There are only two types of people. Those who divide people into types of people and those who don’t.
Only those who don’t. Don’t exist.
Ever since Genesis got oddly specific in dividing things into categories, heaven, earth, “grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit,” and the frankly catastrophic decision to allow man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” humans have been obsessed with justifying that supremacy through systematic categorisation.
By the time the Victorians rocked up we thought we’d nailed this categorisation game producing the Dewey Decimal System, Rogets Thesaurus, the Oxford English Dictionary, and most of the research academic institutions that are still providing grants and jobs today.
And every time we find and name something, we can divide it up into ever finer grains and names: from atoms and molecules, genomes and bacterium to the Higgs boson “god particle”; as if we might one day peel back the final layer of the universe’s onion and behold its ultimate secret.
The Victorian mathematician Augustus de Morgan quickly spotted the problem in all this, adapting Jonathan Swift’s couplet:
“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on, While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”
There is a sort of primal superstition behind all this, an ancient belief that may well have inspired homo sapiens to language: once you can name something you somehow have power over it. I helped name all my kids and I can tell you now, it’s not true.
The notion of magic, the sort practiced by Scottish hags, Faust and Harry Potter, is predicated on this power of verbalising. The idea of a spell is that certain words in a certain order have the power to make manifest or, at the very least, summon some slobbering supernatural creature to make it so. It goes against all our rational thinking to suggest that a simple assembly of words, a string of sounds from your voicebox, could bring about something concrete and real. Yet the possibility of this is so ingrained in our imaginations, kids’ magicians try to disempower it with “sizzling sausages” and “Izzy Whizzy Let’s Get Busy” whilst J.K.Rowling used Codum Latinus invocations, rather than anything that sounded like it might possibly have a chance of summoning the devil.
The magical belief that somehow “saying it makes it so” goes beyond art and conjuring, not just in the power of prayer, and “positive visualisation” but in the cold cash of advertising and politics. The phrase du jour post-Brexit was “a period of uncertainty”. Was it any wonder that the Conservatives campaigned for re-election in a direct response to that? “Strong and stable” was their simple substance-free mantra used so monotonously, it was as if simply saying it enough times would make it true. Like “Make America Great Again” it was a phrase full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Of course words can have power as persuasive tools and information carriers, just not in themselves. Great speeches have convinced people to do extraordinary things. Religions are founded on writings, and just the words “Allah Akbar” have been co-opted to strike terror. Jokes, well told, can bring forth involuntary laughter. But even in this world of technology and rationalism a belief persists that you can cut out the middle man as such, the agent of change, and simply affect change with words themselves.
A few years ago, when Islington Council found the end of a Tax Year looming, with some extra budget to spend for a project to improve the community, they canvassed the locals where it would be best invested. Perhaps a kindergarten, towards drug rehab, or a children’s playground? No. The scheme that won was, basically, an incantation. They invested in street signs telling people that they were in the “Neighbourhood” of Islington as if, once stated, it would somehow make it a real neighbourhood where petty crime, graffiti, fly-tipping and the ASBO magnets would magically disappear. Or, as Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments kept repeating, “So it is written, so it shall be done.” Honestly – I’ve been writing for over thirty years and I still can’t get anything done.
But the potentially diabolical power of words is reaching its apotheosis – and words like apotheosis will be the first up against the wall when this revolution comes – thanks to a growing movement to disempower our language.
Half a century ago Jacques Derrida, the French-Algerian deconstructionist philosopher, believed we should strip power from words by pointing out their constantly slippery, endlessly different, meanings. He saw this as a revolutionary act. Because language is, historically, developed by the wealthy, literate, educated classes, Derrida argued, clarity in speech promotes and prolongs the rule of the elite. The many should reject clarity and develop their own gobbledygook. At this point it’d be great to give you a pithy Derridean quote to back this claim up. Unfortunately he practiced what he preached and his writings were somewhere between impenetrable and gibberish. And worse than that, in French.
But basically: words and grammar and the like are them things the elite use to show they’re superior and enchant and entrap us with their spells and suchlike.
Well, against all the odds, Deconstructionism has made it to the mainstream. A populist movement led by no less than the Commander-In-Chief of The United States is stripping away the very point of words by rendering them meaningless. He tirelessly tweets authoritative untruths and a covefe of meaninglessness. After which, his press secretary confirms that he doesn’t mean exactly what he says. His administration constantly assert inconvenient facts are “fake news” and there are always “alternative facts” anyway. You simply can’t rely on words anymore.
Political movements in other countries, wanting to recreate the popularity of such revolutionary linguistic anti-elitism are embracing this paragon of meaningless wordage. So what if a lie appeared on a Brexit battle bus they were only words and what do they mean anyway? We’re not experts and we’ve had enough of them.
Finally, reason has won. That superstitious belief in the power of words – used by the expensively educated, Politically Correct, liberal elite to terrify us plebs – has had its day. This baby can go out with the bathwater. Whatever that means.