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A Resolution About Which We Should Talk
Yesterday, Fr. Justin and I were driving home from an adventure when he mentioned a variety of New Year’s Resolutions to which he is committing himself in 2023. The conversation reminded me of an essay I had thought about writing closer to the start of the year, but the death of Joseph Ratzinger got us thinking in other directions for the last couple of weeks. But we are still living in the nascent days of the New Year, so let us speak somewhat satirically of resolutions and recommendations for better living.
Please note: the essay that follows will use an explicit term (bull****) in a technical and philosophical way in an effort to get at what is wrong with our use of language today.
Imagine a world in which people confessed violations of the rules of grammar in addition to confessing actual sins. That might be a world in which I would like to live.
My claim, in broad strokes, is that we are non-intentional with our speech.Our use of language is casual, often lazy, at a moment in human history in which there are more ways to communicate with one another than ever before. We say everything that comes to mind. We respond to text messages and emails without thought, as if by instinct. We talk while we drive, dividing our attention beyond our natural capacity for focus and deliberation. We believe that every thought that comes to mind needs to be articulated, shared with the world, that every thought that comes to mind matters, and so we go about the work of sharing our thoughts with the world as quickly and as casually as we are able.
The consequence of our non-intentional use of language is often (as one who spends enough time in confessionals) sin. Calumny and detraction, gossip, rumor-mongering, malicious speech, the use of profanity, failures to speak the truth: so many kinds of sin that follow from a failure to speak with intention. Moreover, and perhaps more harmful, is that fact that our non-intentional use of language entails that we waste one another’s time with bad ideas. Articulating every thought that comes to mind entails that other people now bear the burden of responding to at least some bad ideas—foolish thoughts, unhelpful and ungrounded assessments and ruminations—that we have birthed into the world.
And sometimes those bad ideas take root and make a mark on social and political life. Imagine a world in which some politicians never articulated to anyone the thought “I should run for office,” because through an intentional use of language they realized that the idea is obviously a bad one, and so their social impact remains limited to the small corner of the world to which they belong. Imagine a world in which journalists and commentators—cultural, religious, and political—less frequently crafted the Tweet-length hot takes that constitute ‘considered opinion’ in the 21st century and through a careful choice of words came to the conclusion that no one really needs to hear what they think. Imagine a world in which I do not write this meditation upon our non-intentional use of language because, having taken the time to think through my reasoning, I arrived at the conclusion that my concerns are unfounded and there is no need to trouble anyone with matters of diction and grammar.
I jest. But only a little. Our non-intentional use of language is a problem. The problem is manifest through our sins of the tongue (there is a reason St. James dwells upon the relation between speech and soul in Chapter 3 of his Letter). The problem is manifest in the ways in which too many people become paralyzed by doubts and suspicions and anxieties that are given life through our casual use of language—suddenly a passing thought becomes a pressing concern because we lazily articulate to another an idea that has come to mind. The problem is manifest in the division and factionalism within our Church, our world, and our nation. There is a blog out there for everyone, a community of fellow-thinkers that gives a home to our ideas in just the right way, so that we never need to ask ourselves whether or not what we think is correct.
What are we talking about? What is it about which we are talking?
We are talking about what happens when life is lived without any kind of rule or measure. Whatever is out there in the world becomes raw material for us to manipulate and bend to conform to our purposes. And so it is the case with our use of language. Maybe you’ve considered this before or maybe you haven’t, but you can’t actually have any thoughts or ideas without a language to give you the requisite mental raw material for idea-fashioning and thought-crafting. Thoughts and ideas are inextricably bound up with human language, and so each and every mental occurence confronts us with a choice: either our ideas in some way must be made to conform to the measure of human language, or our language must be made to conform to the measure of our ideas. The sin and the needless mental suffering and factionalism in the world is a consequence of our non-intentional use of language, by which I mean: the choice we make (knowingly or unknowingly) to let our ideas become the measure of our language. We speak differently because we think differently. Maybe we need to be thinking differently because we speak differently—that is the claim I am making.
There are two ways, I think, in which our non-intentional use of language cause problems for our personal and social lives. The first way was brilliantly articulated by George Orwell in the 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell’s thesis is that:
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
Orwell’s claim is that a casual and lazy use of the English language damages politics and harms society. He continues:
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier—even quicker, once you have the habit—to say ‘In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that’ than to say ‘I think.’ If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.
The political and social harm caused by our use of language is evident in the worst kind of bureaucratic sentence-crafting that washes away the moral import of our speech:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called ‘pacification.’ Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called ‘transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.’ People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called ‘elimination of unreliable elements.’ Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
The lazy and casual use of language of which Orwell speaks reveals a special kind of non-intentionality: there is sometimes a choice behind our non-intentional speech. We make a choice to use language casually because the casual use of language makes language more manipulable. Language is made to conform to our ideas, and the upside is that our ideas go unchallenged. The abuse of the English language in politics hasn’t gone anywhere in the seventy-seven years since Orwell published his essay. In our time, child-murder is described as a ‘healthcare issue,’ the death and detention of people fleeing political oppression or gut-wrenching, family destroying poverty is described as a matter of ‘responsible immigration policy,’ and in general, the inviolable, given dignity of the human person is reduced by way of language to questions of ‘personal choice, preference, and expression.’
So, there is one way in which our non-intentional use of language causes problems for our personal and social lives. The second way is dearer to my heart, and just as prevalent in our modern discourse—perhaps even more prevalent. Whereas for Orwell, there is some kind of a choice behind the laziness of our speech that allows for all manner of linguistic and moral crimes, in another way it is possible for casual speech to exist free from the taint of volition all together. Our desire, in this second way, is to do no intending at all. We just talk.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an essay in The Raritan Quarterly Review in 1986 entitled On Bullshit, and the essay does a fine job of getting at a second way of using non-intentional speech. Frankfurt, in the essay, goes about the important work of distinguishing bullshit from other speech crimes. What is it, for example, that makes bullshitting different from lying? Do not both the liar and the bullshitter use language to deceive? Is not each concerned with matters of truth and falsity in a way that leads to deception or misrepresentation? Frankfurt admits as much, but finds a distinction in the disposition—the fundamental stance toward reality—of the liar when compared to the bullshitter. He explains that:
This is the crux of the distinction between him [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.
The liar cares about the truth enough to want to conceal the truth. But the bullshitter lacks regard for truth all together. Frankfurt drives home the distinction with perfect clarity:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Frankfurt says that there is no way to know whether or not there is more bullshit spoken in the world today than in ages past. More important to his project is the identification of the causes of bullshit. Why is there so much of it in the world today, regardless of whether or not there is more or less bullshit now than in other epochs of human history? Frankfurt identifies two causes. The first cause reduces to our own discomfort with ignorance. He explains that:
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.
Those words describe our public discourse as well in 2023 as they did in 1986. There are limits to our knowledge, but there are not limits to situations that seemingly require us to have something to say regarding issues about which we are not knowledgeable. What follows from these pressures is lazy, casual speaking. The problem is not that we want to lie or conceal the truth but rather that we don’t care about the truth enough to not say anything. We just talk. There is an apathy in us regarding truth that we much prefer to an apathy regarding to our own social standing (insofar as what we think about ‘the issues’ impacts our social standing). There is also an apathy in use that we prefer to the discomfort that comes from accepting that we cannot know everything. And so, we just talk.
The second cause of bullshit runs a little deeper. Frankfurt talks about a form of skepticism in our lives that impacts our disposition—fundamental stance—toward reality. He explains that:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.
A consequence of some of the more unhelpful ideas to take root in Western consciousness by way of early-modern philosophy, we modern human beings are almost innately oriented toward subjectivity in life. We can’t really know the truth in the way we think. Objective reality, how could one capture it with certainty apart from, maybe, the tools and measures of science? Besides, there are seemingly many truths that conflict: relativism makes sense, because there are just too many cultures and ways of living out there in the world that have some goodness in them to talk about reality with conviction. Maybe we can get at the natural world with some measure of objectivity because of science, but we cannot talk about values without admitting of some amount of doubt. The consequence is that we moderns talk differently because of a foundational skepticism about our access to truth.
Frankfurt continues the line of his argument:
One response to this loss of confidence [about what we can know with certainty] has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
What are we talking about? What is it about which we are talking? We are talking about changing our posture toward reality in a way that impacts our use of language. Language is used to engage with the world—to describe it, make sense of it, capture it with accuracy and conviction. But what if we possess no such access to true knowledge about the world? Well, language suddenly becomes freed from the shackles of objectivity. Now, we can use language as we see fit—instinctively, non-intentionally—to describe with accuracy and conviction what we do ‘know’ with certainty: ourselves. Maybe in ages past, language bound me to a particular way of talking about objective, knowable realities. But in our modern world, riddled with doubts and replete with conflicting and seemingly irresolvable truth claims, the best use of language is casual, lazy, and non-intentional: we just bullshit about what’s going on out there in the world.
So, there you have it: two ways in which our use of language is non-intentional. George Orwell says that we make a choice to use language in a casual fashion. We avoid the hard work of using language to describe reality as it exists, and elect instead to craft bureaucratic, lazily technical sentences that conceal all manner of crimes. Harry Frankfurt says that there is no intention behind our non-intentionality at all. We just talk, sometimes because we feel compelled to offer an opinion about whatever there is that seemingly demands an opinion from us, and sometimes because the only way to use language objectively is to talk about ourselves due to the fact that the world is fundamentally unknowable. In both cases, we are talking about the loss of a rule or measure for our speech: language becomes malleable or functional, not for the sake of better describing reality but rather because there is no standard that binds us to using language a certain way. We just talk.
How can we resolve the problem and push back against our non-intentional use of language? My recommendation is that we each make a New Year’s resolution to never conclude a sentence with a preposition.Or, if you prefer, perhaps we commit ourselves
What am I trying to say? The rules of grammar, especially those we have mostly forgotten, are there to slow us down and make us think about what we are writing or saying. I violate the rules of grammar in many ways. I love starting sentences with conjunctions, and I will sometimes use colons and semicolons and en-dashes and em-dashes however I see fit. The rules of grammar, I think, ought to be flouted for the sake of better writing or better speaking. I am convinced that sentences possess an aesthetic value, which is to say that a sentence can not only be ugly but look ugly, so sometimes rules must go for the sake of beauty. But we need rules in life. Sometime last year, I committed myself to never concluding a sentence with a preposition. Why? I have no idea. The choice of rule was arbitrary. But writing is now a more painstaking, intentional activity for me. Slowly, my speech is catching up to my writing and the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence in conversation is becoming less frequent. Wanting to get the rule right forces me to think, even if only for a moment, before articulating my words. And sometimes, there in those seconds that pass between thought and articulation, I decide to say something different, or to say the same thing differently. There is goodness in the intention.
My thoughts in this essay are playful, but also serious. There is satire, sure, but satire always gets at truths about reality. Several years ago, I asked my professor at Loyola University if we could privately continue with a conversation that began in class. There was more I wanted to say, and much more that I wanted to learn. Later in the afternoon, I joined him in his office and asked him something about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He gave an answer. I pushed back with another question. He sat there in silence . . . one minute . . . two minutes . . . three minutes. I couldn’t take it. And so, I asked him:
“Why aren’t you saying anything?”
“Well,” he told me, “I’m thinking about what you said, and thinking about what I want to say to you.”
I don’t remember what we talked about that afternoon in his office, or what reply he finally gave to my query. But what I do know is that the answer I finally received wasn’t casual, it wasn’t lazy, it was saturated in technical jargon, and it wasn’t bullshit. Whatever we talked about that afternoon, it was a good conversation.
I use the term ‘non-intentional’ with purpose: we aren’t casual with our speech in an ‘unintentional’ way, as if by accident, but rather have made commitment to speaking non-intentionally.
The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition comes from Latin, apparently, and in a fascinating and arbitrary way became a grammatical norm for the English language because of the influence of the 17th century litterateur John Dryden.