Saturday, September 23, 2006

Gimme Back My Umbrage pt 2

So, is everyone good and drunk? Fat and happy yet? If this post makes no sense, it's because you folks are drunken gluttons.... Or it could be because you didn't read "Gimme Back My Umbrage" first. (The possibility that I am incomprehensible will not be admitted.)

"He that complies against his will,
Is of his own opinion still." -- Samuel Butler, Hudibras
The problem with a town that splinters in its language is not merely that the linguistic community is no longer cohesive, and therefore that language's meaning is weakened. It is not that introspection over words begins to take precedence over speaking to communicate. Those may well be problems, but they are tangential to the psychological and anti-social component of such a rupture. Why do people change their minds about terms? The terminology we have been discussing before are "identity politics" terms and general onomastics. Those change because of the projection of a group onto itself, or sometimes a projection of an individual onto him or herself. Therefore, succeeding at it gives an alternative identity, but it succeeds not because folks agree with it, but because the general speech community fears offense, and they do that because it threatens their peace.

Once there is success along these lines, then we set up a race, a race to take umbrage. Each person who needs additional esteem or wishes to reverse a political or social wrong, are encouraged to go as far as fast as they can. (Of course, where there is demonstrable and unquestionable social persecution, no one is going to disagree with any harmless effort at reversing such differentials, or erasing them. Thus, the "negro" to "Black" change -- part of "Black is Beautiful" -- was something everyone could get behind, while my dog's self-esteem is unaltered by becoming a canine American.) The race to offense is my topic in general. Once we set up power for the offended, we make offense more attractive than negotiation or forgiveness.

I'm reminded, inevitably, of what happens when religious communities gain power by being more "primitive" or "reformed" than the others. It begins with an overburdened and corrupt establishment, but it quickly gets to the Committee for Public Safety. It begins with selling indulgences and ends with shattered stain glass windows. In the Islamic world right now, the always shaky doctrinal authority has been superseded entirely by the race to be more restrictive and "holy" than the next fellow. The Koran might mention purdah (as Leviticus does, and as early Christian documents do in a lessened form), but that doesn't mean much. It says that women ought not be showing off their bodies and keeping male worshippers from paying attention and encouraging other women to get into a fashion show. Fine. So, one Islam group says, "Veil? You horrible heathens! We make our women cover their whole head!" The next says, "Head? You can still see their breasts, you dogs! We make ours wear robes!" The next says, "Robes? You have no faith at all. We make our women wear full sheets!" The next says, "Those sheets are awfully alluring. We make our women wear trashbags over their whole bodies!" Next will be burqahs without eye holes.

Lest we engage in fashionable Islamobashism, let's remember Christian and Jewish communities that have done much the same. Remember our beloved "Pilgrim Fathers" in the United States, who began wanting to get rid of the accidental confusion of intercessory saints and angels with idolatry and quickly (very, very quickly) got into a similar contest of umbrage? "You people got rid of saint statues, but you have saints in your painted windows!" This is followed by the tinkling of broken glass. "You just break the stained glass windows? We think singing is pride!" Down comes the choir loft. "You got rid of the singing, but you send your priests to seminary instead of relying entirely upon inspiration of the moment? You heathens!" No more apostolic succession, then. "You still have your women worship with the men, though," says another Puritain group. Welcome the single sex non-monastic religious houses.

What is the power of Jerry Fallwell and Donald Wildmon? Is it his attractive good looks, soothing voice, and doctrinal expertise? What was the power of Mary Whitehouse in the UK? What was the power of even Flush Limbaugh? These people all have the power of offense. They have the power of endless piety through eternal restriction. By advocating little but shouting and pounding out their philippics constantly, they attract those who seek to define in contradiction to the speech of the wider community. The "culture" is "seccalar hoomanist." By whittling, by carving a group away from the block of humanity and then a group from that and then a group from that, the power is in the attraction of being offended. If you are most offended, you are most pious and empowered.

Part of this is probably sociology. If you put people into a very crowded auditorium, they will soon created a living room sized space out of it.

However, the critical thing for me is that "PC" and shouting out objections to the decadent society of "political correctness" are the same fundamental action in terms of language. Both attempt to create an alternative discourse by refusing the terminology of the wider culture. Both empower by using umbrage. The general culture acceeds to these requests for fear, for desire of peace, but the end result is that the cohesion of the underlying communication is weakened even as the possibility of cultural progress is destroyed by that culture's being made up not of a whole, but of factions and fractions. The inherent hypocrisy (that each group needs to reject and vilify the culture as an imagined whole) is apparent, but the danger lies not in that as much as in the way that this tendency renders all our words meaningless.

Now, sober up and go on a diet.

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