There is a scene in “Othello” when the Moor is so consumed by jealousy and rage that he loses the eloquence and poetry that make him the most articulate man in Venice. He turns to the audience, shortly before he murders Desdemona, and sputters, “Goats and monkeys!” Othello fell prey to wild self-delusion and unchecked rage, and his words became captive to hollow clichés. The debasement of language, which Shakespeare understood was a prelude to violence, is the curse of modernity. We have stopped communicating, even with ourselves. And the consequences will be as extreme as in the Shakespearean tragedy.
Those who seek to dominate our behavior first seek to dominate our speech. They seek to obscure meaning. They make war on language. And the English- and Arabic-speaking worlds are each beset with a similar assault on language. The graffiti on the mud walls of Gaza that calls for holy war or the crude rants of Islamic militants are expressed in a simplified, impoverished form of Arabic. This is not the classical language of 1,500 years of science, poetry and philosophy. It is an argot of clichés, distorted Quranic verses and slogans. This Arabic is no more comprehensible to the literate in the Arab world than the carnival barking that pollutes our airwaves is comprehensible to our literate classes. The reduction of popular discourse to banalities, exacerbated by the elite’s retreat into obscure, specialized jargon, creates internal walls that thwart real communication. This breakdown in language makes reflection and debate impossible. It transforms foreign cultures, which we lack the capacity to investigate, into reversed images of ourselves. If we represent virtue, progress and justice, as our clichés constantly assure us, then the Arabs, or the Iranians, or anyone else we deem hostile, represent evil, backwardness and injustice. An impoverished language solidifies a binary world and renders us children with weapons.
Copyright © 2009 Truthdig
Chris Hedges is the author of the new book “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”