The gift and curse of language
It separates us from the animals – and the angels
Words are at once indispensable and fatal,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his 1952 non-fiction novel The Devils of Loudun. Ostensibly it tells a juicy story of demonic possession alongside religious and sexual obsession in 17th-century France, but it is also an exploration of the immutability of the human condition across the ages. This includes how language has proven “the instrument of man’s progress out of animality, and language is the cause of man’s deviation from animal innocence and animal conformity to the nature of things into madness and diabolism”.
Talking and tweeting all day makes it easy to forget the heavenly and diabolical powers of language. Despite the frailty of the human body and its physical disadvantages compared to other animals — we cannot breathe underwater, fly or bear extremes of temperature — our ability to communicate and coalesce into organising groups has given the human race an extraordinary evolutionary advantage.
“We have bent the environment to our will, created vast civilisations, explored other planets, and unlocked the secrets of the universe,” clinical psychologists Richard Bennett and Joseph E. Oliver say of the interplay between language and cognition in their co-authored book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques. “The power, flexibility, and creativity that language has given us is amazing.”
At the same time, however, they highlight that alongside this stunning leveraging power, “there is also a sense in which language has worked against us and constrained our species in ways that other animals are not constrained”.
They give the example of how when a person says to themselves that they are worthless it will likely “narrow their behavioural repertoire significantly”, as “there will be numerous opportunities they will rule out, risks they will not take, and things they will consider beyond themselves”. Alongside the inevitable accompanying lack of confidence, they describe the thought “I am worthless” as sitting in the driving seat and limiting behaviour in harmful ways.
It’s one example of how human language exerts an enormous degree of control over personal behaviour and how we view our world. The dynamic only gets stronger over time, Bennett and Oliver explain, for “as we mature, we increasingly engage with our environment, not directly as it is, but through the filter of what our language and cognition tells us it is”.
Water buffalo don’t worry about what the future may hold
Avoiding this process is extremely difficult. One consequence is that humans struggle to stay in the present and instead constantly ruminate and worry in a way that other animals aren’t saddled with. That’s why zebras don’t get ulcers, Bennett and Oliver note, in reference to Stanford University biologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s 2004 book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, which unpacks how human stress causes or intensifies a range of physical and mental afflictions. Animals, in contrast, stick to resolving conflict through the simple fight-or-flight mechanism. It means lions don’t end up dwelling on past mistakes and water buffalo don’t worry about what the future may hold. “Their awareness is firmly in the here and now,” Bennett and Oliver say.
Beyond how language use can backfire at the personal and internal level, its gift is often abused in the public realm, which takes us back to Huxley’s concerns.
“Moralists harp on the duty of controlling the passions; and of course they are right to do so,” Huxley says. “Unhappily most of them have failed to harp on the no less essential duty of controlling words and the reasoning based upon them…far more dangerous than crimes of passion are the crimes of idealism — the crimes which are instigated, fostered and moralized by hallowed words.”
Word-based propositions about the world, when respected as working hypotheses, Huxley explains, provide “instruments, by means of which we are enabled progressively to understand the world”. But when “treated as absolute truths, as dogmas to be swallowed, as idols to be worshipped, propositions about the world distort our vision of reality and lead us into all kinds of inappropriate behaviour”.
Those literal witch hunts are an example, along with the heretics burned at the stake during former centuries. Humans are just as susceptible to succumbing to this vision distortion today; it’s only the context that’s changed.
“In the past, the words which dictated the crimes of idealism were predominantly religious; now they are predominantly political,” Huxley says. “The dogmas are no longer metaphysical, but positivistic and ideological.”
The resulting type of humanistic religious system in which laws and their operation derive validity solely from having been enacted by authority — regardless of moral or metaphysical considerations — or of deriving logically from existing decisions, is having a real runout at the moment: from the compound interest of Covid-19 strictures delivering the next new set of bylaws, to the cancel culture and illiberalism sweeping through academia.
We might be living through “a new Dark Ages of superstition”
In a recent Atlantic article, Even Trigger Warning Is Now Off-Limits, John McWhorter writes about the latest “oppressive language list” released by Brandeis University’s Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center (PARC), which recommends words to be avoided. The injunctions range from not referring to anyone as African-American unless given permission, because, as PARC explains, “for Black folks born in the United States, hyphenating their identity can be interpreted as othering”; to avoiding calling things crazy or insane, as that could upset people with actual psychological problems.
McWhorter says that while it’s easy to dismiss this as just a random advisory pamphlet from one earnest department at an American university, it is significant because two decades ago, such a pamphlet would “have been much less likely to contain advice so counterintuitive to ordinary perception”. Furthermore, it could “easily have come from innumerable other advocacy groups, university bureaucracies, or corporate human-resources offices”.
The list is, McWhorter says, “a sign of our times, in which language policing has reached a near fever pitch, out of a sense that labeling common terms and expressions as ‘problematic’—that is, blasphemous—is essential to changing society”.
No longer in thrall to religion and its priestly arbiters, our post-Christian society needs a new Blasphemy through which to judge and persecute the new heretics. Increasingly, words and language use are blaspheming to those adhering to the likes of identity politics and critical theory.
In the latest Critic podcast, Josephine Bartosch talks with Helen Joyce about her new book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality and the rise of trans and gender identity ideology. It’s getting closer to influencing UK government policy on passports, as has already happened in other countries. Bartosch considers whether we might be living through “a new Dark Ages of superstition”, given the specious arguments being pitted by some against millions of years of mammalian existence to the contrary.
It’s a point that chimes with what Huxley counselled on in The Devils of Loudun: “The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.”
Humans do like their Inquisitions, no matter the age. Increasingly the irreligious activists of today are just as, if not more, religious in manner than the religious zealots of old, as they strive to create a heavenly kingdom on earth—though they are way off in their methods, according to Huxley.
“The Fact must be approached through the facts; it cannot be known by means of words, or by means of phantasies inspired by words,” Huxley says. “And it cannot come even on earth, so long as we persist in living, not on the earth as it is actually given, but as it appears to an ego obsessed by the idea of separateness, by cravings and abhorrences, by compensatory phantasies and ready-made propositions about the nature of things.”
Amen to that. Or should that be Awomen.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe