Rhetoric and Anarchy Part I

“You, masters of nations, have you made yourselves the slaves of the frivolous men you conquered? Do rhetoricians govern you?”

— Rousseau

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre describes a hypothetical cultural upheaval in which the bulk of scientific learning is destroyed at the hands of a skeptical and outraged public. After a period of benighted rebellion, this convulsing society attempts to reconstitute science from surviving fragments. But incomplete comprehension reduces their retrieval to an impotent collection of disjointed insights and empty procedures. “Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all,” MacIntyre writes. “For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.” While they may speak the jargon and even replicate the procedures of empirical inquiry, their failure to weave scientific reasoning into the broader tapestry of human understanding renders their discoveries incomprehensibly alien, disordered and unassimilable. Playing with the relics of a forgotten system, MacIntyre’s primitives grope blindly for a reliable grasp on their world and instead propagate confusion.

This is how MacIntyre characterizes the state of moral theory in the late twentieth century. But his depiction applies equally well to the sorry condition of our civil discourse and the erosion of language that mars public debate. A glance at recent publications by members of the radical left reveals the ways language is morphing into a register of renunciation—the idioms, syntax and diction through which we propound our views on race, gender, politics, and economics are no less disordered than the piecemeal scientific methods of MacIntyre’s chaotic, post-Luddite civilization.

The irony is that a surfeit of scientific respectability, not skepticism, accounts in part for the impoverished state of our rhetoric and reasoning. Whereas in MacIntyre’s account natural calamities prompted the citizenry to reject the scientific canon, our present predicament arose from the cultural ascendency of science. Its dazzling achievements, ironclad techniques and seemingly axiomatic verities threw into stark relief the relative ambiguity of the linguistic arts and cultivated doubts over language’s capacity to communicate meaning. Literary theorists of the last century destabilized the relationship between sign and signified—or words and the things to which they purportedly correspond—and threatened to collapse the entire linguistic edifice upon which we conduct coherent debate. Now these arcane theoretical musings have spilled out onto the streets and into digital thoroughfares crowded with bitter, resentful protestors eager to weaponize doubt in their assault upon longstanding authority. In their hands language has undergone radical revision, and the rules that once governed rhetorical exchanges no longer apply. Zealots of the new orthodoxy decry orderly systems of linguistic significance in favor of deliberately fluid morphologies and transgressive semiotics that obscure rather than illuminate the relationships between human subjects and the world we occupy. Abandoning the old, putatively value-laden and prejudicial grammars that allegedly reinforced oppressive hierarchies, these skeptics of meaning deploy fragments of coherence immune from logical objections. What is unintelligible cannot be refuted, and the very notion of logical invalidation is condemned as illegitimate and coercive.

By now we are all familiar with the recently disgraced description of “Whiteness” promoted by The National Museum of African American History & Culture, but it is a good example of the types of transformation occurring in every corner of society. Among “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness & White Culture in the United States,” the museum’s graphic listed “’The King’s English’ Rules” and “Objective, rational linear thinking,” two conceptual cornerstones of linguistic coherence in Western civilizations. Nietzsche’s famous epigram, “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar” has been reformulated to capture the radical spirit of our times: “We are not rid of patriarchy/hegemony/slavery because we still have faith in grammar.” Under this banner language is everywhere effaced, nullified and conscripted into service as an instrument of insurrection.

A more recent case shows the lengths to which radical critique will go to invalidate perceived threats to group identity, again at the expense of established language norms. When earlier this month a professor at the University of Southern California attempted to offer students an example of how other cultures use language to break up and punctuate speech with pauses, he was condemned by Black students for his purportedly intentional and insensitive use of a Mandarin word with phonetic semblances to a racial epithet. Of paramount importance to the students who filed a formal complaint was the subjective emotional impact of the professor’s utterances, not the independent reality of Mandarin Chinese’s linguistic conventions. The facts no longer matter—emotional resonances fix moral duties.

A best-selling book furnishes an additional example. In idiosyncratic prose seemingly intent on deviating from established literary and journalistic practices (i.e. “Whiteness”), Ibram X. Kendi unmasks and excoriates the many prejudices bound up with familiar Western values and institutions. Recounting how these pernicious influences shaped his youth, Kendi writes, “I thought I was stupid, too dumb for college. Of course, intelligence is as subjective as beauty. But I kept using ‘objective’ standards, like test scores and report cards, to judge myself.” The very idea of objectivity, which Kendi’s use of inverted commas indicates is a fiction, must be banished along with other untimely notions such as beauty and truth. Language, once our principle means of pursuing and sharing knowledge about these guiding ideals, must now abdicate its function as arbiter of standards. All that remains is a mass of undifferentiated, self-justifying perspectives.

Reviewing Kendi’s book for The New Criterion, Anthony Daniels writes, “Perhaps the most interesting question raised by these books is why, when they are so badly written, self-indulgent, and intellectually nugatory, when they are so plainly written in the spirit of what Karl Popper called reinforced dogmatism, they should be so popular among the Western intelligentsia?” Why, indeed?

Much of the blame lies with a group of almost exclusively white academic elites—many of whom I’m comfortable in joining Rousseau in calling frivolous men—who in the last century fueled an onslaught against the linguistic conventions underpinning traditional norms of communication. In The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom identified Deconstruction as a corrosive ideology that challenges our faith in the capacity of literature, and therefore language, to capture and relay truth. “[I]t is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy,” he wrote. “The interpreter’s creative activity is more important than the text; there is no text, only interpretation.”

A characteristic remark from a practitioner of this school of thought confirms Bloom’s assessment. Theorist Geoffrey Hartman writes, “Deconstruction, as it has come to be called, refuses to identify the force of literature with any concept of embodied meaning and shows how deeply such logocentric or incarnationist perspectives have influenced the way we think about art. We assume that, by the miracle of art, the ‘presence of the word’ is equivalent to the presence of meaning. But the opposite can also be urged, that the word carries with it a certain absence or indeterminacy of meaning.” According to Deconstruction, language is infinitely malleable and multivalent, bearing only subjective meaning. Is it any wonder that national museums condemn rigorous linguistic conventions as arbitrary products of “Whiteness?” The arbiter of meaning maintains control over society; the hermeneut is sovereign, and the only recourse open to the oppressed is to vitiate dominant language habits and supplant them with alternative customs that advance marginalized tribal interests.

Literary theorists in the academy aided and abetted today’s cultural revolutionaries by providing theoretical license to reduce the norms of Western civilization to prejudicial “texts” subject to endless revision and reinterpretation. But what conditions account for the emergence of Deconstruction and the consequent disarray of language and logic? What about the state of the western world during the last quarter of the twentieth century invited such disastrous theoretical abuses?

In part II, we’ll turn to Rousseau to help us examine why our critical impulses sometimes function to undermine the needs of the polity rather than reaffirm values indispensable to its prosperity.

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