Donald Andrew Henson II

American Babel

In 2012 Election, American Society, Current events, Religion and Society on October 1, 2012 at 12:34 am

Just a short post today about why I started thinking about the Tower of Babel to begin with.

I was amused to find out that the name ‘Babylon’ – ‘Babilli’ in the language of the Akkadians, the builders of the city – means ‘Gate of God’ – but to the Hebrews, it sounded almost exactly like the word for ‘confusion’. This set up a nice little play on words – basically, that your God doesn’t make sense to me.  I put this in the same category as the word ‘barbarian’, the ancient Greek word for those not conversant in Greek. ‘Barbarian’ is an onomatopoeic word – like ‘buzz’ or ‘sizzle’, it is a word that comes from how it sounds. To the Greeks, the Persian language sounded like ‘ba ba, ba ba ba’, so the people who spoke in such a manner became known as ‘barbaros’. The Romans thought the Germans and Celts uncivilized, and called them ‘barbarius’ – pretty close to our English ‘barbarian’.

So it seems there is a pattern of thought established since ancient times – my ideas encapsulate the essence of civilization; your ideas are incoherent drivel. My ideas protect civilization; your ideas will destroy it. My arguments are beautifully constructed and clearly understandable to anyone willing to understand; I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.

When you travel the world, you begin to realize that there is a natural, mutual dislike between many neighboring countries. The English and French can hardly stand each other. Thailand and Cambodia both consider themselves the cultural heirs of Angkor, and each thinks the other is trying to steal their heritage. Japan and China are nearly always on the brink of coming to blows. Russia hates pretty much every former satellite country on her border – and the feeling is mutual.

But how many times has this hatred, distrust, and lack of understanding existed within the same country – as it does in America today?

I’ve traveled through more than two dozen countries, but I’ve never seen anyplace so divided as we are here in the US today. We’ve become a red state / blue state nation. In fact, something appears to be confounding our common language so that we can’t even converse with one another.

If I say ‘anti-abortion’ in one of my posts, someone will let me know that there is no such word – ‘pro-life’ is the correct verbiage. I say ‘expanded Medicare’ or ‘single-payer option’, you say ‘Obamacare’ or ‘socialism’. I say ‘a woman should have a choice’, someone from the other side calls me a ‘baby killer’.

It’s Babel, version 2012.

I’m worried that Americans don’t even speak the same language anymore, and that the fight for what words mean, the rush to define the other side before they can define themselves, these seem to be the only things that matters now in our political discourse. Words are twisted around to mean what they didn’t intend, they are bent to accommodate a certain point of view, or they are coined anew to sugarcoat something that used to be repulsive – much like that ‘Chilean seabass’ that you enjoy at your favorite trendy restaurant is actually known as ‘Patagonian toothfish’ in Chile.

When Paul Ryan says he wants to ‘save’ Medicare, he actually means that he wants to phase it out. Ending a temporary tax break is known as ‘creating a new tax’. Wars are known as ‘incursions’, despicable prisons are called ‘detention camps’. We have entered the Orwellian world of ‘doublespeak’ where whatever we say really means something altogether different from how it sounds.

I’m not sure how we can begin to solve the problems that our country faces if we refuse to even speak the same language.

Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thoughtwrites about a parlor game that Bertrand Russell and his friends used to play involving emotive conjugations. It illustrates how we use words to paint ourselves in the best light possible, while tarring those who disagree with us as best we can.  Russell’s examples:

I am firm; you are obstinate; he’s a pig-headed fool. I have reconsidered; you have changed your mind; he’s gone back on his word.

Or, in Pinker’s more humorous example:

I’m exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous; she is a slut.

This is the sort of Babel that poses for debate in America today. The media, with its insatiable 24-hour demand for content, turns everything into a he-said-she-said circus sideshow, and Americans eat it up as if it were real political discourse.

I thought we Americans were working together in this grand experiment called democracy, building a ‘city on a hill’ a beacon of liberty to the world, a brighter future.

Perhaps God has confused our language?


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