Thursday, September 07, 2006

Manufacturing Dissent

One of the textbooks for the Language and Politics class I TA is Noam Chomsky's Language and Politics. I'm having a blast teaching it with a straight face.

Chapter 35 - "Politics and Language" - was assigned for this week. This chapter is an interview from 1 December 1984by David Barsamian - apparently of KGNU radio in Boulder.

The interviewer leads off with Could you discuss the relationship between politics and language?.

Chomsky responds


there is a tenuous relationship, in fact several different kinds. I think myself that they're exaggerated in importance.


Which I thought was a hillarious way to start off a class devoted to exploring precisely those relationships. I agree with Chomksy: the relationship between langauge and politics is tenuous, of "exaggerated importance." That's why I can't stand smug people like Geroge Lakoff claiming to have "discovered" that if you call trial lawyers "public protection attorneys" the public will respond to them better. Certainly it puts a better spin on them, but the idea of choosing adjectives carefully to make one's own ideology more attractive to the masses is as old as, well, politics itself. Chomsky's right: noticing that politicians use deceptive metaphors is about the extent of the "relationship between politics and language." These things are more obvious in politics, I guess, but of course they exist in every field (doctors don't call Chemotherapy "the poisoning technique" for obvious reasons, I should think). I don't see any particular need to do a careful study of the abuse of language in politics. People who obsess about these things are ultimately people like Lakoff - who don't trust the public to be smart enough to see through the deception, and who think that all argument is ultimately just one form of manipulation or another.

What's interesting about Chomsky is that he then turns around and makes liberal use of precisely the kind of manipulation he started off the interview denouncing.

At the begining of the interview, he says

There is in the first place the question discussed, for example, by Orwell and by a numbe rof others of how language is abused, tortured, distorted, in a way, to enforce ideological goals.


Alright, now lets watch the master at work.


...anyone looking at this spectacle [the debate over the Vietnam War] from the outside with even a little bit of sophistication would regard it as comic, becuse in fact what the United States was doing was attacking South Vietnam. That's why it's called the `defense' of South Vietnam.


Riiiiigggghhhht. It wasn't the VC the US was attacking or anything. Clearly, it was all of South Vietnam. The US simply attacked South Vietnam, apparently for no reason but kicks, and decided to call it "defending" South Vietnam so no one would notice.

What makes this so insidious is that there's a ring of truth to it. Chomsky's right that most of the fighting in the Vietnam War took place in South Vietnam (because the US felt constrained from outright attacking North Vietnam) - but that is only an "attack" on South Vietnam in the most literal possible sense. We have a border, most attacks take place inside that border, therefore the attacks are attacks on the country delimited by the border. It's right in a strictly geographical sense. But it's wrong in any meaningful sense.

Notice that the general public is more consistent in its use of language than Chomsky. In addition to not saying that the US "attacked" South Vietnam, we also don't generally say that the VC "attacked" South Vietnam. We call it an "insurgency," which is what it was - an insurgency against the (not-so-)legitimate South Vietnamese regime. But it is never called an "attack." Under Chomsky's ueber-literal definition of "attack," of course, it should be, but I have never heard (and I suspect I will never hear) Chomsky call any VC actions an "attack" on South Vietnam. Apparently only the US can "attack" South Vietnam. Not even the North's all-out invasion really qualifies for Chomsky.

This is, of course, a naked abuse of language. It blurs the distinction between words that have otherwise stable meanings and which everyone but Noam Chomsky is able to use consistently.

Here's another one:


Many of them [Indians] were just totally murdered or wiped out, others succumbed to European-brought diseases. This is massive genocide...


Ahem. How is transmitting a disease possibly "genocide?" If genocide is the murder of a race, then the killing of a race by spreading disease isn't even the manslaughter equivalent. Hell, it isn't even the willful negligence equivalent. It's more like the "oops, I knocked a hammer off this building and accidentally hit a passer-by" equivalent. No one uses the word "genocide" to mean "the accidental killing off of a race." You only get to call it "genocide" if it was on purpose. Chomsky knows that, of course - he's just being manipulative here.

Today in Bilingualism the subject of nativism came up, and the Professor made an offhand comment that she thinks "Chomsky likes to play with people, to see how far they'll run." I honestly hadn't ever thought about it like that, but the more I think about it the more I like her interpretation. I do indeed think "playing with people" is a good explanation for a lot of what Chomsky does. Take Minimalism, for example. In a private meeting with one of the people on my committee, he said that the thing that struck him about Minimalism was that "for the past 15 years or so, everyone has been saying that we need to follow this Minimalism stuff, to take this approach, and no one has ever explained to me why." Another choice quote from an introductory textbook on Minimalsim:


As with much of generative grammar in the last half of the twentieth century, the impetus for this perspective came form the hands of Noam Chomsky, our teacher. If nothing else, we take ourselves to be good students, and thus we tried, literally for years, to understand Chomsky's suggestion that the field of linguistics as we had studied it should be narrowed down in this fashion.


"Tried literally for years..." Doesn't this kind of talk just make you sick? If it takes so-called "experts" ten years to "understand" the teacher's suggestion, then, oh, I dunno, maybe the teacher didn't explain himself very well? In any case, the burden of proof ought to be on the person who wants to take the field in the new direction, no? When I read stuff like this, I do sometimes wonder if Chomsky does it just to sit back an enjoy the effect he has on people.

In any case, I wasn't very impressed with the political essay. What's interesting to me is that none of my students fell for it either! Travelling, as I do, in academic circles, I was starting to get used to being the kid in the crowd willing to tell everyone else the Emperor's naked. Nice to see that 17 undergraduates and a dose of common sense gets the same results without the elaborate arguments.

Which does sort of lead to the question: how has Chomsky managed to fool so many intelligent people for so long?

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