I’ll begin by stating unequivocally that I adore change, and harbor the deepest appreciation for how living systems evolve to greater levels of complexity, sophistication, and order. Adapting to change rapidly and comfortably is something I hold in the highest esteem, and I feel very confident in my abilities to do so; in fact I train for it.
Seeing degradation of an otherwise functional system, however – disintegration towards chaos – is, for me, one of the most tragic of circumstances. Please read the above word — disintegration again — see the word as it is meant to be used: dis - integration
1 expressing negation
2 denoting reversal or absence of an action or state
verb [ with obj. ]
combine (one thing) with another so that they become a whole
the process of losing cohesion or strength
Sometimes total destruction seems necessary, as when we simply need to wipe the slate clean, and this I can appreciate, however much of what I am seeing today feels unnecessary and unfortunate.
Nowhere is this disintegration more apparent than in the degradation of our language.
Again I feel the need to qualify…
Language changes, it adapts, it evolves. Ideally though, changes provide a deepened capacity to express the ineffable, to make the interoceptive experience an exteroceptive communication. This is not a treatise condemning the slang of the popular culture, or suggesting a return to the English of the Victorian era, rather it is a questioning of the impacts of new modes and mediums of communication and their impacts on our ability to name and communicate essential human experiences, and the potential impacts that losing that ability might have on our culture moving forward.
George Orwell’s contemporary classic “1984” describes a totalitarian oppressive police state where the population — under complete surveillance by the State of Oceana (known as “Big Brother) — have, through the incremental destruction of their language, lost the ability to communicate about things as fundamental as their own freedom. Tremendous swaths of vocabulary are destroyed as each new successive edition of the dictionary — and the resulting new form of English known as “Newspeak” — is simplified and the language approaches a feeble and atrophied form of its former self. In the book, the regime uses this as an essential mode of mind control, which rather than being an explicit form of overt oppression — such as a prison cell might be — instead is a form of implicit repression, creating a self controlling mechanism — an Invisible Fence — that emerges spontaneously from within, as communication options are slowly reduced, and a potentially "subversive" word is neutralized or simply done away with.
What's more, in the now classic novel, Newspeak isn’t something the people see as a threat to themselves; conversely, it is celebrated across the culture, as it is believed to bring the people into a kind of linguistic and intellectual equity; it is something they have been trained to celebrate. Complexity in language is seen as elitist, and people are taught – through careful manipulation of their thinking and ability to express their internal experience – to love their slavery.
Perhaps Orwell’s projections as to how a society might arrive at such a self-imposed mute state-of-being was premature and appears now (only slightly) out of date (he wrote it in 1949), however, I think we can hear quite clearly (and read all around us) that just such a lysis of lexis is currently underway, and that it is rapidly accelerating. Just as predicted, it is not to the dismay of the public, rather we seem to have both embraced and hastened the trend, babbling ourselves into an ever deeper and ever more perilous state of meaninglessness or at least less-meaningness.
In Newspeak the ability to describe something agreeable (good) or disagreeable (bad) is particularly reduced in scope, such that rather than maintaining the existing legion of synonyms — each with its own unique, subtle contextual colors of meaning — the entire host is reduced to an utterly artless naiveté; devoid of nuance and intimation. Good — kept as the only expression of affirmation is qualified with two possible up-votes. There is good, plus good, and double-plus good. Similarly "bad", along with its every conceivable synonym is rendered into obsolescence, since it can be suitably dealt with by adding the prefix "un" to the word good. Ungood is the way in which aversion is expressed. Through this and similar mechanisms, hundreds of words are immediately done away with, and the word "good", along with its qualifying prefixes, now encompasses all of the possible expressions of attraction or revulsion one might feel the need to communicate.
In time, and with just a few generations, the language of “the people” (known in the novel as the “proles”, short for proletariat) — essentially the industrial peasant class — is reduced to a state of mental simplicity (think linguistic lobotomy) that precludes the ability to communicate about what has been lost or about the former state of cerebral sophistication they had once known. Even basic universal emotional experiences, the human condition itself, becomes inexpressible.
The Incredible Shrinking Dictionary?
Below is an image of my two hardcopy dictionaries of the English language. Below is my 1936 2nd Edition Websters Unnabridged, and sitting atop it is my 1996 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language.
The former, measures a full 5.5 inches thick, 9 inches wide, and 12 inches long. By contrast, this "same" dictionary, the Webster’s Unabridged (1996) from less than a century later, measures in at 11.5 inches long and inches 8.5 inches wide, but only a mere 3.75 inches inches in breadth, despite a larger font size and pages of nearly identical paper stock.
Bad Dog, no cookie!
Consider how frequently text messages, email, chat threads, and other compressed media forms are being utilized as our standard modes of communication. Be honest. I am a thought leader in the ReWilding community, and yet I know how much I am using these forms of communication myself. Avoiding them puts one at such a marked societal disadvantage that the “social” part of being a “social ape” begins to suffer dramatically. Now, without passing judgement on this — stay neutral (it's neither plus-good nor plus-bad) — consider how the density, complexity, or depth of meaning you convey via text (for example) might be reinforced or punished. Notice how you receive the “Negative Punishment” of loss of time due to the inefficiencies of waxing poetic, and the subsequent "Negative Punishment" or lack of response you might get over time from friends and associates who simply won't play along. You learn, through Operant Conditioning, to reduce your communications to the barest acceptability of the meaning of your expression. Doing this you are once again "Positively Reinforced" by the responses of others. You are being trained — and actually, we are training each other — to simplify and degrade our ability to communicate what we think, feel, and observe with precision. The goal it seems is “good enough”.
Unless you are a text pro, then it's plus-good enough….
I believe in adaptation and evolution (I don’t mean of the Darwinian religious type, but rather that organisms and systems tend towards greater order and elegant sophistication as they adapt), and want nothing less than to be a “Luddite”, resisting change due to an irrational fear of the same. But this my friends does not appear to be healthy self-directed evolution. Rather it appears to be a dumbing down, a critical deepening of the domestication and subsequent mental enslavement that has ruled our lives for nearly 10,000 years now.
As a writer, and the publisher of ReWild Yourself! I have striven to write content with teeth. Material that the reading of which has the potential to counteract the very thing that is the content of this article. And yet, this has been a struggle, as the readership of this magazine has been limited by the demands of their time and attention spans burdened and bedeviled with information overload. We are a people who scarcely have the wherewithal to sit down to more than a few words without distraction (and as I am so often found guilty of the same, I write this with empathy for the current cultural condition). I could — no doubt — dramatically increase the reach of this publication if I focused on memes, phrases, and soundbites. Maybe pictures of happy people on mountain tops, their arms in the air in a salute to victory, with a caption reading “ReWilding is Double Plus Good” over head. I could put a ™ or an ® on it to prove that it’s mine, that I own the "intellectual property". Instead I have opted for the format you have before you. I appreciate you, the reader, for being someone who can still integrate this much information. Well done!