Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Disconnect...

From time to time, I get to thinking about the power of language, and how different ways of speaking (whether out loud, or in your own head) about something can result in two people perceiving the same thing in diametrically opposite ways. Separately, but related, I'm often struck by the cavalier manner with which people use language. Language, speaking, actually causes and shapes real things in the real world.

Think about JFK promising that, within a decade, we would send a man to the moon, and return him safely to earth. Lofty, yes, but most importantly, much of the technology and materials needed to accomplish that vision did not exist when he spoke it. And we in fact did send man to the moon and return him safely to earth within that decade. That is the power of language to create...

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!!" ...'nuff said.

I got a letter the other day from someone I was close to many, many years ago, sparked, apparently, by my having made a connection request on LinkedIn. The details aren't important, but what's germane to this post is the language in the letter, and how it knocked me back on my heels. I read a fast, hard-hitting synopsis of the last twenty plus years (by the way, I'm paraphrasing a little here, since I don't remember the exact wording, and I threw the letter out)..."I'm Catholic, and I'm pro-life," and "I own firearms" and "I held the son of a friend of mine as he died after being hit with a terrorist IED," along with a lot of pain that's apparently been sitting just below the surface all this time. I got to thinking...


  • Catholic and Pro-Life, own firearms, apparently have been to Iraq or Afghanistan or both. What does "Pro-Life" mean exactly? Pro-all life? Or just one specific kind?
  • Doesn't owning firearms on some level make you pro-death? I mean, they're kind of a single-purpose device, they accomplish exactly the same end as suction or the morning after pill, only by different means. Mind you, I'm not anti-gun...not by any stretch of the imagination. But I'm also acutely aware that I can't (and don't) claim that I'm pro-life if I'm pro-gun!
  • Is a yet-to-be-born life intrinsically more valuable than one that's gone on for 19 or 22 or 25 years? It's ok to kill and be killed in a war fought by a government, but it's murder if it happens in a war between rival gangs? What about a prisoner, convincted in a trial by a jury, whom science later proves was not guilty? (There's a good book called "Picking Cotton" which talks about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in the context of a story of a man who was convicted of rape, and convicted again in a second trial, based on the eyewitness testimony of the victim, and ultimately, DNA evidence proved it wasn't him, but someone who looked very much like him. What if he had been executed?) Why, exactly is one form of killing wrong, and others are right? Seems to me, the dead are still dead, and as far as I know, that's still an irreversible condition.
  • What about embryos? Those which are used become people...those unused are discarded...like garbage...not buried, not given a funeral. Is one life, the other not? Who gets to draw that distinction? The Bush administration drew one, albeit weird and twisted...these embryos were, in fact, life, and so could not be "destroyed" for stem cell research...yet they could be discarded like garbage if not implanted in a uterus and brought to term.
  • Holding someone dying from injuries from an IED...is that qualitatively or otherwise different from holding someone dying from a gunshot wound on the street, or holding someone dying from cancer, or not being able to hold someone who died when the airplane they were on vaporized in the World Trade Center? Is one experience morally superior to the other? Does one give you some bona fides to speak morally that the others do not?
  • In case the pro-choice nuts take solace in what I wrote about what it means to be pro-life, just what the hell does "pro-choice" mean? Yes, I understand the usual exceptions for rape and incest. Life of the mother presents some interesting dilemmas. BUT...the choice was exercised in the instant the decision was made to have unprotected sex. To pretend that there's yet another choice to be had about that decision after it's been made...is hypocrisy. And the idea that somehow or other it is about the woman's choice about what to do with her body completely ignores the fact that there were two involved in creating that life that grows within her...what to do about what two created is not solely the choice of one, is it?? Again, I don't state this like it was handed down on stone tablets...I could be (and maybe am) wrong, from one or more points of view...

Apparently, the letter-writer has also read things I've posted online, like this blog, and made a random comment about, essentially, defending my right to spew my left-wing blather...and how my travels have been to "tourist destinations" while the writer's have been to other, presumably less-pleasurable, destinations. I've traveled extensively in my work, and the effect that has had (and you can get some of this from previous posts I've made here) is that I've realized that the world is way smaller than one might believe, especially if you have remained coccooned within a couple hundred miles of where you were born your entire life. And in an odd way, the more of the world you see, the more you realize what a lunatic fringe radical Islamism is...it would sort of be like judging that the United States is nothing but a bunch of white supremacists because your only exposure to the people of the US is from something you saw about some Aryan group in Idaho. Here again...language can be used in such a cavalier fashion...with such powerful results, positive or negative!

I ...we all... owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to those who've made the choice...the commitment...the sacrifice to join the nation's armed forces, and who are then obligated to go where they are ordered to go, and do what they are ordered to do. But please...don't presume moral superiority over me because you've chosen to go, while I did not, and don't put your choice in my face, because it was your choice...nobody forced that decision on you, nobody made the choice on your behalf.

The decision to go to Iraq and not to pursue bin Laden was a political decision, and I don't accept that had we not gone to Iraq, somehow my freedoms would have been challenged. Nor, frankly, do I accept that my freedoms were in peril when the towers fell. In fact, my government has done more to restrict my freedom since 9/11 than Al Quaeda did. In a perverse way, my government has become Al Quaeda's instrument to undermine the American way of life, and the freedoms we...to my letter writer's point, perhaps...take for granted.

So thank you for your service to our country...sincerely...but our children dying in Iraq is not making me more free or even preserving the freedoms I already had, and that, in my humble opinion, is a far greater crime... Ending the scourge of Nazism and Hitler in WWII, especially because Hitler got so close to achieving his goals...that was a question of preserving our freedoms. Going to war with Japan because they bombed Pearl Harbor...that was a question of preserving our freedoms. Going into Afghanistan to crush Al Quaeda and find bin Laden...that would be about preserving my freedoms...Iraq was a disastrous decision, and mind you, not one I pin on our military, anymore than I blame our military for the fiasco in Vietnam.

One last point about this...the recent stream of revelations about how we tortured people in our custody has made the world considerably less safe for me as an American, and considerably less safe for my children...as Americans, perhaps as future soldiers, sailors, or marines... The game that is ongoing around whether or not it was torture, whether or not what we do can be called torture, even if it resembles in every way the same activities conducted by other governments which we have unequivocally labeled as torture...is really a vile, dangerous game, and is completely about shaping perception with language...attempting, in a very real and concrete way, to change reactions and behavior by changing the speaking about it...

But back to the main reason I began this post...it blows my mind that two people can share an experience (as in the ongoing torture conversation), and yet have completely unrelated perceptions of that experience...or worse still, believe that two separate things took place. It is all about how we choose to talk about it, and how we shape our perceptions, our memories, and our judgments, based on the language we use to describe it.

As for my letter-writer...I can only profess my contrition for unwittingly causing pain, the more because my experience of those events could not possibly have been more different than described...that they were is perplexing...and makes me wonder how I could have "spoken" differently...and why our separate language about the shared experiences could be so different...

4 comments:

Agustín said...

Sir: I trully thank you for your inspiring post. My language is different from yours (I'm a Mexican with a few knowledge on English language) but I think very similar as you do. Sincerely, I read your words as if they were told by a great philosopher.

MS Guy said...

Thank you, Augustin...but I am no philosopher, I am merely a man trying to make sense of the world I live in...

Anonymous said...

I randomly came across your post when i typed in "il dolce far niente" into a search engine. It is 5am here in Sydney, Australia and your post was inspirational. You have captured exactly a moment in history. Thank you

Melissa

Just a guy... said...

Thanks, Melissa. Sydney is one of those "tourist destinations" I've had the pleasure of visiting several times...most recently about seven years ago, which is far, far too long!!