Thinking and language.
It is obvious that thinking precedes language and that thinking does not entirely depend upon language. New born babies do not have language skills, which they have yet to acquire, but anyone bringing up children from birth know that new-born’s are thinking. Their eyes, ears, taste and touch senses are very soon operating satisfactorily and the experiences gained are being processed and stored in their developing brains. Staring, head movement, smiles, and coos, along with cries and occasional giggles on being tickled are the main outward expressions of the fact that thinking is going on in their heads. Well before they can speak, they can find things funny, which requires a sophisticated brain process of knowing something is different and in a certain context that difference is also funny. Indeed, I also know from direct experience, that babies between 1 or 2 years old, before they can speak can learn to communicate with their parents by sign language, if only by a limited number of signs. This, pattern of learning and development through into adulthood is evidence, that thinking does not require language or any previous form of two way communication, but it is also evidence that language acquisition requires thinking.
Indeed, we humans have the ability to think about language and understand its many contradictions, if we care to. Undoubtedly, thinking should determine the language we use, but if we are not careful language can also determine how we think. These facts, along with the knowledge that many animals and birds think and even reason, without spoken and written language, does not diminish the importance of language in the development of human thinking. Language has been rightly claimed to be one of the most important social inventions and developments that humanity has created and crafted. Its acquisition and development over thousands of years has undoubtedly had effects upon the evolutionary expansion of human knowledge and skills along with the increased capacity of the brain. Language undoubtedly accelerates individual learning by codifying and socialising knowledge within and across communities and generations. Language is how we get most of our information about and knowledge of the world. Language has become part of what it is to be human. So much so that children in general become fluent speakers, well before school age. Indeed, it is hard to get them to keep quiet as question after question is uttered in search of information to expand their understanding and vocabulary.
However, language is such powerful and versatile tool that we know from experience that it can be used in four distinct ways. First; to impart accurate information. Second; to obscure, distort or deny accurate information. Third; to spread misinformation or disinformation. Fourth, to create imaginary information. I think it fair to say that all members of the human species use language in each of the four above – noted ways in their daily lives. Consequently, we have all been in receipt of a mix of accurate information, inaccurate information, misinformation, disinformation and imaginary information, delivered by strangers, friends, family members and even our most intimate partners. And, if we are honest, perhaps being guilty of those other uses of language ourselvelves. Nevertheless, accurate information is commonly held to be the preferred default mode for the ‘civilised’ and humanist use of language. However, it must be obvious to almost everyone, that in fact outside of good science, history and academic discourse, language in the public domain is used more to avoid accuracy than to enhance it. Capitalist sales and marketing, for example, more often than not, use language in the second way to avoid telling accurate information about some aspect of their products, services or production processes.
Politicians, Governments and Financial Institutions, all indulge in the use of language in the second and third way, to spread misinformation or disinformation about actions and decisions, they would prefer their citizens or voters not to have an accurate knowledge about. If dodgy dossiers and state-sponsored poisonings are not enough to convince the reader of this practice, following the ‘official’ language used by the various state elites around the ‘disappearance’ of the Saudi critic Khashoggi, should do so. That particular example will provide the reader with the latest, and an even more bizarre example than usual, of this second and third misuse of language by elites. Coincidentally, in an article printed in the Washington Post in the aftermath of his disappearance and later admitted death, Mr Khashoggi, had written;
“A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche,…and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.”
Of course Mr Khashoggi was referring to the Saudi State, but his remarks are equally applicable to many other states and even those with a modicum of press freedom, come pretty close to emulating this domination of the public psyche with false narratives. Its simply how elites operate to survive, they just can’t help themselves. And although fiction writers are the ones who predominantly use language in the fourth way (to produce imaginary information), it cannot have escaped our notice that, this fourth category also makes frequent appearances across the board in commercials, newspapers, the above-noted dodgy government dossiers, ‘official’ investigations, state cover ups and carefully crafted political statements.
For the record, although not usual, imaginary/fictitious information is not entirely unknown in science, history and academic discourse; statistics have been frequently made up, dubious hypothesis often described as fact, creative imagination woven skilfully to assert, connect and even disconnect historical facts. Nevertheless, despite numerous malicious aberrations such as those mentioned above, the humanist essence of language use I suggest ought to be the accurate conveyance of information between each other. None of us like being mislead, even though it happens to us all the time under the present class based mode of production. So in this third article I will continue to make the case that revolutionary-humanists should aim for the utmost accuracy in their use of language and should challenge misinformation and disinformation and inaccuracy whenever and wherever it arises. I suggest, a healthy criticism of almost everything that exists is much better advice, than believe everything you read or hear.
Word accuracy and meaning.
In the first article in this series of three (ie Ways of Thinking -1 ) I shared a list of stages in a process of thinking which combines the best aspects of materialist and idealist thinking and builds upon them to embrace a dialectical method of understanding grounded in reality. The first of these stages stressed the need to accurately know what something is identified as – ie word accuracy. This is important in public written discourse, because that is different than personal dialogue. In spoken dialogue, language and meaning can be dependent on context and how a word is stressed, but that context can be entirely missing in written communication. The author Dostoyevski in one of his diaries recorded how he heard six drunken male friends use the same inappropriate swear word with different stresses, volumes and body movements to express six different views on the same issue during their way home from the inn. I am sure the reader can confirm a similar or parallel example to that from their own experience. Among close friends and partners it is often the case that sentences started by one friend can be completed by another. This dialogue aspect of language is – in most cases – a directly negotiated communication where meaning can be communicated by body language, volume, tone, facial expression and prior understanding as well as fewer words. In dialogue, word accuracy is not always essential, for meaning, even if it is always desirable.
A recognition of this fluidity with regards to the words and concepts chosen in communication suggests the following. That in serious written or spoken communication of a factual kind, the accurate use of words and descriptions is necessary for at least two reasons. First, because the negotiated context and emotional contact of direct speech communication is missing. Second, because deliberate or accidental use of inaccurate words and descriptions leads to confused, mistaken or distorted thinking. Furthermore, in a world in which most of our information and knowledge comes to us via others, rather than our own direct experience, we need extra care. When important issues are being considered, we at least need to be sure that words and concepts are being used accurately. It is here that we need to recognise the effect upon language and thought of modes of production in which there are unequal class divisions. In such cases, the dominant class, tends to monopolise the production of information and ideas, via its domination and control of those occupations which demand a high degree of literacy and self-confidence. As Marx noted;
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch, the ruling ideas: ie., the class which is the ruling ‘material’ force of society is at the same time its ruling ‘intellectual’ force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations,….” (Marx. ‘The German Ideology’. Section 3.)
This ideological domination leads to an increase in the frequency of monologues, in which the representatives of the ruling class tell the rest of the population what to think and how to think via the media in all its forms – school, church, cinema, television, radio, magazines, newspapers, books, pamphlets, posters, etc. With few exceptions, all of these deliver un-negotiated, unchallenged, monologues to the rest of society. Thus there is a constant stream of one – way communication via the designated ‘expert’ representatives of the systems ideological workforce. Only by way of exception do voices which explore the deep seated contradictions of capitalism reach the ears of the oppressed and exploited. In contrast, this bourgeois and petite – bourgeois directed monologue of communication attempts to describe the capitalist mode of production, from which they benefit, in the most positive ways. When negatives are noted they are generally characterised as unintentional consequences, to be gradually reformed rather than structural contradictions, which are an integral part of the capitalist socio-economic system.
Language and borrowed thinking.
The result of this constant barrage of biased, language-based information is that a lot of it is uncritically absorbed by those who are subjected to it. It enters the store of knowledge in peoples brains as borrowed thinking, only later to re-emerge as if it were actually their own thinking. Of course, there is no serious problem with this monologue process, as long as what is borrowed from it is accurate. Accepting accurate information and understanding from others, as the basis for, and supplement of, ones own direct experience and understanding, is an important aspect of the social life of humanity. But under complex and unequal societies, such as ours, it is up to the receiver of information to check and ensure accuracy and not to assume it. For, as noted above, the second socio-economic use of language (to obscure and distort), the third socio-political use (to mis-inform or dis-inform) and the fourth entertainment based use (to create imaginary entities) are also part of what is transmitted by the representatives of the dominant class and these motives are frequently stitched together in colourful linguistic patchworks of skilful deception. Consequently these fabrications of facts, fictions, distortions and even omissions are part of what is received and borrowed.
So it stands to reason, that various strands of this mixture of accurate, distorted, misinformed, dis-informed, and imaginary information also enters into the general understanding of populations and emerges later as the general consciousness of millions. Many of whom then exert a social pressure on others to conform to all sorts of inaccurate and misguided understandings that they have previously borrowed and absorbed. Relevant examples, of such borrowed thinking, to this particular article being that men are cleverer than women; that human beings are split into biological races; that nations, capitalists and workers are a ‘natural’ geographical and economic phenomena. And again it doesn’t matter how many people think something is correct, that fact does not by itself mean that it is. As previously noted, millions thought the earth was flat and that the sun went round the earth, but that huge number didn’t mean that they were correct.
With the above in mind, any honest reader will hopefully admit (at least to themselves) that much of their knowledge and opinions have been taken on trust from ‘official’ (or non-official) sources and therefore, in actual fact have been borrowed – before later being accepted as their own. These authoritative sources, will have been parents, teachers, significant others, preachers of their particular religion, politicians, newspapers, television, radio, books, magazines etc. For this reason all of us need to question what we think we ‘know’ far more than we have been accustomed to do. For the question arises as to how many of these sources of our knowledge are accurate or have not had their own particular slant or twist on things added to the monologues directed at our eyes and ears. And also how many of these ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ information agencies are simply regurgitating information and opinion they too have previously uncritically borrowed from other sources?
The chain of serial information and opinion borrowers along with promoters of myth and misinformation can be surprisingly and revealingly long. This process, once recognised, should alert us to the fact that much of what we have learned needs to be at least challenged and in a great many cases, actually overturned. And I don’t just mean the obvious fictional cases of the alleged existence of angels, unicorns, tooth fairies, father Xmas, Yeti’s, alien abductors or those mentioned earlier. My experience – if it is typical in any way – suggests that too much already threadbare ‘hand-me-down’ knowledge, spread by written and oral language over generations, is still circulating as fact, when there is no evidence to substantiate its validity. Indeed, we should be quite dismayed that much of the knowledge we have taken on trust and paid for in various ways, was in fact incomplete, misleading, distorted or even frequently more in the nature of fiction rather than fact.
How else than borrowing and assimilating ideas can we account for the fact that millions of children over successive generations across continents were (and are) born without any understanding of religion or any thoughts of an invisible, all – powerful male god, end up believing, without a shred of reliable evidence, one or other of the sectarian versions of these warring patriarchal religious fantasies? Yet they do. The self-serving elite – generated ideologies such as religion, nationalism, sexism and racism, etc., have to be taught via language and learned in an atmosphere of fear or deference until they have become individually and collectively embedded ideological reflexes, reinforced by repetition, ritual and peer group pressure. There they stay in the memory structures of the brain until the elite need them to be fully acted upon. Defend your religion, your nation, your race, your gender; eventually one or more of these mantras become the linguistic calls to arms in which one section of humanity will, on the basis of flawed, borrowed thinking, be urged to denigrate or purge another section of humanity either intellectually or physically. And who can deny that this isn’t still being done and will not continue in the future?
Language and the struggle against oppression – 1.
As noted, one of the means of perpetuating and rationalising oppression and exploitation is via the use of language structured in such an ideological way that it plausibly denies that oppression, exploitation and discrimination are a structural part of the socio-economic system. The dominant ideology invariably blames one or other of the victims of the system for the predicament of another victim or for their own predicament. In the last article I gave the examples of how the poor are frequently blamed for their own poverty because of bad attitudes and/or culture. Yet in such cases, those so criticised and labelled are often unable to reply to their critics because they may lack the opportunity, the means, the skills or even the awareness of the need to question and argue an alternative. Yet one of the most basic and important skills for anyone regarding serious issues is to question every meaning in general and test the accuracy of the words being used in particular. This is because words are the building blocks of language and language is the means by which understanding or misunderstanding is transmitted. I suggest a successful struggle against oppression cannot be achieved on the basis of inaccurate words and misunderstandings borrowed from bourgeois ideology.
One of the most glaringly obvious inaccurate use of words (and associated concepts) in terms of bourgeois oppression of a large section of humanity is that arising from the adapted and then borrowed term ‘race’. The concept was developed by the European bourgeoisie in order to explain to themselves and others why they should be able to dominate the people and resources of the world. However, it was only fully perfected in the 19th century. Economic class and maleness had been used as a distinguishing feature to explain privilege and the lack of it for supposed lesser human beings (women and workers) within the newly developed capitalist nations. Capitalism, of course, is founded upon prejudice and discrimination of the most fundamental economic kind.
To use an analogy, discrimination and prejudice are part of capitalisms DNA. However, class and gender discrimination were inadequate concepts to apply to the people of foreign lands, when capital needed to systematically extend its theatre of operations across the globe. The idea of classifying peoples as distinct groups of varying supposedly inferior and superior characteristics and qualities, solved the intellectual and practical problem of occupation and resource extraction. The overall concept of discrimination just required a convenient term to label it with. The word ‘race’ was therefore developed to try to give some plausible explanation of why some human beings could and should be treated as curiosities or sources of cheap, coerced labour.
So in fact the concept of ‘race’ is a fictitious category and was invented to exaggerate secondary superficial differences in order to further mercantile and industrial exploitation during the Colonialist and Imperialist stages of capitals globalisation project. [See ‘The Invention of Race’, on this blog]. In a typically dualist and complimentary reflex two other words borrowed from the colour pallet and already conveniently associated with cleanliness and dirtiness became deliberately attached to the ideology of race – white and black – and was then applied to people. Hence forth bourgeois language contained two more associated fictions, for whilst there is discrimination based upon skin colour, there is no such skin colour as white and no such skin colour as black. Nevertheless, despite this obvious falsehood, bourgeois ideology was (and is) so dominant that it was able to impose these false categories and their derogatory associations into everyday consciousness. Furthermore, because the words existed and persisted, it was assumed the borrowed categories associated with mythically created racial types, actually existed. Its use became so dominant that even those who were opposed to its purpose – exploitation and oppression of the other – nevertheless accepted the fiction and carried on using the borrowed terms.
Even many dark skinned people accepted the prejudiced description of being ‘black’ with the end result of perpetuating a double fiction about themselves as having black skin and of being a different race to those fictionalised as having white skin. Some only challenged the association of black as being without merit and the ‘black is beautiful’ movement displaced an incorrect aesthetic negative by a correct aesthetic positive but only at the expense of retaining the negative fictional dualisms of black and white skinned people and the equally fictional dualism of race as establishing superior and inferior races. And again it needs to be emphasised that just because the language and thinking of millions of individuals continues to operate with these fictional categories around ‘race’ created by bourgeois ideology and uncritically borrowed, does not mean they are accurate descriptions of the real world.
As also noted elsewhere, prejudice against other human beings is now rampant and takes numerous forms. Any form of hierarchical society will necessarily accumulate multiple means of discriminating between those at the top, those at the bottom and those in between. And of course, socio-economic discrimination is the trigger for the development of prejudice. Capitalism is one such a hierarchical form of society and has acquired multiple means of discrimination. Secondary identities such as gender, religious belief, age, sexual orientation, skin colour, ethnicity, lineage, nationality, and even regional accent differences (abbreviated here as G-R-A-S-S-E-L-N-A) are being used by many to discriminate against people for jobs, educational opportunity, housing, partners and many other things. It is also a fact in such societies that many of those suffering from prejudice are deeply prejudiced against others who do not share their particular secondary identity.
Many dark skinned males, for example, are as misogynist, homophobic and nationalistic as many light skinned males. Nevertheless this prejudice – as with all prejudice – is not natural. Prejudice has to be socially taught and learned. And if one type of discrimination and prejudice is experienced as inhuman, then it follows that all forms of discrimination and prejudice may be experienced as inhuman. All forms need to be combated, not just one. The invention of race and it’s institutionalisation, merely demonstrates the power of the dominant ideology (as borrowed thinking) to trap people into a virtual world of thought processes whilst living in a real world which so clearly contradicts them in so many ways. The capitalist mode of production is the real root of the problem, not any of its victims, but bourgeois ideology conveniently blames the victims.
This symptom also indicates that accurate thinking requires accurate words and concepts and that inaccurate words can lead to inaccurate thinking. For there is now a virtual world being projected onto the real world by many commentators in which pale-skinned workers are held to have more in common with pale-skinned capitalists than with dark-skinned workers and dark-skinned workers have more in common with dark-skinned capitalists than with pale-skinned workers. That is a convenient reversal of reality as the ruthlessness of dark-skinned capitalist elites against dark-skinned working people is daily demonstrated in business and politics the world over. Take for example, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen – just to name a few places where a dark skinned elite class daily oppresses, tortures and even kills dark skinned workers and critics. The same goes for the ruthlessness of pale-skinned capitalist elites against pale-skinned workers, as contemporary events the world over as well as history also demonstrate. Europe, perhaps being the most obvious current arena of the deliberate and ruthless impoverishment, by pale-skinned elites, of millions of pale-skinned working people in Greece, Portugal, Spain. And in other countries such as the UK only to a lesser extent.
When ideas contradict reality, it is the ideas which should be suspected and rejected not reality, and yet these false borrowed ideas continue to be used to divide working people on the basis of skin pigmentation. Instead of an intellectual and practical wedge being driven between pale-skinned workers and pale-skinned elites and another driven between dark-skinned workers and dark-skinned elites as a prelude to other joint struggles against all forms of socio-economic prejudice, we have intellectual wedges being driven between workers on the basis of fictional constructs such as ‘racial’ characteristics and secondary features such as skin pigmentation, and not only by the bourgeois elite – but also by their opponents. Despite this divisive concept being the direct intention of the linguistic inventors and promoters of racial ideologies among the bourgeoisie and petite – bourgeoisie, some among the oppressed are unwittingly keeping that part of bourgeois and pre-bourgeois ideology alive and distancing themselves from or practising other forms of discrimination.
Perhaps this is because it is easier to continue using established categories, particularly given that the vast majority also continue to use them, than to directly challenge bourgeois ideology and to stand against the by now vested interests in perpetuating the falsehoods they are built upon. However, if we are genuinely against discrimination and prejudice then we need to be against all forms of irrational discrimination and prejudice, (ie all of G-R-A-S-S-E-L-N-A categories attracting prejudice and discrimination) not just the one which effects us personally. Otherwise we are not against discrimination and prejudice in general but only against it happening to ourselves or our group. And if the latter is the case then we don’t represent humanity as a whole but only our own section of it. Consequently we would not be equipped to help found human society anew. It should also be obvious that united, all those discriminated against may succeed in ending discrimination and prejudice, but divided no group will succeed in ending it.
Language and the struggle against oppression – 2.
A similar criticism as made against racial ideology can be made against patriarchal ideology (religious and political) which falsely asserts that men and women are static opposites and that women are inferior to men and should be subordinate to them. This sexist attitude is yet another form of elite invented false thinking which is then uncritically borrowed by millions of men, (and even some women) – including men of all skin shades – when in fact these male chauvinist assumptions do not stand up to serious scrutiny. The biological structure of humanity (as with most other forms of life) is embodied in two essential elements, sperm and ovum, developed in two locations, male and female bodies. However, from the species perspective (the deeper natural bio-reality) the sexes are not separate dualistic entities but essential parts of the dialectical whole.
For the species to reproduce the two elements cannot remain separate but must be integrated for each act of reproduction. The two, the sperm and ovum, must become one and in the majority of cases the partners also must become intimate. Importantly, biologically speaking, the female body provides the major functioning parts in the reproduction process. It does so in terms of supplying needed DNA and Chromosomes, pregnancy, breast feeding/immune system start up and early nurture. From the species perspective, the inferior position of women in patriarchal societies, including our modern society, is a total reversal of the natural evolution of humanity over millions of years. Second class status for women is undoubtedly a historically determined elite male invention delivered by misinformed language and borrowed thinking into the minds of millions and needs to be reversed by more accurate language and thinking in order to accurately reflect the importance of the other half of humanity.
The above noted pattern of human evolution is essentially true of the second class status of those who work in producing our goods and services. Working women and men engaged in the production of the essentials for living; food, water, fire, shelter, clothing etc., have been the active economic foundations of all human societies and recognised as such during the larger part of the four or five million years of human hunter/gatherer evolution. Indeed, in hunter/gatherer modes of production women as gatherers produced far more food (between 60% -80%) for their communities than men. And for millions of years, everyone, who wasn’t too young, too old, or too ill was an active productive worker. It is only with the development of class based societies founded on agricultural production, that the social status of working people has been gradually and fundamentally reduced first by slavery, second by serfdom and now wage-slavery to be below that of intellectual classes and land owning, or now capital-owning classes. Yet economically workers are still the most important of the present classes because without workers providing all the above noted essential elements of living and now more, the rest of the classes – middle and upper – could not fulfil their own privileged tasks.
At this point it needs to be acknowledged that many anti-capitalists have also been seduced by deference or laziness into uncritically borrowing their thinking from previous anti-capitalists who claimed to have a monopoly of accurate understanding of how to end capitalist oppression and exploitation. I did so myself out of deference when younger. Four glaring examples of this tendency have been the followers of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Mao. Any serious and accurate study of the above elite male writings and actions will reveal not just the shortcomings of the language and concepts these men used, but also the disastrous and inhuman methods they employed to further their own elevation into positions of power and influence over the rest of the working populations of their respective countries and nations. During the Arab Spring events most of their anti-capitalist followers demonstrated they did not even understand the difference between uprisings and revolutions. They lacked accuracy in understanding the very words and concepts they used. [For those interested in my own contribution to the de-construction of the ideologies and practices of Bolshevism, Stalinism and Trotskyism see my book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-capitalist Struggle’ and the articles ‘Marxists against Marx’; ‘The Revolutionary Party’ and ‘Uprisings and Revoluions’, on this blog.]
Finally, for those who seek to work for a better world I suggest it is essential that they cease to uncritically borrow their thinking from any source. Their own accuracy of language and the conformity of their own thinking to actual reality is necessary as is the critical examination of what others have to say or write. The guideline list provided in ‘Ways of Thinking -1, is reproduced again below and can be used to test the accuracy and reliability of what anyone has written or said, including myself and themselves. So when you get the opportunity why not give it a go?
1. Accurately know what something is identified as. (are the ‘correct’ words being used?)
2. Accurately know what something is comprised of. (is the ‘actual’ content being described?)
3. Accurately know how it came into being. (is it’s ‘real’ history acknowledged?)
4. Accurately know the natural or social context it depends upon. (is it’s place in the chain of existence accurately located?)
5. Accurately know the objects internal contradictions and process of transformation whether characterised as germination, transformation or decay. (are it’s positive and negative potentials considered?)
6. Accurately grasp the direction or potential direction any transformation can take. (are the various levels of enquiry being combined into an enriched idea of it?)
7. Test each stage of understanding against reality, (is serious unbiased observation and self critical study being practiced?)
8. Always maintain certainty with an element of doubt as new or unforseen developments can occur. (are sectarianism and dogmatism being avoided?)
9. Always remember that the essence of humanities thinking is achieved as a natural, social species, not as an imaginary spiritual creation of individuals, nations, religions or races. (is human diversity represented as a slight change in human ‘form’ rather than as a substantial change in human ‘essence’?)
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2018)