and these implications of language or other communication can be implicit or explicit. Implicit statements (tending to be subjective) can be implied vaguely through context and explicit meanings (tending to be objective) convey specific information that leaves no question as to what is meant. When language redefines objective truth as subjective, truth loses meaning or gains new meaning (as relativism really defines its own type of morality, something from which we moral creatures cannot escape) through the use of language. In the Principles of Literature, Christina Myers-Shaffer offers this example:
To tell someone that “sometimes water systems can become contaminated” is implicit; to tell someone that “the Health Department found unsafe levels of bacteria in the water system of the XYZ Restaurant and shut it down this morning is more explicit. One primary way of conveying implicit information comes about through connotation.
Connotation as a rhetorical device presents one of the most powerful means of conveying such implicit meaning. Myers-Shaffer offers this example of the difference between different types of connotation by describing an “old chair” (neutral connotation) as either an “antique” (positive connotation) or “junk” (negative connontation). Connotation subtly helps sway readers to see information in either a negative or positive light, or it can sway a reader to identify with a character through emotional appeal. Poets, salesmen and ministers can use connotation to persuade their listeners, both for good and for evil. Examination of the entire context along with connotation conveys implicit meaning or explicit meaning, but often connotation presents “red herring” emotional arguments that inhibit a person’s ability to view the context through introduction of an irrelevancy. (They get stuck on the emotional impact of the meaning connoted by language and get drawn away from the true context.) I recall how during Bill Clinton’s first presidential election, I discussed my conservative views among a group of very liberal coworkers. In order to trump the argument, one coworker who happened to be African-American (as she preferred to be called) stated that I was of “a wealthy Anglo” background that had enslaved “her people.” When I contrasted the past references this young woman had made to the business that her grandfather and father operated to the very humble beginnings of my own family, I exposed the false myth and “ideological abuse” that she attempted to promote through the use of connotation. But her technique well could have worked, much like “Na, na, na, na, na, na ” works on a playground full of children who lack discernment. Emotional and connotative manipulation work well because they take advantage of emotion.

Modernism centered around certain truths, that which rested primarily upon the optimism of both the Enlightenment (faith in reason and science) and in Hegel’s idea of the Unity of all Knowledge (man’s evolutionary process of growth of the mind from ignorance into total being). These ideas were defined as the grand narratives that shaped our secular culture throughout most of the 20th Century. Inevitably, modernism rendered itself quite limited and unable to solve humanity’s problems, proving itself to be just another futile means of man establishing himself as his own salvation. But according to men like the Postmodern theorist Lyotard, the Enlightenment failed miserably, and science also proved that it was not a universal constant. Neither could really lead us to total truth and the grand, transcendent narratives proved to be limited, so Lyotard and the postmodernists abandoned objective truth in favor of a new strategy: disbelief in the truth of grand narratives by replacing it with the subjective use of language and media to prop up subjective ideas about purpose, meaning and truth.

The void of meaning is filled with metanarrative and micronarrative which does not seek any legitimization outside of their own processes of story-telling and the subjective meaning given to it by the story teller. It rather seeks self-legitimization through performativity and pragmatism, no longer trying to elucidate real or objective truth. As “Postmodernism for Beginners” notes, the mantra of meaning becomes a tautology of “We do what we do because that’s the way we do it” (pg 31). Truth becomes displaced from objectivity onto subjective truth as validated by information, performativity, and the impressiveness of the form of the communication. Thus, as Baudrillard stated, “The media becomes the message” and the veracity of the message becomes completely dependent on the medium of communication, sometimes proving to be more veracious than the truth that the message itself represents.

So in addition to the concerns of men like Os Guinness, Mark Noll, Alan Bloom and Neil Postman that people will resort to nearly any measure to alleviate themselves from the burden of thinking, I believe that the pessimistic postmodernism of our age and the increase in access to overwhelming amounts of information has dulled our ability to discern language. (See Cialdini for the some of the effects of information overload.) The post-structuralist approach to the deconstruction of language (where each element of language has no inherent meaning and represents no transcendent truth) has rendered language impotent. In a society wherein men derive meaning based on subjective appeal, pleasure, niceness, and the packaging that meaning comes in rather than meaning itself, language within the popular culture means very little. Sadly, Christians have fallen prey to this as well, ranging from the popularity of Joel Osteen’s vacuous, self-help messages to the freedom lust pursued by the Hegelian/Nietzschean “forms” of the emergent church.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers.
2 Timothy 4:3

Alan Bloom on Nietzsche