Monday, July 23, 2012

Stretching concepts

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell seems to imply that we should only use nouns that refer to some concrete particular. "The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness," he complains. He also offers this interesting advice:
In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.
Getting one's meaning clear without using words sounds problematic to me, but the general idea here seems right. To speak the truth, or to speak honestly, or to speak realistically, or to avoid humbug, bullshit, and sheer thoughtlessness, it is important to focus attention on objects and experiences, not on preformed phrases and expressions.

One danger of this approach is that it might seem to rule out talk of non-concrete things: God, ethics, aesthetics, etc. Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics could be read as a kind of reductio of this way of thinking, or rather, one could try to read it that way as an exercise that (I think) might have some value. In other words, it is worth thinking about whether Wittgenstein contradicts Orwell.

I don't think he really does, although of course he might not agree with every point or with Orwell's way of making certain points. (Orwell himself thinks it likely that some of his essay is badly put.) After all, one of Orwell's rules is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." So if following his advice seems to lead to barbarism--and I take it that amoralism and philistinism are forms of barbarism--then  his advice has been misunderstood. But talk to do with values should be conducted carefully, precisely because of the values involved, and so perhaps should be carried on with a sense that one is, if not transgressing, on dangerous ground. Orwell says at the end of his essay:
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.
He doesn't say (at least not here) what the literary use of language is, but he makes it clear that he is concerned with expressing thought. Talk of abstractions is not necessarily meaningless, but should be engaged in only as something like a last resort. Wittgenstein might agree, although his main point is not this so much as that if we "talk ethics" then we will not be dealing in facts that add to anyone's knowledge. A different use of language is involved.

Does this use of language perhaps show something about the world even if it cannot say it? Yes and no, according to Wittgenstein. He says:
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it. [My emphasis]
He implies that there is such a thing as what ethics says, even though what it says does not add to our knowledge. And what it says, whatever that might be, shows something. Not something about the non-human world, though, but about us: it is a document (a Schein?) of a human tendency. Does it also say something about this tendency? No. Wittgenstein rejects the idea that by such words we don't mean nonsense. The inference seems to be invited that what we mean is nonsense. But then we surely don't mean anything. It's as if Wittgenstein is playing with us or making fun, but it's about as clear as it could be that he isn't joking. What he wants to convey above all, apparently, is that ethical talk and writing is not descriptive of facts. It is, in short, precisely the kind of language that Orwell thinks we should be extra careful with, and perhaps avoid if possible. (Which is not to say that it is always possible to avoid it.) If we do feel the need to use it, we should proceed with caution. 

I've probably said all of this before, but in the last couple of days I've come across two examples of what seem like misuses of ethical talk, and I want to try to comment on them in a kind of Orwellian-Wittgensteinian spirit. (Or is the idea that there is a spirit or idea that they have in common itself an example of stretching meanings carelessly?) One is the accusation of racism leveled against Rio Ferdinand for calling Ashley Cole a choc ice. The other is the suggestion by Susan Elkin that teaching creationism is a form of child abuse. [Warning: I have made a point of not censoring swear words and racist language in what follows.]  

Here's what I take to be the gist of the Ferdinand story. His brother was allegedly racially abused during a football/soccer match by John Terry. There is video (but no audio) of Terry appearing to say the words "black cunt" to Anton Ferdinand. Apparently his (successful) defence was to insist that these words were preceded by something along the lines of "No, I did not call you a..." There is no video evidence for or against this claim, it seems. (Actually, the video here appears to show Terry saying very little more than "Hey! Hey! You fucking black cunt," which I would have thought was pretty conclusive. But he has been found not guilty.) Ashley Cole, also black, defended Terry, which was followed by someone tweeting that Cole is a "choc ice," i.e. brown on the outside but white inside. Rio Ferdinand responded with: “I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic hahahahahahahha!” This is being taken by some people as a claim that Cole is a "race traitor" and therefore an act of racism on Ferdinand's part.

If Terry said what he was alleged to have said, then that was racism. But it seems ludicrous, or worse, to me to apply the same label to Ferdinand's tweet. Why? Both are race-related insults after all. Partly I don't want to give a reason. It seems to me that one case is obviously racist (if it happened) and the other would only ever seem racist after a bit of thought or persuasion. If it is racist at all it is not obviously so. And this difference in obviousness does not need explaining. Indeed, as with jokes, explanations might do more harm than good, making an obvious difference appear un-obvious.

But there is an explanation that can be given. What Terry is alleged to have said treats 'black' as an insult. It is straightforwardly racist. What Ferdinand says treats being black as conferring some special obligation, a duty to oppose white racism. The idea that black people have a special obligation in this regard, one not shared by all people equally, is certainly open to debate. It might even harm black people in some way, by suggesting that racism is more their problem than it is other people's, or by suggesting that one can have special moral burdens just because of the colour of one's skin. But even if such harm is real, it is clearly not intended. Ferdinand's comment was aimed at Ashley Cole, not black people generally. Terry's alleged remark was aimed at Anton Ferdinand, but by its nature it could have been aimed at any black person. This is an obvious and serious difference that is obscured by calling them both racist. Which is a good reason not to call them both racist. And I think anyone trying to speak plainly would not use the same term to describe both remarks, which is a reason to favor plain speaking. 

The same kind of thing could be said about the idea that religious indoctrination and religiously-inspired puritanism in education (e.g. not mentioning sex at all when teaching literature, leading to a 15-year old girl's not understanding what danger soldiers might pose to women whom they were not likely to kill) is a form of child abuse. This kind of thing might be bad for children, and it might be dishonest and therefore willful. But it's a far cry from violent or sexual abuse, or extreme neglect, which is surely what comes to mind when people talk about child abuse normally. 

In each of these cases a case could be made that 'racism' and 'child abuse' are appropriate terms to use, but a case would have to be made. It isn't obvious. And when concepts are stretched to cover a wider array of cases they get thinner and weaker. If we take racism and child abuse seriously, then we ought to be very careful about diluting the relevant concepts. Which is one reason why in matters of value we should stick to the concrete as much as possible. There is more to what Orwell and Wittgenstein say than this, but these strike me as good examples of how language matters to ethics. The Terry case in particular is at the heart of a national debate about racism. His not guilty verdict was bad enough, but if Ferdinand is tried and found guilty of racism it will be even worse.

UPDATE: a Football Association panel has now found Terry guilty.


  1. That passage from Orwell is suggestive of the methods of the school of languages of the Grand Academy of Lagado.

    "The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever. . . . An expedient was therefore offered, 'that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.' . . . I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave." Gulliver's Travels, part 3, chapter 5.

  2. Nice! Thanks.

    To be fair to Orwell, he ends his essay with this:

    "Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs."

    He does have some sense of the absurdity of avoiding all abstraction, this absurdity being connected, I assume, with political need.

    But there are indeed dangers at both ends, the concrete and the abstract. Even if these days, as in Orwell's, the abuses seem to come mostly at the abstract end.

    1. When I said that the abuses these days seem to come mostly at the abstract end I was thinking of the way words like 'fascism' get bandied around. On the other hand, there is also a fashion (or perhaps it's more than that) for reductionism. So I'm not sure where the biggest problem lies.