Why do words lose their meaning so quickly? It isn’t difficult to make the case that our language is the most valuable thing we have as a society, and yet, it is noticeable how easy we take it for granted, how loose we become with incredibly important words. Its human nature to take things for granted but when language enters this grey area its a sign the word has lost any intelligible objective meaning.
In the last stanza of Friedrich von Schiller’s immortal poem, ‘The Gods of Greece,’ the Romantic poet laments the passing of mythos, the demise of the old gods, and their replacement by logos, the gods of science and reason:
“Yes, home they went, and all things beautiful,
All things high they took with them,
All colours, all the sounds of life,
And for us remained only the de-souled Word.
Torn out of the time-flood, they hover,
Saved, on the heights of Pindus.
What shall live immortal in song
In life is bound to go under.”
Mythos was truth, it was beauty and wisdom; the numinous and the transcendent: all the delightful and sensuous excitements and experiences of nature and spirit. The Greek word logos holds a variety of meanings. It can mean ‘argument,’ ‘principle,’ ‘formula,’ ‘account,’ ‘reason,’ among others, but in the heart and mind of Schiller, the revolutionary demise of the mythic world for a world of rationality and reason, of unfettered scientific inquiry and doubt, logos, was a disaster. Why climb Pindus only to look down upon a barren and empty landscape? – even the Aspropotamos valley or Vikos Gorge appears ugly, twisted and grey.
But alas all things wither and die, the immortal gods included. All words are subject to the same fate for the same reason. The subtle oscillations in meaning and the unavoidable collision that all words have with reality as the pressures of time, passing memories, revolutions in culture and material advance gradually, but inevitably, destroy them. Some people stubbornly cling on, becoming old, outdated and irrelevant curmudgeons in the process. Some see the cold light of day and get on with their lives. The world is full of interesting and uninteresting people; mostly the latter.
Shall we explore the demise of another word, one perhaps much closer to your heart and fondest childhood memories? Shall I make you feel as Schiller once felt? It’s my intention to do so. What is god but a word full of man-made intentions and laws, of mysticism and fable, of man-made ethics and vulgar morals? To the east he is empire, in the west he’s a popinjay. Nietzsche’s “madman” has surely been vindicated.
“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” opens Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Parable of the Madman.
“As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.”
“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?” … “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” the madman weeps – relics for the comedian and the historian.
The madman was right, we have killed god. Do the murderers conceal their guilt? Do they secretly weep for redemption for their crime? They were happy to butcher him. Indeed, they were right to kill the tyrant. We don’t know who the murderers were or where they came from but we do know what weapon the killers wielded – that insatiable and incurable desire to conquer uncertainty. Nothing can stop it. It’s still soaked with sweat and blood.
In truth, it’s our progress that has rendered the fatherly dictator obsolete or meaningless. Modernity is all that remains – sloppy moral relativism, humanism, globalization, the supremacy of science and uncertainty. The old Marxist can write of things he misses, or of things he’s aware are missing, but deep down he knows, like the world of mythos and logos, the revolutionaries won, and with that victory died the word and all that it meant or ever did mean.
Perhaps that’s why the old Marxist loathes himself and hates the very air he breathes. I’m not suggesting he longs for god but when the Christian world collapsed it was not bequeathed to him. Nothing has come of his revolution except abject failure. But has he admitted defeat? Has he admitted he was wrong? He rejected the honourable and noble exit. Instead, he has turned inwards on himself, on the free city, in the most masochistic and spiteful spirit. Decay is his revolution, lying to students and the young is his victory.
I understand and sympathize with you if you feel or have the impression that very little of what I’ve been writing up to this point has been written in plain English. I take no pleasure myself in breaking Orwell’s rule, but it was unavoidable. You’re also probably wondering when I’ll get to the main point and tell you why I think racism is a meaningless word today.
It will come briefly but I believe it is necessary that I open with a disclaimer because I thoroughly wish to avoid inciting the wrath and fury of the social justice enforcers. I’m not suggesting that racism is a feature of a past civilization or has gone so far down the rabbit hole its vestigial remnants are confined pretty much to faceless Twitter accounts. That would be foolish.
But as someone who’s been spending a lot of time lately studying the civil rights movement and reading the books and letters of men like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Glenn C. Loury, Thomas Sowell, and many others, the word racism in its present form is almost certainly meaningless.
There’s a very simple test to determine if a word has truly lost all objective meaning. It comes from Orwell in an essay he wrote for Tribune in the closing years of the Second World War, titled “What is Fascism?”. All one has to do is ask how the word is being used. Not even Orwell could come to a satisfactory conclusion on what the word meant. In fact, he declared it meaningless and for very good reasons. Conservatives were fascists. Socialists were fascists. The ultra-left habitually accused the labour parties of secretly being in league with fascists. The Catholic Church, the antiwar movement, nationalists of all stripes were regarded as having pro-fascist sentiments. In other words, the word ‘fascist’ had no discernible or intelligible boundaries.
“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more widely than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else,” said Orwell.
The best Orwell could do, partly because he believed the word had some meaning, was “something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, antiliberal and anti-working class,” roughly synonymous with the word bully.
But the ugliness of fascism and racism are different in this one important respect. Fascism was an idea, a political movement that Russian socialism and the western democracies crushed. Racism is a fault of the human condition, a consequence of a poorly evolved primate species. It isn’t an ideology or a symptom of poverty. Take a quick look at the infographic map by Max Fisher who compiled data from a 2013 World Values Survey on the world’s least racially tolerant societies and you’ll understand that racism remanis a global scourge.
However, like fascism, racism can have almost as many meanings and targets as one likes. In class, I have frequently heard it argued that capitalism is predisposed to fostering and sustaining racial animosities – that an economic system constructed on the free exchange of goods and services, on the exploitation of the working class as our cheery old Marxist friend reminds us, richly rewards the bourgeoisie when he and increasingly she can divide us along racial lines. But this banal anti-intellectual thinking isn’t new.
Criticism of religion is the new battleground. It’s quite common now for people on the left to level anyone who criticizes Islam as racist and mentally unfit for polite company. The left’s allegiance with militant Islam is no secret today and you know of what word I’m referring to: Islamophobia. The late essayist and author Christopher Hitchens described it as a word “created by fascists, used by cowards, to manipulate morons”. The Liberal-Democrat and former Islamist Majid Nawaz said its purpose is militant, a weapon used not only to silence but to kill dissenting liberal and feminist voices. It’s quite chilling that criticism of religion has now acquired the vituperation once reserved for racism, ethnic hatred and hatred of the other.
The antiwar movement, the peace movement, whatever one wishes to call it, gives us another nasty example of how words lose their meaning so quickly. Do you remember those signs and shouts that could be heard a few years back in the streets of Toronto, London, New York and elsewhere that “We’re all Hezbollah Now!”? I’m still waiting to hear a retraction from the peace movement on that but from this crowd we get the charge that is common across every college campus in North America that Israel is inherently driven by genocidal racist intentions. I recommend the essays of historian Leszek Kolakowski, Christopher Hitchens, and journalists Tarek Fatah and Nick Cohen as good sources to understand this phenomena of how the anti-Semitism of the Catholic right has migrated into the heads of the fashionable left but I raise it if only to point out an example of how a word like racism has lost its meaning.
I have only dealt with an extremely small number of cases but the above I think represents the worst of the bunch. I could have brought up examples like our very own Human Rights Commissions who have used the argument in one case that although they could not uncover evidence of ethnic bias, the person in question may have been acting on unconscious unrealized racist sentiments for their behaviour. I could have addressed the accusation that all conservatives are racist and equally although less common accusation that all progressives are racist. An entire book could be devoted to discussing the question of whether or not the United States is racist.
While I think my argument stands that racism today has lost all objective meaning, nonetheless, an attempt at a definition is still worthwhile. We can think of it as a sort of Birmingham Injunction – that anyone who judges another by the colour of their skin or justifies a racial consciousness can be bracketed off in the category of racist. The first part is straightforward and has already entered the unfortunate realm of overused clichés, the second part is far more difficult to grasp and offers more challenges than I can name for the people who recklessly and carelessly use the word.