“A miserable collection of little secrets, that’s all any of us is. ”
~ Guillaume Musso
Paradoxes that arise when words are used solely for the sake of the feelings, they excite, bringing be to a question, ought we to use emotional language, and, if so, how ought we to use it?
Quite a few writers, attempting to avoid both error and chicanery, have apparently come to believe that nothing but the most unemotional language should be employed. Instead of writing (as was said of Oscar Wilde) at the top of their voices, they write in a manner scarcely audible. They permit themselves no rhetorical, no exhortation, not even a faint professorial witticism. A vastneutrality descends upon their prose.
Surely this is the opposite extreme, and no less erroneous. It rests, apparently, upon a belief that since a single word is capable of being neutral, a prose style made up of such words will exhibit a comparable neutrality. It does nothing of this sort. On the contrary, such a style could be accurate in expression only on the assumption that everything we write about the same significance for human life – significance which, the language being neutral, would have to be zero. Absolute neutrality flattens everything: ‘the lone and level sands stretch far away.’
There is, moreover, much doubt whether a neutral style is really attainable. Words, being used by men and only by men, are marvelously mingled with human interests. All attempts to escape this fact by inventing a living vocabulary out of dead languages end by producing a false and odious jargon. Nor is the impractical language of science proof against a similar contagion. Even the odd non-verbal equations of mathematicians and physicists cannot wholly repel the heat of human feeling. Since atomic energy will either benefit mankind or destroy it, and since we cannot predict which of these it will do, an alternating passion of hope and despair suffuses the apparently natural statement, e=mc2. There are, I dare say, even physicists who wish that such a statement had never been formulated.
Well, if a purely neutral language is either impossible or false, and if emotional language is capable of fraud and deceit, what language are we to use? What should be the criterion of the accurate use of words? I think we shall have to say that word is used accurately (1) when its literal meaning does in fact embrace the objects to which the word is applied, and (2) when its emotional character corresponds to the feelings which those same objects, viewed without prejudice, would generally excite. Thus any program which could help us abundance of goods and each and peacefulness of social life is a program which would inevitably excite the approval of most people. The words employed to describe such a program ought therefore be words that will convey the approval of the majority.
By this sort of standard we can at once perceive what falsification results from words like “bureaucracy” “regimentation” “collectivism” “totalitarianism”. When they are applied, as indeed they continually are, to legislation, which is plainly in the public interest, they misrepresent both the nature of the legislation and the emotions they normally arouse. The unfavorable feeling of words supplants the favorable feeling of the thing. The reverse can be achieved by phrases like “private enterprise”, “individual initiative”, “free labor”. As these are commonly used, they forestall an unfavorable reaction to the thing by introducing a favorable reaction to the word/world.
I suppose that the moral in all this is a little platitudinous. With words, as with knowledge generally, there can be no substitute for constant analysis of fact. Unless we school ourselves to avoid that laggard luggage which perpetuates old feelings as it perpetuates old ideas, and to make our speech correspond with fact both in thought and in feeling, the present will always lie just a little beyond our comprehension, and the future will be hopelessly obscure. This problem really falls within the larger problem of how we are to act, not as creatures of impulse and emotion, but as rational men. No one, so far as I know, has improved on Spinoza’s remedy, which was to control emotions by an understanding of them, and of the world.
Such is the fate of words. They are the measures of our ignorance and of our knowledge; they are sources of darkness and of light. But though they are elusive as the breath which bears them, perhaps we may put our faith in this: that men who understand the world will be masters of the words, and men who are masters of the words have rudiments of mastery over the world.