“Language Becoming Thought” by Mark Harris
September 26, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
What is an un-birthday present?’
‘A present given when it isn’t your birthday, of course.’
Alice considered a little. `I like birthday presents best,’ she said at last.
`You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ cried Humpty Dumpty. `How many days are there in a year?’
`Three hundred and sixty-five,’ said Alice.
`And how many birthdays have you?’
`And if you take one from three hundred and sixty-five what remains?’
`Three hundred and sixty-four, of course.’ . . .
There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents –‘
`Certainly,’ said Alice.
`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’
Story for All Ages – Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard
Readings – from “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell
from 1984 by George Orwell
He picked up the children’s history book and looked at the portrait of Big Brother which formed its front piece. The hypnotic eyes gazed into his own. It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you – something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make the claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of eternal reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two makes four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable?
Sermon – “Language Becoming Thought” by Mark Harris
Two weeks ago I was scheduled to give a prayer for the ninth commemoration in Watertown of the terrorist attacks on New York City and elsewhere on September 11, 2001. The veteran’s agent here in town had called me up to ask me to participate. I usually approach such events with a fair degree of trepidation, as it is not my wont to wrap myself in the American flag and sing “God Bless America,” Nevertheless I feel it is important for First Parish to be represented in such town wide occasions. It also means I, with my liberal political views, have to venture outside my comfort zone, and be potentially subject to patriotic fervor. Don’t misunderstand me, I love my country and the values and dreams it is founded upon, but these events can have a kind of right wing, macho America, manifest destiny tone to them that is distasteful. It is kind of like when liberals decide to give up NPR for a day to listen to talk radio or Fox news. While you may go into shock or withdrawal with this painful dose of reality, it does allow us to see how the other half lives, and what much of America seems to think, as scary as that may be. This year the days leading up to 9/11 were filled with controversy and political tension. This was because a fringe religious group in Florida was threatening to burn the Koran. This disturbed pastor of a tiny group of religious bigots was showing how such a message could have international ramifications. In Afghanistan some of the citizens took this message as reflective of American views in general, and burned the president in effigy. The hate filled message got the notice of the Catholic Church, General Petreus, and the President. The nutty pastor could have gotten people killed with his rhetoric of hate.
What was amazing to me is how the people across the Globe not only took the message to heart, but also quickly made it a truism about all Americans. They were certainly ready to make us all haters of Islam, just as many Americans seem ready to portray all Muslims as jihad screaming fanatics bent upon world domination. Another event added to the fuel of the culture wars before the 9/11 events this year. I heard one of the first “Joe public” responses to this when I was still in Maine. Just before we left Rockland for our week at Ferry Beach, I took Dana and Asher to the barbershop so we could all have haircuts. We were all pretty shaggy, and they needed to get ready for school, and me for church. I foolishly left them alone with the barber and his assistant while I went to the bank. When I returned for my haircut, the barber seemed to know every detail about my profession and church affiliation. Then as soon as he had me wrapped under the cloth, and was snipping away, the questions began. So, what do you think about these Muslims thinking they can build a mosque on the site of the World Trade Center? If I wasn’t in his grasp I think I would have bolted for the door. I don’t know if he thought I was a cohort or the enemy. In any case, I replied that I thought the proposed site was two blocks away from the site of the attack, and therefore it was not in any way denigrating to what many consider sacred ground, and second, it was within their religious rights to build a place of worship where they proposed to do so, as there were no property restrictions other than the ill will of some Americans.
Earlier I referred to Fox News as a painful dose of reality, and that is precisely the problem. They deliver a painful dose of “their” reality, which is often a twisted truth or politically motivated lies, full of manipulation and innuendo. People say that things happen in threes, and that was certainly the case for us, with a third event of Muslim baiting beyond building the Mosque and the Koran burning. This occurred in nearby Wellesley, when some middle school students went to visit the Islamic Society of Boston. It seems that there was a time for prayer during the service, and some of the students, apparently wanting to be respectful, joined in by bowing their heads. Little was said until a group that has been critical of the Mosque for years, and has the misappropriate name, Americans for Peace and Tolerance posted a video on the internet. I was taken in by this name at first, thinking that this must be some open-minded liberal group who are reporting on religious coercion. What a deception. They had arranged for the trip to be filmed. They selectively edited the content. They reported that the children had been given instructions on how to pray, and been invited to do so. Not true. Too bad the adults are
not as respectful as the children. One of the headlines on a website showing the excerpted video says, “If you can stomach it, watch it in horror. Implications of coercion were posted. Now a lawyer claims that no schools should be visiting houses of worship. Let’s take away the opportunity to learn from others. Let the controversy created by the intolerant ruin it for everyone. Let the truth be twisted so that no one knows what happened, and our willingness to find the truth becomes remote.
Maybe, just maybe, we have experienced this or read about lies perpetrated as truth before. But where? One writer claims it is the most influential novel ever written What is it? (1984) And the author? We know him as George Orwell, but his birth name was Eric Blair. Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War prepared him for writing 1984. He had gone to Spain with other liberals and radicals to halt the spread of fascism, but ended up being called a fascist by the communists. Those who had no regard for truth betrayed him. He later reported: “I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. Some who were hailed, as heroes of imaginary victories had never fired a shot. He began to see that it was not really fiction to write about a Ministry of Truth in charge of lying, or a Ministry of Peace in charge of war. The hero of 1984 was Winston Smith, whose job it was to correct history or rewrite the past. In 1984 the Party slogan was “Who controls the past controls the future.”
What are the implications of saying I am going to burn the Koran? In a recent issue of Time Magazine, it lists America’s first book burning. It was a theological text written by William Pynchon of Springfield, and it was burned here in Boston. The topic of that text was none other than an affirmation of Unitarian beliefs in the humanity of Jesus. Burning books is a direct effort to obliterate the past by destroying ideas you disagree with. All of history and any literature can be destroyed in this manner. Orwell knew of these kinds of efforts because he had witnessed them in Nazi Germany, where book burnings were common. He also knew that Communism had become just as destructive of his ideals of liberty and justice as Fascism, all falling under the rubric of a word first uttered by Mussolini, totalitarianism. The idea that we could destroy ideas that differ from our own is about as anti-American as you can get. Powerful leaders once wanted to destroy or change the past so that history could begin with them or be transformed by them, and be written from the perspective of the new leader. In all times and circumstances the message is the same – This idea cannot be allowed to exist – This past cannot exist – This religion should not be allowed to exist.
Changing the past to serve our own ends, or manipulating a truth to do the same are dangerous things, and while we usually portray book burners as fanatics, or right wing news stations or bloggers as unworthy of our time, we cannot deny that their influence is significant in the culture, and like me with the Americans for Tolerance and Peace, it may be difficult to sort out who is speaking the truth. Don’t forget 20% of the American public believes that President Obama is a Muslim. People, like the Florida pastor want to build up their own importance, so we have seen political commentators jump into the fray using fear to saying that the new mosque in New York will bring thousands into the city and they will take over the city council, or that the Imam in New York consorts with terrorists. Lies, slander and fear mongering make the times we live in all the more dangerous. How can we find ways to respond to this quagmire and find a truth that leads to understanding?
Last summer I was sitting at a Pizza Hut in Maine with my family, and we were all reading the place mat. Among the trivia questions was this: What P word has been defined in Pentagon doublespeak as “permanent pre-hostility?” Of course the answer is peace. Some would say we have constantly been in a state of war since World War II. Like 1984 says: Peace is War. We don’t know the difference anymore. On that place mat I wrote Orwell. Orwell taught us long ago with 1984 how the loss of the precise use of words, most especially in politics, has destroyed our ability to discern the truth. In “Politics and the English Language,” he wants to helps us navigate a way back to truth. Orwell first wants us to stop giving up. There is a lot of bad language around us today. There is even a new show starring William Shatner that wants to say the bad word but must use stars and exclamations to indicate expletive deleted. My parents use to say that those who swear a lot show a true reflection of their intelligence. Orwell would say that that kind of language shapes us rather than we it. Cleaning up our language will give us clearer thoughts. He was concerned about words that were strung together into phrases that had become meaningless, like permanent pre-hostility instead of peace. He knew for instance that when we call a country a democracy, we are praising it, and soon the defenders of every regime claim they are a democracy. If we are too precise about meaning, then we might have to stop using a word. In the reading Orwell says that much political speaking is the defense of the indefensible, but it becomes excusable with language. So the defenseless villages are destroyed through pacification. Remember the infamous Vietnam phrase, we destroyed the village in order to save it?
Orwell goes on to say that the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. With the use of pacification for destruction, the thought has literally destroyed the word. It no longer means what it should mean. But, as we also know, the language itself can corrupt thought. These phrases begin to think our thoughts for us. This became important for UUs when we were reconstructing the whole language of worship. If I say father for God, for instance, it connotes several things. First, it makes me think that God is a male. And if I am female then I am not made in the image of God, or I am inferior. I hemmed and hawed over language last week when I read an ee cummings poem where he wrote He in reference to God. I ended up keeping his original, but wondered if I should have changed it to alternate he and she. Second, back of the male language is the very idea that God is like one of us, a big guy in the sky, like that hit song once said, one of us sitting on the bus. This makes God personal, but maybe unbelievable, too. The idea was that we must learn to use our religious language with more precision because some people are feeling excluded. God is not a person to them, or a man, and in fact the word itself may be a problem, too. For each of us that language has shaped us for good or ill, and as free people we want to shape it.
Over the summer Peter Cudhea sent me an article called “Does Your Language Shape How You Think? This is not an argument of how the twisting of phrases and words can corrupt our thoughts, but moreover how the very language itself shapes thought. Recent research has shown that when we learn our native language we acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience of the world. One of the most intriguing of these for me is color. Our language apparently determines how we experience color, and so for instance while we have both green and blue, they are shades of the same color in other languages. And what if different shades of a color have a different name; won’t our brains then learn to exaggerate the difference? Some languages demand that you be more specific, so I cannot simply say, an animal went by, but must specify how I learned that. I saw tracks, for instance. If you don’t have the right evidence, the report is a lie. The new research seems to show that different cultures do not think in the same way, and a good way to begin understanding one another is not to pretend that we all think the same (Guy Deutscher)
If anything this research should help us try to reinvigorate Orwell’s dream that we need to understand our own uses of language more fully, and try to learn how others use theirs. Greater precision leads to greater understanding. Orwell wrote books like 1984 and Animal Farm, where all are equal but some more equal than others, because he worried about the future and the effects of totalitarianism. He didn’t say the future of Big Brother had come, but it was possible. He knew that the tyrannies he wrote against could destroy us all. Language was dear to him because he knew that its misuse can destroy liberty and justice, values that were foremost to him. Truth seeking, integrity and candor were also important to him. He was a socialist because he believed that socialism would lead to justice and liberty. He was sometimes critical of socialists, wondering why it did not appeal to “normal decent people.” “You have to make clear,” he said, that “there must be room for human beings or the game is up.” I have often wondered the same thing, as the sting of capitalism has left so many in poverty and despair. Why is socialism such a bad word? Orwell, wrote that “Socialism smells of crankishness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia,” summarizing why it had failed to capture a common imagination. Now we see the term perverted by the Republicans, as any tax increase or health plan becomes socialist. This is of course while they use their Medicaid and renew their food stamps. The power of false rhetoric needs to be countered with truth.
Orwell feared a world where truth was set aside, as it was in 1984. In that novel Winston Smith longs for free space. He does not want to be controlled. He wanted to walk in the free country air. While we know Orwell railed against the Soviet model, he would also have seen our consumer society as its own form of totalitarianism. We need more, he would have said, than comfort, and safety. He said this was part of Hitler’s genius, he knew that people need struggle and self-sacrifice, and that even Fascism fills a psychological need that is “sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.” We lose our sense of what our language means and what we are doing if we do not pay attention. He wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” There is a kind of honesty in Orwell that our times call out for in us. He wanted modern life to be simpler and harder, not softer and more complex. He worried that to most people the sound of the radio was more normal than the sound of birds. He was torn, as I sometimes feel torn. He loved many of the facets of life that allowed him to live with privilege. Yet he was torn apart by the poverty he knew and saw. Part of him loved his snotty schooling at Eton, and part of him wanted to blow up the school. There is that pull on all of us of when we truly see the privileges we enjoy as individuals, and juxtapose that with what we need to do as a people in community, especially for those in poverty. But perhaps that is the very struggle we all feel. Being more direct and honest and precise with the words we use helps others understand the truth we wish to speak. Listening to what others are trying to say and clarifying, and asking for more means we want others to speak to the truth to us. Think it clearly and say it clearly. We live good lives with many luxuries at our fingertips, and yet we see that getting sucked too far in leads to madness, domestic stupor, and a mad race to nowhere. So we say stop. I need to speak against any desecration of people, nature, or the truth with candor. I need to do something about it. I will speak to the truth, and will find others to join me in that truth seeking. We have churches to help us stay sane against the madness that often hides the truth. We have churches to encourage each of us to speak the truth in our lives about what we do, about how we act, and about how we long to learn from others what their truth is as well.
George Orwell once wrote: “Being n a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth, even against the whole world, you were not mad.”
Closing Words – from Gandhi
Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words.
Keep your words positive because your words become your behaviors.
Keep your behaviors positive because your behaviors become your habits.
Keep your habits positive . . . because your habits become your values.
Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.