Universal Translator

Monday, September 5, 2011

Our Evolving Language of War

I caught part of the Diane Rehm Show this morning on my way to pick up some breakfast biscuits.  I think it was a repeat; George McGovern was her guest, and she was asking him about the Open Letter to President Obama that he published in Harper’s last month. 

One small topic that got tossed out for discussion was McGovern’s assertion that we never should have renamed the “War Department” the “Department of Defense.”  I perked up a little when he said that, because I’ve argued the same thing in the past.  According to McGovern, by 1947 the United States had had a “War Department” that had served it well for more than a century, but then some clever public relations person suggested that the name be changed to generate greater public support.  After all, nobody likes the idea of “War” but everybody is in favor of “Defense.”  It made me reflect a little on how language influences our actual thinking.  

My understanding is that scientists have been working for a long time to determine precisely how our capacity for speech evolved, and have debated which came first:   the physical attributes necessary for human speech, or the conceptual ability to process abstract thought.  My understanding is that in the beginning of the inquiry there was a rather sharp divide about this.  Some believed that humans must have first evolved the physical attributes necessary for human speech and that only by making increasingly complex sounds did we subsequently evolve the oversized brains necessary to attach concepts and meaning to these sounds and process the additional information those sounds could be used to convey. 

Conversely, other scientists thought that probably our oversized brains came first, allowing us a greater mastery of conceptual thought (past, present, future, for example) so that we could make plans for coordinated conduct – a useful skill in the hunting of big game, perhaps.  Only then, they argued, would various physical mutations allowing greater verbal communicative abilities be selected for because the more varied sounds those physical mutations could generate would be useful in conveying these complex concepts.

As I understand it today, however, the broad consensus is that our brains and our physical linguistic capabilities seem to have evolved in tandem, each feeding off of the other in a kind of positive feedback, reiterative evolutionary loop.  Which, of course, raises an interesting question as to how our brains perceive and process the world around us now, and whether they can ever really do so without the utilization of linguistic thought.  It is probably the case that language isn’t used merely to communicate ideas, but that ideas themselves simply cannot exist independent of language.

And it almost certainly is the case that the language we use to think about ideas shapes and limits the very ideas we are capable of thinking about.  We see this all the time in science, when words that are routinely used to convey certain ideas get dragged into new areas and forced to serve as stand-ins for concepts to which they do not really apply.  The dual nature of light, for example, which displays both wave-like and particle-like properties.  Clearly neither word is accurate when discussing the quantum nature of light itself, and now scientists are attempting to use the word “wavicle” as a descriptor.  But I’d be willing to bet that when scientists were still referring to “particles of light” or to “waves of light” the very fact they were using words that called up concepts that did not apply to the situation they were actually studying probably impeded their ability to process what it was they were observing.  The language they were using probably hindered their ability to think clearly about the subject of their study.

I have for a long time thought the same thing about our military budget.  I think one of the reasons we have made such a fetish about spending money on our military is because we never refer to it as “war spending” and only occasionally as “military spending.”  Whenever the topic arises during budget debates the default way of framing the issue is to ask whether we should cut or boost “defense spending.”  And, of course, framing it this way only stacks the deck in favor of increasing the military budget.  After all, when someone says they want to reduce “defense spending,” implicit in the use of that phrase is the suggestion that there is someone or something to defend against – that is, that there is someone out there who wants to attack us.  Well, I don’t care for the sound of that!  Maybe we’d better think about boosting our “defense spending.” 

Now in an Ideal World the particular language used wouldn’t make much of a difference when arguing ideas, but we don’t live in an Ideal World and of course the particular language used matters -- especially in political fights.  I don’t know how one would go about measuring this, but I’d be willing to bet that one of the reasons the Democratic party is popularly perceived to be weak on national security is because historically it is the party more inclined to argue in favor of cutting our defense budget, which low-information voters hear as “cutting our defense.”  That sounds bad and kinda weak.  Why would anyone in their right mind want to undercut our defense and open us up to attack?  Better vote for that other guy.

What’s truly maddening about the situation is that – as McGovern relates the story – a simple name change has helped to lock us into a political situation from which now we cannot easily escape.  Renaming the War Department the “Department of Defense” certainly boosted public support for the Pentagon, but it also helped lock us into ever-increasing military spending.  We have become victims of a simple switch in language that now works to prevent us from thinking clearly about the subject we are studying, i.e., how best to allocate public treasure.  We are victims of a PR stunt that succeeded all too well.

Of course, I’m not sure there is anything that can even be done about this now.  “Defense spending” has become too much a part of our political lexicon.  I suppose that if I were counseling a political candidate who wanted to cut military spending I might suggest something simple, like refraining from using the terms “Defense Department” or “defense spending.”  I’d suggest instead that my candidate always refer to “the Pentagon” and the need to cut “the Pentagon’s budget.”  “The Pentagon” has a nicely unsettling, ominous ring to it, and when one thinks of “the Pentagon” one sees in one’s head stock footage of that massive, multi-walled building by the Potomac River that simply screams of mindless, faceless bureaucracy.  Who wants to give more money to that?

Besides, if we were to make the target “the Pentagon” then speeches in favor of cutting military spending get much easier to write:  “The Pentagon is taking too much of our money,” “The Pentagon is wasting our money on $500 hammers,” “The Pentagon gets more of our money than the War Departments of the next 60 countries combined!” (Notice how w“War Department” slips back in with that last one?)

Yeah, that could work.  But I’m not a campaign adviser, and unfortunately I don’t really know of any politician who wants to campaign on cutting back our War Budget.

No comments:

Post a Comment