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The Language Of AshesThe Language Of Ashes

The Language Of Ashes

Surveying the smoke and clangour of current political (dis)engagement, Ottawa writer Ruth Dick echoes the wisdom of her grandfather’s life-long admonition: Listen to everyone.

Ruth Dick
9 minute read

Think of the dumbfounded look on the face of the guy who runs out to the corner store for a pack of smokes and comes back to find his house in flames. 

From family stories passed down to me, I know my grandfather had every good reason to be that guy’s doppelganger. Except he wasn’t. He was his opposite.

He knew what it was to have your world go up in flames.  He was a furrier from Poland who survived pogroms, and whose family died in the Holocaust.  Raising his children in a tenement in the South Bronx, he was involved in union organizing, which brought more violence and danger, for these were the days when Murder Incorporated was hired to bust up the schmatte shops.  His friends were blacklisted under McCarthyism. 

He knew pretty much what there is to know about persecution, activism, commitment, reprisal, and climates of fear.  Yet he did not freeze in shock. Something in his character compelled him to accept facts as facts, and work to change things. Something in his formation taught him to seek to understand even that which afflicted him. 

“Listen,” my grandfather used to say. “Listen to everybody.  It’s the way to learn, it’s the way to find common ground, to build alliances.  At the very least, you will understand your enemy.”


Philosophers can and do argue about everything, including whether or not language must be shared, or can be purely private, solipsistic.  But few of any sense would deny that listening in community life is the fulfillment, the purpose, of language.  Without the end point of the listener, such speech becomes the mere movement of lips and air. Minus the ear that hears – or the eye that sees in the case of sign language – words are mere physical exertion absent the treasure of meaning. They are the expression on a face frozen into incomprehension by a house in flames.

I see that expression everywhere these days, not as response to literal conflagration but to the metaphoric disintegration of public discourse. All around the political circle, there is a retreat from engagement with disagreement.  It is the double-barrelled assault on the idea of objective truth: political wishes don’t bother to adapt to facts; what counts as fact is dictated by the decree of political wish.  If proponents of this practice are cornered by reality, the message is still conveyed: “If we lie, they can too.” Mistrust of all information is sown.  

There is, too, the disdain of politicians toward a portion of those they would represent – something that hasn’t been condemned as political complacency, even in the wake of searing loss.  Instead, that disdain is vigorously defended, on the basis that “you just can’t talk to people who think X.” Or worse: it isn’t simply that you can’t talk to them; it’s that you shouldn’t. One wonders how those who hold such an attitude imagine that peace talks, in which there isn’t simply a divergent worldview but the blood of loved ones lying between the parties, could ever work or even be worth the attempt.

Stories pepper our news – remember when we used the word “news” without mockery? – reporting varying degrees of active silencing. Opposing views, but also friendly criticism, are anathema, begetting cancelled speakers, public apologies, terminations, resignations.  Bring up freedom of speech, and you may well be regarded as an apologist for the deeply objectionable. 

Of course there are live questions about particular cases near the established borders of properly protected expression; about what is permissible talk about within certain environments such as the workplace; about what can acceptably be expressed from offices of power; and about how we do, and don’t, distribute the limited resource of larger platforms for expression. 

But something more seems to be happening. It’s as though willingness to listen to a view, even if you oppose it to your marrow, has come to be seen as approving of it. What happened to tolerating the objectionable on the basis that you don’t want those who oppose your views to their marrow to have the power to silence you? This traditional animating concern - that the same tactics could be used against us – somehow doesn’t seem to be acting as a stop, or even a caution, on acts of silencing anymore.

There seems to be a submerged shift taking place in our understanding of what protected expression means. To consider something protected in certain quarters seems to be to consider it worthy, or at least acceptable.  Under the logic of such a shift, what morally offends must therefore not be protected, and so no conflict with freedom of speech is perceived when we shut down rather than engage with that which we find objectionable.   We no longer keep it broad to protect our own expression from those who operate by different lights. We contract it so as not to give our imprimatur to an enemy.

Listen,” my grandfather said. “At the very least, you will understand your enemy.

But no. No longer. Just listening to opposition, pausing to ascertain what’s actually gone on in a particular case that’s touched with a blush of political charge, or conceding the strengths and complexities of a position other than your own, is increasingly viewed with suspicion. Sometimes it’s subject to reprisal. 

Keeping a cool head is coming to be seen as a sign of weakness of conviction, even betrayal in these hyperpolarized times. It’s become a badge of honour to stick your fingers in your ears, with little concern for longer-term consequence.

“What happened to my house?” our man with the horrified face asks. “I just ran out for smokes!”

All this is the very opposite of the approach taken by my grandfather, who was engaged with real change, and knew that being attentive to all views was the way to obtain it for your friends, and from your perceived enemies.

In place of engagement, what seems to be of importance now is the clanging signal of one’s political stance, without shading or hesitation.  Fail to clang loudly enough, and you may find yourself accused of harbouring sympathy for the devil. The important thing is to strike the pose, for all to see. The uglier things get, the more skittish, monolithic in our thinking, and exclusionary we’re becoming. 

The paramountcy of signaling political affiliation is moving beyond issues around freedom of speech to our treatment of language itself. The mere utterance of a loaded term acts as a political rare earth magnet, setting off a race to the poles like we’re a bunch of iron filings, and about as thoughtful.  

Think of the glaring instances, arising with alarming frequency, when the intent of the speaker is utterly disregarded, when the context in which a loaded thing was said is entirely ignored, when no quarter is given as to whether or not the words spoken are entangled with concerns that bear consideration, or when there is total disregard for whether a loaded term was used or mentioned. (“No dog! Don’t eat the remote control!” is use; “The word “no” has two letters” is mention.)

Such critical discernments, which my grandfather grasped and employed through the intuition of experience, have been debased to the status of academic arcana that tickle the fancies of philosophers of language. What the philosophers in the ticklish thickets of academia, and my grandfather in his practical way, have learned is that distinctions truly matter for refining our understanding of one another.  They matter to practical political life. They matter to the whole project of being fully human.

Philosophy of language employs, for example, the Principle of Charity in two forms. Its narrow, technical sense is roughly that when one is engaged in radical translation – i.e., trying to make sense of a language of which one has no knowledge whatsoever - one assumes, as a working hypothesis, that what speakers are saying is rational, and meaningful.

In its more general sense, the Principle of Charity is an open-minded methodological approach toward other views, which recognizes that before one can evaluate a position, one must do one’s best to understand it, and understand the strongest construal of it.

These days we operate not so much on a Principle of Charity as on a principle of righteous, even anxious, condemnation. The failure to take account of context, intent, or how a term or concept was used is, to put it charitably, unthinking.  To not even bother to ascertain what someone meant before reacting, simply because they used a hot-button word, is a worse form of disengagement than silencing them because their view disagrees with yours.  

To silence others, you at least have to have understood what they were saying.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said meaning is use. Rather than there being a neatly boxed, fixed and finite definition for every term, to understand a word one must instead trace how it’s actually employed across contexts. One must see what it is we do with it. 

Thus, the meaning of a word is subject to variation, something akin, as it were, to family resemblance.  Meaning is like the commonalities across faces gathered around a holiday table, here the curve of a nostril, there the slant of a brow that, taken together, signal blood connections, even though the features are almost nowhere exactly replicated among the faces.

We don’t need to stray far into theories of meaning to see that a Pavlovian response (be it condemning or approving) to utterance, shorn of intent and context, and treated simply as a badge of where someone stands on certain issues, is an impoverishment of communication, and arguably of relationships. For the failure to attend to how a term or concept was used, the unwillingness to listen even more attentively to what you suspect goes against your own views, erodes compassion. What’s going on is an almost pre-linguistic failure. Not bothering to discern each other's intent and take meaning from context both reflects and encourages a breakdown of our most basic civil relations. 

The less we understand, the more easily threatened, easily confused, and easily manipulated we are.  In short, the less we understand, the more ineffectual and dangerous we become. 

“Listen to everybody,” my grandfather said. “It’s the way to learn, to create common ground.”

In Wittgensteinian terms, the use of a word both reveals and creates meaning. The meaning of a term obviously determines how we use it, and the ways in which we use it shape its meaning.  When does unwillingness to understand someone else become inability? What my grandfather understood, though he would never have put it this way, was that if we treat language as nothing more than signals flashing ‘which side you’re on’ at the expense of further understanding, we may end up back whomping each other with leg bones. 

Or have we progressed to the point where whomping each other with leg bones is considered an acceptable outcome?  Perhaps with our retreat from engagement we’re expressing the sense that the ideals of democratic engagement have too-long papered over deep, on-going injustices. The bodies pile up at traffic stops, the boil water advisories drag for decades, and the dream won’t go the way of a raisin in the sun.  Perhaps what’s happening is a tidal feeling that the time has come for taking sides, for forgetting the effort of engagement, for fighting oppressiveness measure for measure, even short-sightedly, because the wait has already been too long.

But if the choice is disengagement, then make that choice with clarity, not confusion, not some muddled delusion that you can silence disagreement in the name of free expression. Don’t tell yourself that a world that remains complex has been simplified by treating it simply. Do not say that shared space is, at best, not equitably limited, but can be rightfully owned by some and not others.  Don’t tell yourself that pulling up the drawbridge and enforcing your rules within your limited ambit isn’t available only to the exceptionally privileged, or that veneer solves structural problems.

Understand what’s being done. Don’t do things by limiting the capacity to understand. Don’t, in other words, go out for smokes only to be surprised to find everything reduced to ash.

I do sympathise with those frozen in fear that the political house is burning down, that the only options are anger and disillusionment. But being my grandfather’s granddaughter, I believe – indeed insist - that the times call for more, not less, engagement with those we would oppose.

Quite apart from the political pitfalls, the rough-handed, clanging approach to political and social difference does disservice to the wonder that is language itself: its astonishing power to convey and receive one another’s thoughts, feelings, and sensibilities, whether be they crude, funny, wrenching, tender, or enraging. 

What we would toss aside with our frantic signaling are layers of significance and sense, capable of passing between us with the nuanced utterance of even a single word. 


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