Human beings have two ways, generally speaking, of going about the business of living with one another: through speech or violence. One of the comforting stories we tell each other about the modern world is that we have, for the most part, set violence aside. Indeed, one of modernity’s founding myths is that it arose as a rational alternative to the inevitable violence of a religious and unenlightened world. The truth of the matter is more complicated, of course. In any case, we would do well to recall that it was popularly believed at the turn of the twentieth century that western civilization had seen the end of large scale conflict among nations.
Setting to one side the historical validity of modernity’s myths, let us at least acknowledge that a social order grounded in the power of speech is a precarious one. Speech can be powerful, but it is also fragile. It requires hospitable structures and institutions that are able to sustain the possibility of intelligibility, meaning, and action–all of which are necessary in order for a political order premised on the debate and deliberation to exist and flourish. This is why emerging technologies of the word–writing, the printing press, the television, the Internet–always adumbrate profound political and cultural transformations.
A crisis of the word can all too easily become a political crisis. This insight, which we might associate with George Orwell, is, in fact, ancient.
Consider the following: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member,” so wrote, not Orwell but Thucydides in the first half of the fifth century BC. He goes on as follows:
… to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.”
I came across a portion of this paragraph on to separate occasions during the past week or two, first in a tweet and then again while reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics.
The passage, taken from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, speaks with arresting power to our present state of affairs. We should note, however, that what Thucydides is describing is not primarily a situation of pervasive deceitfulness, one in which people knowingly betray the ordinary and commonly accepted meaning of a word. Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.
It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”
It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.