The War on Language by Chris Hedges

by Chris Hedges
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
September 28, 2009

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.


via Truthdig

Copyright © 2009 Truthdig

Chris Hedges is the author of the new book “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

7 thoughts on “The War on Language by Chris Hedges

  1. Oh.. thank you, Sir. But we, Saudi women need more than luck wishes in order to see some light in our gloomy days. We need great “miracles” in a time where miracles became only in poor people’s minds. I have been working for so many years to help women of my country to stand up for their rights and reject to be treated as sub-humans who worth nothing without their male guardians. But most of the Saudi women believe it’s their destiny and they should accept to be humiliated and mistreated. They have been brainwashed deep to the boons, as you qouted in your article “Words may be little doses of arsenic,…They are consumed without being noticed; they seem at first to have no effect, but after a while, indeed, the effect is there.”

    • This is a BRILLIANT article which should be read by tolerant believers of ALL religious faiths.

  2. I’m a writer and women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia.It’s one of the world darkest spots for women to live in. I can relate a lot to this great piece. I know very well the statement “The crowd doesn’t have to know” means. Thank you.

  3. Chris Hedges’ passionate concern lives in the house of understanding. He goes to the source, studies, and reports, leaving references for those of us who have not gone to those same sources. There is no axe being ground in his writing, bur rather, a invitation to readers to “fetch for themselves.”

    This morning I thought, There are three kinds of people in the world: Those who want to dominate; those who want to be dependent; and those who want themselves and others to be creatively responsive. I particularly benefitted by Hedges’ explaining the true meaning of jihad. Every great spiritual writing speaks of the inner “war and peace.”

    I appreciate being re-minded by Hedges, who does a whole lot of studying for us “students.”

    Retired educator,

  4. I don’t know enough about Islam and the Quran to criticize specifically what is written here; however, it would seem to me that the extreme poverty seen in the Middle East would be a better breeding ground for fanatasism than the Christian right. Furthermore, before one address the wrongs in another society or religion, they need to confront the problems in their own belief system and culture.

    The core of the problem here is that everyone seems to be preaching to the choir, except for the corporations which are pitching greed and profit at any cost.

    The intellectual elite in the West have isolated themselves, thus becoming irrelevant.

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