The Way We Speak Now

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN THE SECOND VOLUME of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described one of the most distinctive features he encountered during his nine-month journey across the young and unruly nation. Having sailed from France to survey the American penitentiary system, which was then seen as a model of generosity and benevolence, he disembarked in New York and was immediately surrounded by a thick cloud of talk.

Everywhere he went, Americans were engaged in what he insisted was a distinctly democratic form of speech, trading phrases in frontier boarding houses, arguing in crowded town squares, and inviting each other to take part in commercial, political, and civic associations that were advertised in the more than 900 newspapers that circulated daily across the country.

In addition to inventing new words, Americans also repurposed existing ones. “The first and most frequent strategy used by democratic nations to create innovations of language is to give an unusual meaning to an expression already in current usage,” he explained. Americans would “restore forgotten expressions to their vocabulary” and borrow technical terms from specific groups which they would “introduce into normal usage with a figurative meaning.” This repurposing of words had its advantages and disadvantages, both stemming from how those words were made to take on an ever-expanding range of meanings. “In giving double meanings to a word” Americans “render the original meaning as ambiguous as the newly acquired meaning,” Tocqueville argued.

A writer starts by giving a slight twist to the original meaning of a well-known expression and, after the change, adapts it as best he is able to his purpose. A second turns the meaning in another direction; a third drags it down another track. Since there is no one to arbitrate, no permanent court to give a definite meaning to the word, it wanders about freely. The result is that writers never appear to adhere to a single thought but seem to aim at a knot of ideas, leaving the reader to judge which of them they intend to hit.

Americans still speak the malleable language Tocqueville described.

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No one has been a more incisive observer of the terms Americans use, and the transfers of power they allow, than David Bromwich. A Sterling Professor of English at Yale, Bromwich has for the past four decades been calling our attention both to the ways words shape the concrete features of our society, hardening sentiments into the institutions and norms that govern our lives, and to the role that each of us plays in that process, taking those institutions and norms and, in the act of speaking as such, translating them back into sentiments that we, through the affect-rich act of inflection, can defend, attack, and reform. In Writing Politics: An Anthology, Bromwich has collected nearly 30 essays (the earliest written in 1721, the latest in 1964) that he offers as examples of democratic speech at its turbulent best.

As the title suggests, the selections share a concern with how our language shapes our politics. When read together, one is struck less by the arguments they make than by the approach they share, which involves burrowing below the surface of the commitments we take for granted in our everyday talk, exposing the implications that are buried underneath, and leveraging those implications for political ends.

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As [Michael] Oakeshott explains in his 1951 essay “Political Education,” any political activity that relies on an “independently premeditated ideology” is bound to fail. The better course, he argues, is to recognize that all ideologies are “abstractions” of “some concrete activity” derived from “a traditional manner of behavior” that we already engage in and to draw on the resources that are “intimated” in that behavior.

Bromwich doesn’t shy away from the conservatism of Oakeshott’s premise. While it may seem controversial to contemporary readers, this recommendation has been commonplace on the left for decades. In his 1971 handbook Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics, Michael Walzer, who spent more than 30 years co-editing the progressive magazine Dissent, where Bromwich has also been an occasional contributor, warned, “In general, it is a mistake to take one’s symbols from the avant-garde culture of the time. To do so inevitably turns political action into an elite performance and a kind of esoteric communication.”

Similar warnings were issued in the wake of the 2016 election, with Mark Lilla noting that his fellow liberals have spent decades using “a disuniting rhetoric of difference” that has caused many Americans to become “hostile to the way we speak,” and Marilynne Robinson pushing back against the reliance on “in-group language” borrowed from “post-structuralism” and other academic trends that, however popular they may be on college campuses, fall short of “persuasive speech.”

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King used a similar strategy in better-known passages where he addressed the failings of “white moderates,” the ranks of which reached far beyond the clergymen themselves. Here too, he strengthened his case by evoking a vocabulary that was revered by the group he was addressing. “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” Increasing rhetorical pressure, and reaching for the more loaded terms “law” and “order,” he continues:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Bromwich singles this out for praise. “King spoke with the authority of a native American, claiming the rights due to all Americans, and he evoked the ideals his countrymen often said they wished to live by,” he writes, adding the slow-burning aside: “The stories the nation loved to tell itself took pride in emancipation much more than pride in conquest and domination.”

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Bromwich reveres these figures who broke with the platitude-filled speech of their time holding open a space where individuals could think for themselves. Language occupies the space between passivity and force, using irony to loosen the grip of words that have become stubborn and pathos to recover words the meanings of which have been suppressed.

Bromwich describes reform as a process of “redefinition” that begins when we become aware of a rupture between the words we use and the lives we lead. “The pressure for reform comes from a redefinition of self-respect or sympathy with myself,” he explains. “Some contrast between what I am and what I ought to be startles me and leads to a self-discontent, which then issues in remedy or redress.” It is a visceral, intimate process that plays out in the act of speaking. Before a bill is signed or a law is passed, a deeper change takes place, one discernible in the way a particular word rises in the chest or catches in the throat.

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Bromwich was one of 150 co-signers of the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” that cautioned against the “forces of illiberalism” that were threatening the “free exchange of information and ideas.” While it alluded to Trump, its main target was Woke Twitter and the increasingly popular practice of de-platforming. Reception was mixed, with some, like Michelle Goldberg, agreeing with the letter’s premise that “even sympathetic people will come to resent a left that refuses to make distinctions between deliberate slurs, awkward mistakes and legitimate disagreements,” and others, like Gabrielle Bellot, describing it as “a carefully veiled invitation to use dehumanizing rhetoric under the bastion of the ‘free exchange of ideas.’”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books