Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric
California State University, Sacramento
I recently bought some frosted toaster pastries that were boldly described as “ORGANIC!” on the box. The same store was selling organic chocolate flavored syrup. Organic frosted toaster pastries? Organic chocolate flavored syrup? I’m pretty sure this means civilization is winding down. Nothing wrong with that. It’s been a good run. Though, you know, if we could squeeze a few more decades out of the process, I would appreciate that, for the sake of my kids. But how?
Well, if we want to save our democracies, we need to get a good bit more conservative—and I’m not talking politics here—about our language. You cannot spend 60 years telling people (as the field of communication studies has been telling people) that social order is a linguistic construct woven by the self-interest of power elites, and then feign moral shock when people act as if words are merely tools for wielding self-interested power. If social reality is a linguistic construct, on what grounds does one object to state propaganda and blatant lies which are, after all, simply an alternative linguistic construct? All language, under the assumption that social reality is linguistically constructed, is reduced to Orwellian equivocation where true simply means “I like this, I want this to be so” and good simply means “I like this, I want it to happen” and beautiful simply means “I like this, I want to have it.” And of course, the opposite of these words (false, bad, ugly) simply means “I don’t like… I don’t want….”
This leads to the obvious conclusion that 99.77% of everything I say is simply an expression of my own desires. But if self-expression is the only tool in our toolbox, then we will have rather a hard time building a community, a country, a family. Why? Because relationships are not built on mutual self-expression, but on shared discoveries of things that belong to neither of us and that exist outside both of us. If all I have to talk about is how I feel about my feelings, I will never be able to understand why you left your Christian faith. Certainly I can tell you how I feel about you leaving your Christian faith. But that is hardly the same thing, and far less likely to foster a sense of shared humanity and mutual discovery.
This idea of social constructivism—the idea that social realities are created through language—is the dominant theoretical view in the world of communication studies today. But it is not the only view. Set against this constructivist view, there is a mimetic view.
The mimetic vision, in contrast to the constructivist view, argues that language is actually about discovering and re-presenting realities that exist independent of our expressions of them. The definition of justice is not, in the mimetic view, an artifact we manufacture but an accurate (though always incomplete) description of a real thing we discover, existing outside of us and independent of our words. Lynching is simply an unjust act, and even if an entire culture embraces the act and describes it as just, that culture is mistaken, and the act remains unjust. But this can only be true if justice is a real thing, a quality that exists entirely apart from our thoughts and words.
Think of a high school student in geometry. The student can get closer to or further from a correct answer to some abstract problem. But that is because the student is not constructing mathematical realities as they go. Rather, that abstract problem (say, finding the area of a given triangle) already has a real answer, and that answer is independent of and indifferent to any individual’s desires or descriptions—or even knowledge—of it. The answer is not a reality that is constructed, that comes into existence, because of the student’s calculations and preferences. It is, rather, an already existing reality the student will discover through their calculations (and independent of their own preferences). Their calculations will re-present a reality that was already there, even when we did not see it.
Words that are severed from realities existing outside of those words can never mean. They can only act as a tool of power politics, to create the spaces in which my desires, not yours, win. In other words, the failing of the constitutive view of language is that it reduces all expression to a power game that undermines the common good: it oppresses language under the colonial domination of one group’s desires. We can buzz-word and trigger-speak ourselves to death under that model, and you can sell 100% natural fake chocolate syrup that way, too. But it isn’t how you keep a democracy alive.