It’s Only Words

By Robert Houghtaling

America is a work in progress. As an idea, it is beautiful. Concepts like democracy, a free press, fair courts and the ability to vote are things that other nations admire. In fact, people often dream about coming here. With all of this said, the country is still operated by human beings, and sometimes the direction in which they lead us raises a few eyebrows. Such a time is now. The impetus? Could it be that for all of the communication devices we’ve created, mankind now faces a crisis of truth, fact-finding and tolerance?

In the 1970’s comedian George Carlin pushed the envelope by creating a controversial skit entitled The Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV. This skit would eventually become the basis of a Supreme Court ruling. While most likely lost in a pile of paperwork, both the case and skit are relevant today. Many years later, the United States is being confronted with issues pertaining to speech. The free press is being excoriated. Terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” abound, and many people are choosing to get their “news” from blog sites. Words are once again on trial.

With all due respect to Mr. Carlin, I now offer seven words that appear to be on the endangered list. Their meanings are going the way of Orwell’s “doublespeak,” and in some cases actually represent the word’s opposite. When George Carlin performed his Seven Words bit, it was both funny and poignant. He would later expand this list to include a number of other words. Perhaps by listing my seven we can prevent an expansion of a new off-limits list.

The words presently under assault are: love, hope, fairness, truth, respect, read and civility. In addition to being under siege in a Carlin-esque way, these words are also being assaulted in textbook Orwellian fashion. In short, they are being eliminated by having their meanings altered. In the following paragraphs we will examine how this dynamic has taken shape.

In far too many instances, love has come to mean hate; love of one’s own country and/or religion connotes hatred of another’s. Hopes and dreams have unfortunately morphed into fear and doubt (especially regarding hopeful “Dreamers”). Fairness too often is considered weakness and seen as a handout. Truth is slowly becoming something amorphous and opinion-based. Respect is in the process of being replaced by tribalistic loyalties. Blogging has taken the place of reading when it comes to how we gather a great deal of information. Even something as noble as the notion of civility appears doomed to become a weapon that demands conformity (civil disobedience is something that has to be done nicely). Tragically in demise, these seven words most likely represent the mere tip of an iceberg. Without thoughtful examination and a sincere commitment to honoring the opinions of others, this list will undoubtedly grow.

We appear to be in the early stages of a communications crisis. Fragmentation, isolation and the inability to ascertain what is factual from what is not has caused us to distance ourselves from each other. Words are powerful, and how they are used is not without consequence. When we destroy the very institutions that seek the truth, and replace them with charlatans who promote style over substance, anarchy is not far behind.

George Carlin’s battle explored whether or not words deemed obscene could be spoken in public. Orwell’s consternation regarding how language might be manipulated was the focus of his famous book 1984. Today we are on the verge of a “Carwellian” dilemma which appears ready to curtail and obfuscate our methods of communication. In the end it’s important that we reflect upon this. We’ve created a digital Tower of Babel where silo-thought has enhanced a sense of tribalism for many of us. We laud our freedom of speech, but often neglect investigating speech’s manipulation. No law can address this. It takes critical thinking and open-mindedness.

Words have played an important role in our nation’s development. We can easily recall “we the people,” “four score and seven years ago,” “I have a dream” and many other powerful images created by inspirational language. Let’s make sure that we carefully examine how words are used. In many ways doing so has created who we are.

Bob Houghtaling is the Director of the East Greenwich Academy Foundation, a former School Committee member for the Exeter/West Greenwich Regional school district and a Warwick resident.