Recently I read a tiny little book called “Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power” by Josef Pieper.
Pieper starts by going all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who really didn’t like the sophists; men who were “smooth talkers” and learned the art of winning an argument. The problem with the sophists is not that they formulated good arguments (since that is laudable) but rather that learning argumentative tactics is all they did. They didn’t care about the actual truth of something; for them it was all about winning the argument. An immediate example that comes to mind is a used car salesman; he could be selling a lemon but can convince someone that it’s a smart buy. His focus is not about truth but about winning (i.e. making the sale).
Pieper said that Plato’s objection to sophistry “could tentatively be summed up in these brief terms: corruption of the word—you are corrupting the language! ….if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted.”
Words convey reality and have an interpersonal character. If words are divorced from reality, then language is corrupted. Since it has an interpersonal character, dialogue also becomes impossible. If truth is not the goal, communication about something like politics simply becomes opinion and what we desire, and the only recourse to get someone to change their mind is power (i.e. violence, force). Without truth as a goal, there can be no dialogue or debate.
For Plato, once language is corrupted—once it becomes disconnected from the roots of reality—“it invariable turns into an instrument of power.” Abuse of language is immediately an abuse of power because truth is not the goal; winning is the goal or getting what we desire is the goal.
This has very Christian support, I think. Jesus is the Word (logos). He is also the Truth. It seems that biblically, words and truth go together in their fullest. Abuse of one become abuse of the other. If truth is not the goal, than the only other option is a sort of Nietzschean “will to power” or “might makes right.”
Pieper talks about our tendency to accept flattery, which he defines as more than simply tickling the ears; it is in having an ulterior motive. Flattery is addressing the other not simply to please him but rather is designed to get something from him. This reduces the other person to an object for manipulation, domination, and/or control.
“Is there still any area of life at all free of it, any corner where I am spared such flattery designed to manipulate me—to make me buy something for instance?”
It’s tough to find, right? Our modern culture, spoon-fed from childhood and weaned on advertisements, has inundated us and made us comfortable with flattery and manipulation and ulterior motives. We now consider it normal.
Pieper then paints an even bleaker picture:
“What the world really wants is flattery, and it does not matter how much of it is a lie; but the world at the same time also wants the right to disguise, so that the fact of being lied to can easily be ignored.”
Can a better explanation of modern politics be given? Or of modern media and journalism?
Finally, I think this line sums up the current situation of modern political discourse (and possibly any discourse) in our modern age that corrupts language and truth.
“For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.”
I highly recommend this book, if for no other reason than to get the little grey cells working and pondering exactly what we believe and why. Is truth what we seek? Or do we simply wish to win and get what we desire?