Do Words Matter? Redux

The “working woman” controversy continues, with one brave writer getting Hilary Rosen’s back:

Linda Hirshman / Washington Post:

Hilary Rosen was right: Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life. — Beltway pundit Hilary Rosen committed a mortal sin of American politics: She spoke the truth with a microphone on. — “What you have,” she told Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night, “is Mitt Romney running around the country saying …

But the reflexive “Peter and the Crowing Cock” syndrome of the Left continues anyway. And, as usual, the Left refuses to correct the distorted language of the Rightie Blogosmear™, as though words didn’t actually matter at all.

So: Do Words Matter? (Originally appeared in slightly different form 14 January 2011)


Now, let me warn you, however, that I am not going to resolve your dilemma; merely limn it. But, hopefully in words traced in lightning and fire reflected off pools of fresh blood.

Got your attention?


I was listening to the blathersphere, and while the question keeps coming up, it never came up as starkly as in Tom Ashbrook’s “On Point” on NPR this afternoon, when, after the usual blather about whether both sides say mean things and is that equivalent, and whether it’s Sarah Palin’s fault, or the American people’s fault, and should we be talking about gun control laws and mental health laws, and was language really THAT bad? and yes it WAS that bad and so on and so forth and scoobie doobie doo wah.

And the host asked the venerables, “Do words matter?”

And I nearly lost it, but I could not decide whether to roll on the floor in gales of laughter, or trash the room like the drunken country music star showing his angstiness in a standard Hollywood film bio.


National columnists and a “News analyst” (former Canadian newspaper publisher), when confronted with the raison d’etre of their entire existence kind of all put their fingers to their lips and moved them up and down, while expressing a low guttural combined with a manually-activated labial consonant: bibble bibble bibble bibble, mree mree mree.

But soft.

When you are so suffused by language that you make your living by reformulating the language that others have written and spoken or what you have observed on TeeVee (framed and constrained by “commentary” and “analysis”), language is like air conditioner noise. You would only notice its ubiquity through its absence.

In many ways our human lives ARE language. While we live, we constantly adjust, plan, formulate, analyze through language; when we are dead, we are known almost exclusively through language, which, ofttimes, is the mere transcription of gossip.

Gossip: that’s a key concept here.

Because, in essence, language is our gossip about what happens to us.

But we are so infused, so enraptured, so subjugated BY language, that language itself is often what happens to us.

Here’s one: “Your wife is cheating on you with Larry.”

Or, perhaps this: Once I moved to a small Kansas farming town, population officially about 300.

I thought I knew the town, since my dad had been dragging us back in the middle of summer for “vacation” every year for nearly a decade. And every year, my grandma would dutifully send along a copy of the local newspaper, where we would be immortalized in 10 point Roman News as having visited, etcetera, in the odd little “Personals” section that contained such gems as “Mrs. Edith Knockwurst and her daughter Enid were the dinner guests of the Roy Smithers family,” and so on and so forth.

And while I had thought I knew something about the town, I came to understand that if you did not know the “backstory” — the gossip — you did not know anything at all. There was a REASON (known to all in the town) that Blanche DuBoise always sat on the opposite side of the bleachers from Roy Smithers. And all the kids would break into some “tease” of poor Enid that was utterly opaque, did you not know the legendary time that Enid and Roy Smithers, Jr. had been surprised behind the bleachers in third grade. And so forth.

The linguistic underpinnings — the shared oral history — of the small town formed such a huge component of the “reality” of living there that not knowing the endless gripes, feuds, embarrassments and all the rest of it was to NOT live in the town’s reality.

Naif that I was, I was soon educated. But the “reality” of language stuck with me.

Later, in college, I became a reluctant philosophy major, because I felt that I needed to understand the underlying principles of science and of the rhetoric that we were slinging in debate. And as I penetrated the inner sanctum of the philosophy department, they seemed to have gotten off the bus at Wittgenstein, who had turned the binoculars of analysis around on the analytic tool itself, leading to that “language philosophy” school that says, in essence, you can never get the right answers because it is impossible to ask the right questions.

Which seemed rather reductionist to me. I promptly left university and have plied my adult trade as a writer, ever since.

But I have not stopped questioning the power of language, nor its influence in our lives.

Language is not merely a tool; it is THE tool of tools. It is the essential ingredient that allows us to pass on knowledge and experience. It is the basis of all the collective knowledge that creates this magical civilization; that lights our homes and warms our feet, that fills our bellies and softens our mattresses. There are not words to describe just how incredibly important language is; I won’t try.

Because, finally, it is impossible for us to live our lives (as WE know them) without language.

The feral child, beyond a certain age, CANNOT learn language, as scientific investigation has shown. And that human is eternally separated from us, humanity, as surely as a kid arriving in a small town whose language he does not know. But, unlike the kid, the feral child is eternally separated from us in language, as familiar and yet uncomprehending as any pet.

It is an endearing testament to humans’ need for language that we TALK to our pets, to animals, as though they could make any sense of our utterances. Yes, they can comprehend our emotional content, but WE need language to distill it. “I love you, Moxie” is a way to communicate my feeling to my cat, but he can only catch the emotion. My friend Flicka eventually might understand that “Flicka” is our call to the fictional horse character made “real” in our semantic story telling. But Flicka has no clue, nor ever will, what my language is.

If you have been to a country whose native language is incomprehensible to you — like, say, Canada — you understand the tremendous isolation that comes of not knowing the language. How you have become instantly infantilized and dependent on the kindness of strangers, like a lost child.

We “think” in words much, if not all the time. Some hear a constant chatter of voices. Some even hear voices that tell them to do bad things. We constantly communicate with one another through words, and herein lies our eternal dilemma:

We make no distinction between what we “know” experientially (i.e. the brick that fell on your head) and what we have been told (i.e. the brick that fell on Bobby’s head, which we didn’t see, but were told about.)

Which explains the odd dichotomy of the small town: if you did not know the language part, you didn’t actually exist within that world. Oh, your clueless bumblings became part of their tightly-knit semantic universe, but you were NOT PRIVY to that world.

Language so suffuses us that we often veer away from experiential reality into pure semantic reality. Anyone who’s ever had a girlfriend stop the car in the middle of a busy freeway and screech that “We are not going one foot further until we’ve resolved this!” can attest to this fact of semantics.

Our politics is ENTIRELY language. Our law is UTTERLY language: how many instances of the law not written quite right and the criminal getting away scot-free come to mind? Why, only this afternoon, Tom DeLay, having been convicted of breaking the most liberal campaign finance law in the nation, came on Chris Matthews to explain that this was all “just politics.”

Politics is language and language rules our lives. This is akin to saying that it’s “mere reality.”

We fight our battles in a semantic universe, slay our foes with rhetorical flourishes, and condemn our ideological enemies in strident terms.

And herein lies the great dilemma:

The First Amendment fundamentally draws a line in the sand between word and deed.

And we accept this convention for a variety of practical reasons. But there is, indisputably, a necessary connection between word and deed.

Ask any suicide bomber.

Oh. Whoops.

“There is not one scintilla, not one thread connecting the two … actions speak louder than words … deranged … schizophrenic … lone nut … leftist.”

Those are the characterizations whizzing by, as our “On Point” panel is non-plussed by the question “Do words matter?’

I am astonished that we can even be having this conversation. Words matter. In many lives words are the ONLY thing that matters.

Wisely, we draw a line between word and deed: it is perfectly legal to fantasize about strangling your boss with the venetian blinds cord all you want. Knock yourself out. It is only when you actually TRY to strangle your boss that we step in.

The intermediate phase is when you talk about strangling your boss: there, the line between idiotic crazy talk and clear and present danger is not clear. You can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater, or reveal military secrets in time of war.

But there is a point to the endless culture wars about what “horrible” thoughts will rot the minds of our Youth (who, explicitly, do NOT have any free speech rights, nor, for that matter many other rights. Children were considered “property” until fairly recently.)

From J. Fred Wertham’s (successful) jihad against comic books in the mid-1950s to the ’80s and ’90s crusades against rap.

To the question as to whether the toxic — and notably so, sophistries about “duels” in the Nineteenth Century notwithstanding — language being tossed out there is a factor in crazy people shooting other people, the answer is indisputably yes. The Unitarian Church shooter in Nashville, the murder of Dr. Tiller in Wichita, these have definite roots in the language of negation and hatred that is being propagated virtually 24/7 on hate radio around the nation.

Here are some quotes pulled from the Michael Savage show during the “Stop Hate Radio” experiment [emphasis added]:

Top 10 Savage (Weiner) Quotes

He’s been nicknamed “Attila the Tongue” (which he seems to like)

#10 “[Sen. Joe] MCCARTHY WAS A 100% RIGHT…..MCCARTHY WAS A HERO” [MARCH 28, 2002]




[MARCH 28, 2002]





The Enemies Within (10/01)

by Michael Savage

We’ve been focusing on the enemies within, but I will tell you that now that the sleeping giant has been awakened, we can all focus on the enemies without and the enemies within. And believe me we don’t have to look too far. If you’ve been listening to my program they are branding themselves simply by getting up and continuing what they’ve been doing for twenty and thirty years. The fact of the matter is they’ve long hated this country. They’ve long wanted to see it chained. They’ve long wanted to see it fall. The best thing we can do is listen to them; read what they write. Simply if you are a leftist, I certainly never supported any of these people (I’ve attacked them for all the years I’ve been on radio, tryin to warn you about them), but when you hear these vile speeches of the kind we read on my program, what you do is if you are a good liberal you withdraw your support. You don’t go to those churches where you hear it, you stop giving to the phony groups; when you find out that they’re putting a knife into the back of America in our time of need. That’s what you can do as an American. …

4-30-2002 BONUS!

Liberté, Egalité, Debauchereé” [The French] (Big French-bashing afternoon. Evidently ALL French are sexually depraved because of a “swinger’s club” in Paris.)

4-30-2002 BONUS!
“I’m the Mark Twain of radio.”

4-30-2002 BONUS!

I spit on them; I hate their guts [‘degenerate leftists who have ruined this nation’]”

And that’s just a couple months of one show.

We don’t even include this endless Hate Muzak in our current debate because it IS so ubiquitous. Like air conditioner noise, you only notice it when it cuts out. Because we have tuned it out, or else embraced it to the degree that it is an unquestioned “given” in American politics. I wonder what the “talk radio” is like in Tucson, Arizona? A public radio station, no doubt. And no doubt, the Big Three: Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck, probably O’Reilly, and some Phoenix talk show host like “Little Rush,” who just ran a “tea party” campaign in the primary against John McCain, hmm, what was his name? Oh yes: J.D. Hayworth.

So, when I heard Sean Hannity playing his “montage” of “leftist hate speak” (noted a couple days ago) I had to laugh. He couldn’t pull up that many quotes over two DECADES (going back to Hillary Clinton’s “vast right wing conspiracy” quote, which seems less “hate speak” than “accurate” in retrospect).

But, in the kerfuffle, either words DON’T matter (Do words matter? asks the NPR host) or else there’s no connection between the shooter and Sarah Palin, so therefore the HATE SPEAK OF THE LEFT IS THE PROBLEM!!!!


Frank Luntz (who has sold himself to the GOP based on his research into HOW MUCH words matter, framing their arguments for them, using language as a weapon (“Death Tax” instead of “Estate Tax” is one of Frank’s Überworks of contrivance) neatly mousetrapped NPR host Warren Olney into coming back with “examples” of the hate language of the left, right after he takes his latest shipment of semantic claymore mines to the Congressional Republican retreat this weekend. And, he will, undoubtedly, create a false equivalence, because that’s the strategy in all of this: the Left jumped the gun (pun intended) and besides, THEY do it just as much as WE do.

It was akin to watching the Dark Lord himself at work. Olney had to accept the “challenge” and, thus, the argument. Obviously Luntz knows his business, which is why they pay him the big bucks.

By any realistic analysis, it is absurd to pretend that it’s NOT the case that Right wing hate speak has gone over the top since Rush went on the air in ’86, or pump up the Creationist™ meme that the “hate speak” of the left is equivalent to the hate speak of the right. The accepted trope of the utterly gutless (who tend to be more liberal than rightie) is to equate the two, which is the old trick of the sleazy younger brother, who, when his monstrousness is revealed reveals some infraction on your part and a bored parent decides to punish both on the basis of some halfway measure between transgressions.

We fail to rise above the playground.

And, as has been the case for too many years, the bullies rule the merry-go-round.

But words are incredibly important. Which is why we fight over them so much. And base so many of our actions on words alone.

If you don’t believe me about the latter, consider how many Holy Books exist in all lands, and how many people attempt to live according to the precepts laid down in those books, how they study and repeat the words of those books, and describe their experience according to the concepts embodied in those books, as at, say, a funeral.

No one has been to that far country and returned (although this is subject to some controversy) so we base our conception of an afterlife or no afterlife on our Holy books, and our shared conceptions of what happens in that place nobody knows but which all must eventually attend. Words, not knowledge, inform our mourning.

Sadly, as in that small town, we are not conversant with the language of others, which is always a living thing, and changes with time, locale, and, these days, with political party.

We bumbled into Iraq without understanding that there was a vast difference between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslim populations.

We stood, like Alan Bates’ character in Zorba the Greek (the movie, not Nikos Kazantzakis’ luminous novel) wondering why there will be no funeral for the French widow, even though all were Christians. And Anthony Quinn’s Zorba says it’s because she was French Catholic. Bates looks at Zorba, uncomprehending. Exasperated at the young man’s ignorance, Zorba says She crossed herself with four fingers. They cross themselves with three.

OK, here’s the actual dialogue:

There will be no funeral. She was a Frank, she crossed herself with four fingers. The priest will not bury her like everybody else.

Those are the semantic laws that circumscribe our lives. And they are remembered, promulgated, and — usually — enforced through language.

So: is it fair to draw a connection between the current linguistic universe and the attempted assassination of a sitting US Congresswoman, and actual, if inadvertent, assassination of a Federal judge? (And five others?)


Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek (film version)

And, is it correct to conflate “work” as in paid employment (L’Affaire Ann Romney) with “work” as in “raisin’ kids is HARD WORK!”?




Note: The ever-creepy Don Surber decided to take a quote of mine out of context this morning, with the obligatory gratuitous ad hominem. Said quote was then altered by the proprietors of The Moderate Voice, where it was cross-posted, and in retrospect, I can only plead brain-fart for having, in a discussion of the sleaze of taking quotes out of context that forms the red meat of Rightie “analysis” (emphasis on “anal”) … for having provided an easily-taken-out-of-context quote.

I have, on sober reflection, altered said quote, agreeing with TMV’s editors. There is no hypocrisy or recrimination here. Words DO matter, and I chose some of mine poorly. That can be corrected, and HAS been. (I do NOT, however, apologize.) Surber remains the sleazy merchant of hatred, distortion and sophistry that he’s always been. QED.

But, isn’t it odd that, in the face of specious distortions by the Right Wing Smear Machine, that WE are censored and/or — in the case of Ms. Rosen — forced to apologize to those who have no civility, nor would accept such an apology in any case. Do words matter?

Only if they’re spoken by bullies, I guess.


A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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