War of Words 

For centuries, those attempting to manipulate the public conscience have understood that appealing to emotions or instincts is far more effective than appealing to intellect. The advertising industry makes a fortune each year manipulating the audience’s emotions to sell everything from coffee and toothpaste, to candidates for all levels of public office. In his review of Mein Kampf, George Orwell points out that Hitler won the hearts and minds of his people by appealing to their inherent need for struggle and sacrifice to return Germany to its former glory. In the old South, those in power recognized that poor blacks and whites had more in common with one another than with the wealthy and greatly out-numbered elite, and cultivated the myth of white supremacy to keep the races from establishing common ground. It didn’t change the status of poor whites — they were still just as oppressed and exploited as before — but it made them feel superior and that served the purpose of the ruling elite.

Today, we have an entire mass market industry dedicated to keeping people ignorant, uninformed, and conditioned to follow predetermined prompts to react, either by consuming certain products, voting for candidates with narrow ideologies, or expressing outrage in other, less potent forms, such as meaningless polls, petitions, or public demonstrations. It’s ironic that a large portion of the people who failed to vote in 2014 instead spent their time and efforts creating Internet memes or filing online petitions, none of which have any demonstrable effect on the process while ignoring a guaranteed method of effecting change through the ballot box. The media is of little assistance, on one hand telling us how important it is to vote, all the while dismissing candidates as unelectable due to lack of party allegiance, or by skewing elections with endless polls and analysis favoring a particular candidate. The modern mass media is, in fact, the fulfillment of Orwell’s worst nightmare, as outlined in his work Politics and the English Language, making lies sound truthful, murder respectable, and giving an appearance of solidity to the wind.

In this environment, words become almost meaningless and knowledge becomes a commodity to be traded for political advantage. Everyone claims exclusive access to “the truth” and barters this knowledge in exchange for unceasing devotion to a cause or candidate. People feel marginalized and latch on to the person or group who best assigns blame for the cause of those feelings. The result is increasing polarization as each group fights to promote its version of the “real” story. This situation is nothing new. Most “revealed” religions begin with an individual or group claiming some sort of “divine” inspiration, then offering to share it in exchange for followers. Make no mistake, all religions are political, and those that do the best job of adapting their message to the needs of the power elite are often the ones which become prominent in society regardless of how truthful they are.

The Gnostics, who were the chief rivals to the emerging Christian church in the second and third centuries of the Christian era, believed humans were trapped in their earthly bodies, and it was only through specialized knowledge or gnosis that they could escape. Christian Gnostics believed that Jesus had supplied such knowledge through secret teachings to his closest followers. Jesus himself is quoted in the Gospels as saying that he speaks in parables to the masses and reveals the true meaning only to his inner circle of disciples. Many of the Gnostic texts which managed to survive are allegorical and couched in paradoxical language that would seem confusing to someone not familiar with how to read it. To the uneducated masses, the simple and adaptable message of the Christian Church was much easier to understand than the complicated word play of the Gnostics, and those who were initiated into the mysteries felt no need to share their secret insights with an unreceptive audience.

Much of the writing of the Gnostics was dismissed as heretical by the early Church and destroyed after the Catholic Church won the battle for primacy in the West, though remnants found their way into the Christian canon, notably in the Gospel of John and the Apocalypse or Revelation of John (“I am Alpha and Omega; the first and the last”). One might suggest that because the Catholic Church survived and the Gnostics didn’t, the Church’s beliefs must have been right, but it’s equally true to observe that it’s easier for a given set of beliefs to survive with the force of an empire behind it. The fact that the rise of Christianity yielded two official churches, the Orthodox Church in the East and the Catholic Church in the West, each with its own orthodoxy and interpretation of the Bible, demonstrates that there was not unanimous agreement on the truth, even after the Gnostics had been eliminated.

In today’s society, an increasingly marginalized population finds many avenues by which to vent their anger and frustration, some more appropriate than others. One such area is the English-only movement which seeks to establish English as the official language of the United States and to require all newcomers to learn English as part of their paths to citizenship. More extreme elements of this movement want to prohibit those whose first language isn’t English from being able to speak another language in public. These notions totally ignore the reality that, South of our borders and in our commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Spanish is the predominant language, and North of us is a large province which speaks French. Canada is a bilingual nation and hasn’t suffered by being thus. To combat the idea that we should adopt a single language as our official tongue, appealing to the altruism of those demanding this change is useless. In fact, one of the arguments is that they should not have to learn another language simply to accommodate newcomers.

Perhaps a better way to convince someone of the advantages of being bilingual would be to appeal to his or her selfish nature and the need people have for specialized insight. Rather than making it about accommodating someone else, the altruistic goal, we should frame the argument in terms of giving the individual an edge over another person. Children are more likely to be convinced by an appeal to their need for fairness and helping others, but their parents, who vote for the politicians who regularly vote against language studies and other “non-essential” programs like music and theatre in schools, would need to be better acquainted with the advantages they and their children can gain from such studies. It should be stressed that it’s easier and quicker to learn a new language than it would be for legislation to churn its way through the mechanism of government, given the many hurdles it would face, plus those who have this advantage would be able to spring it on some unsuspecting foreigner at any moment. Presumably, at some point, the joy of being able to communicate will override the selfish need to spy on another conversation.

Words have always been used to achieve political ends, and the more obscure the presentation, the less likely individuals are to become engaged. The result is a population that’s alienated, marginalized, and disconnected to the functions of society. So far, our “leaders”, who greatly benefit from this state of affairs, have shown little inclination to change. It’s time to turn the tide and demand more from those who are supposed to be protecting our interests. With a little ingenuity and resourcefulness, we can win this war of words.

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