Yesterday I called a friend and a young woman answered, "House of Buddha." After a quick interchange I realized that the concept of Buddha meant no more to her than "Extra Action Tide" or "Global Warming." Of course the Buddha might tell us that each word is ultimately just a word, no more or less meaningful than another, but for those not blessed with the nirvanic perspective, words are the ties that bind and free us to and from each other and our many changing realities. If the Word was God, perfect and unchanging, words have fallen as surely as any Adams or Eves. Everywhere, complex words are discarded for any handy unspecific catch-phrase, and the complex ideas are reduced in conversation to mere fodder for repartee.



Language is our primary means of communication, and we're getting worse at it. The sending and receiving of soundbites from inside and outside the media has pushed human thought processes to such a frenetic pace that deep conceptual analysis becomes nearly impossible. It seems curious, that as our collective means of communication increases in sophistication, the sophistication of the messages themselves decreases in an almost perfect inverse proportion. Catch-all catchphrases like "voter apathy" or "the budget deficit" become baskets which we fill with a vague hodge-podge of often unrelated conceptions. Well-worn euphemisms allow us to skim the range of human suffering without confronting the pain and dying beneath the poreless surface of "collateral damage." Add to this an ever expanding population of cultural pet words–from Cool to Not, dudes–fuzzycute ways to comment and silence without actually saying anything, and it is a wonder that we communicate at all. When everyone bops around slinging the lingo of rebellion or chapter-and-verse of their party line, we as a collective are reduced to little more than a parade of hastily-scrawled picket signs marching back and forth at each other. Am I just, as the phrase goes, bitchin' and moanin'? Or could George Bush, with his this Thing and that Thing, be cynically playing to the degraded linguistic capabilities of the masses?

As semiotics wafts its way down from its lofty academic origins, many of us find ourselves paying more attention to signs: how visual and literary representations in the media work to either promote or undermine any -ology. Even those of us who haven't studied the science of propaganda for some government or ad agency might find it difficult not to notice, for instance, how those recent TV ads for home pregnancy tests kits invariably depict the woman hoping beyond hope that the dot turns pink, or reveals a plus sign. (Never, ever is she finding God for the first time, praying beyond prayer that she won't be paying for one night with the next eighteen years, or wondering how many state lines she'll have to cross to decide her own fate.) Equally transparent is the ceaseless barrage of opinion polls telling us what we think so we don't have to. Dished out daily on the evening news, accentless "personalities" toss us chewable bones, the popularity ratings of check-bouncing congressfolk to gnaw upon while the far more dangerous bouncing of the budget remains unaddressed, a creeping ellipses at the fade to corporate sponsor plug. So now that we're all competent deconstructionists, able to pick apart the ideological manipulations intrinsic to everything from a president's hand gestures to a Calvin Klein ad, what if we should turn the critical gaze back upon ourselves, our own lives, gestures, and conversations?

Even children possess the capacity to tell the truth, and to discern the truth from the lie. The sense that warns us not to believe campaign promises and the eye of the camera is the same sense with which we see, speak, write, dance, shape, and offer our lives to each other. Whether we control words or they us is a matter of our chosen perspective. If we accept as truth or even as possibility the proposition that our use or misuse of language contributes to the creation of a common experience, we must assume responsibility for our individual contributions to that increasingly self-referential, prefab, mass-marketed entity known as reality.

In this framework, the specious attack of conservatives upon so-called "politically correct" language is much darker and more sinister than those critics would have us believe. Under the guise of opposing censorship and/or the homogenization of language, the anti-PC crowd rages with the momentum of its own self-righteous fury right on past the point. The point? The point is not to simply adopt the trendy jargon of the week, nor even to reject it out-of-hand.
The revolution is the word. Know your words. Tell the truth.

About This Story

  • Authors: Joshua Berger, Karynn Fish, Andrew L McFarlane
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012