Vladimir Shlapentokh

Сентябрь 23, 2009

Sociological observation: The Magic of Word and of Silence

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 10:10 пп

Sociological observation: The Magic of Word and of Silence

Recently, during the hot debate on health reform, the briefly recluse Sarah Palin entered back into the political spotlight with two words: Death Panels. The reference to the government-run panel which would theoretically make life or death decisions for elderly and disabled people, produced an unexpectedly huge impact on the country, and at least for while, became one of the main focuses in the fight between the advocates and adversaries of Obama’s plan to radically change health service in the country.

The impact that the Death Panel had on the country was a perfect example of the power of the uttered word and its ability to change reality. The gravity of words has the most humble of beginnings in John 1:1 where it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Words have also been a major source of philosophical inquiry, possibly inspiring Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Ordinary Language Philosophy. However, it was neither Wittgenstein’s works nor the Bible which made me realize for the first time many years ago the potential of a word’s power, rather it was Aldous Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point (1928). In the novel, one of the protagonists is afraid of developing cancer; however he avoids articulating his fear, because he is confident that if he acknowledges the disease and his vulnerability out loud, he will most certainly die from it. Sarah Palin most assuredly has never read Wittgenstein’s philosophy or Huxley’s classic novel, but nevertheless, she intuitively understands that a single word can change political reality.

Indeed, life and death decisions have been made by doctors, governmental offices, insurance companies, and the drug industry since the emergence of professional health care – and dare I even speak of the decisions regarding euthanasia which are made more and more frequently around the world. All of these institutions, as well as the people who represent them in one way or another, decide every day which patients have the priority to be operated on, which will get a necessary organ to replace a bad one, who will live, and who will die. These same institutions regularly make decisions about what medication can or cannot to be prescribed for a patient, and even how many days he or she can stay in the hospital, which is either dependent on a person’s income, or in most cases, a blanket decision made by the insurance company. In any case, health care is a limited resource which in one or another has to be distributed according to some rules. The former candidate to the vice presidency, as a talented politician, simply found dramatic and lugubrious words to exploit the inevitable fate that awaits every single person, but which the public has so deliberately avoided, much like the hero in Huxley’s novel.

Palin’s words changed, if ever so slightly, reality for many Americans. From the very beginning of the health care debate, liberals tried to persuade the country that Death Panels had nothing to do with real life. However, once those words were uttered, Death Panels, or the more benign “rationing,” became one of the foremost issues in the debates. Even Palin’s fierce enemies, who derogated her phrase only a short time ago, accepted it as one of the leading issues in the debates.

Veritably, each of us is well aware how much the uttered or written word can influence our life. Politicians are particularly eager to change the reality in their favor with their words. The authoritarian regime in particular is a great believer in the power of words, depriving those who even mildly disagree with the leadership to have any access to the public forum. Certainly, the regime shows a high level of sophistication in the manipulation with reality.

From the very beginning of the Soviet regime, the Kremlin has been a virtuoso in the invention of new words, creating both negative and positive words such as Kulak (a rich peasant), class enemy, internationalism, and collectivism, all of which had a major effect on the thoughts and behaviors of the Soviet people. The critics of the Soviet system managed to produce only one word as powerful as the Soviet neologisms — Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. The Soviet leaders manipulated reality by the deletion of words from the public usage as well. For example, the word Jew as descriptor of a Soviet citizen, as well as for people with obvious Jewish names, was almost never used in a positive context in the Soviet media, in movies, and in most novels since World War II. If future historians only had access to information about life in the USSR, they could reasonably come to the conclusion that for one reason or another, Jews had disappeared from Russia after the end of the war with Germany. It would wrong to belittle this important fact. The absence of the word Jew in the public sphere was a signal from the Kremlin to the public about the current anti-Semitic policy in Russia, and was a source of major depression among the millions of the Jews who lived there before the mass emigration in the USSR.

American society, particularly in the last few decades, has also manifested a strong belief in the magic of the words. Take the frenetic efforts of those who have a direct influence on the nation’s political correct movements to replace current words with new ones to label the many types of people. As examples: The N-word was replaced by Black, and then by African-American; The term old people was first replaced by elderly, then by senior, and now even by people in their golden age; Homosexuals have been labeled as gay or queer (though the latter is a term which is only acceptable to be used within the gay community); Midgets are now little people; Invalid was replaced by handicapped for a very long time, however the preferred term is now people with constraints. Of course, the acme in this process of politically correct renaming came with prostitutes, who would now like to be referred to as sexual workers. In recent times, the traditional spousal labels, Wife and Husband, have been replaced by the most ardent admirers of feministic ideology with the term partner, in order to avoid the painful association with the exploitation of females in paternalistic families in the past.

This play with words in America has been ridiculed everywhere in the world. In fact, the change of labels, quite often absurd, has had a benign impact on real life in America, making little difference in how those who are labeled are actually treated. Meanwhile, the impact of the uttered or written word on life is arguable in the United States, where people are either committed advocates of the freedom of speech, or are those who insist on the necessity of some restraint in the verbal activity of people. The first group clearly assumes that the damage done by the restriction of this freedom immensely surpasses any harm which can be done by the words themselves. The second group consistently points to hate speeches as an example which justifies the necessity of censorship.

As private people, we all have to be aware of the magic of words. In fact, in our private lives, each uttered word changes the reality around us, mostly in an imperceptible way, but in some cases our words have very deep repercussions. There is a Russian proverb which says, “A word is not a sparrow, if left in your mouth, you will not catch it,” and a more eloquent English saying which parallels it: “a word spoken is past recalling.” Clearly, both the Russian and English versions insist on the irreversibility of the verbal event, and call upon people to be cautious in all verbal communication. The declaration of love is a perfect example of how words, and nothing more, change radically the relationship between the two people in conversation. We know how easily we can destroy collegial relations, friendships, and even marriage if we dare to utter certain kinds of words, no matter how objective one tries to be. Indeed, the magic of words is countervailed by the magic of silence.

My friends and I were in the USSR in the 1960s, holding tightly to our romantic vision of Western society, when we were flabbergasted to read the formula of happiness offered by Albert Einstein in the early 1900s when he was living in Switzerland and working at the Swiss Patent Office: Happiness = A good job + Good family + The ability to keep mouth shut. We, who understood all too well that only silence – especially if we did not want to outwardly lie — could save us in a totalitarian society, were stupefied that Einstein felt the same way in a free state. Later on when I was in America, I could better understand Einstein’s equation of happiness. The attempt to change the world with words often brings with it a risk in jeopardizing your position in society, and definitely the possibility to deteriorate relations with colleagues if you espouse a different ideology than they do. I have watched with utmost amazement how American graduate students and tenure track instructors strictly follow Einstein’s suggestion and keep silent if they do not agree with the majority. With some bitterness I came to the conclusion that my graduate students in Novosibirsk and Moscow violated the rules of silence in political debates much more often than their American counterparts, even during the years before Perestroika when it was especially dangerous to oppose the mainstream ideology.

Each day, all of us make many dozens of decisions to either say something or to keep silent. In both cases, we change the reality around us with our decision.

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