The Inarticulate Drool of Modern Communication

There is something vapid and vacuous about how we seem to engage in modern discourse.

Stopping for an Espresso today, I was obliged to listen in on the animated banter of two ladies, spurred by caffeine and the salaciousness of gossip to be shared, emoting with the abandon of an Athenian orator. Though alas, they did so with jarring diction, vocabulary and syntax.

One of the primary verbal sins of the age was flicked hither and thither like a wet towel — the curious use of the word “like” as a recurring hyphen, qualifier and punctuation mark. “I was like you know saying to this guy, I’m not like…like that kind of girl; like dude don’t like treat me like I’m some kind of idiot.” That we escaped this sentence with but one gratuitous dollop of “you know” as additional muesli for the mix, was a true blessing.

The diminution of thought by way of the devolution of language impoverishes discourse far and wide, and not just on cafe stools amongst those possibly taking a break from coherence. 

Far from edifying, we have to cringe at the logical as well as rhetorical debris in political discourse.

I heard on a morning show someone ranting that they differed from some of their counterparts on the “other side of the aisle” because the others did not believe in American exceptionalism, and the ranter did. The host of the show also piped in with an almost self-evident reaffirmation of his faith in American exceptionalism.

But what does American “exceptionalism” mean in this context? It could mean that the United States has been blessed with tremendous advantages and we are obliged to make the best use of them. If so, bravo!

It could mean acknowledging the evident leadership the United States has provided in shaping the post-World War II world. Wonderful! 

But if it means that America is necessarily and intrinsically better than others in some zero sum (I win you lose) way, it gets murkier. And if the belief is that a great country cannot, at times, be guilty of great blinkers, it’s absurd. Surely knowing in some ways we have undermined our middle class and emasculated our education system, have embarked on military and consumer binges we cannot now easily afford, with a democracy “for sale” in some ways to the highest bidder, cannot suggest we must not be challenged to recover or at least revitalize our greatness. That would be imbecilic. If the act of holding ourselves accountable to our ideals and potential is unpatriotic heresy, we’re done for.

Therefore, words and phrases that unreflectively are spouted and assented to, ossify into dogma that is never challenged, and therefore is harder to transcend.

In a different vein, in a recurring rampage, the late atheism propagandist Christopher Hitchens, seemed to be perennially jarred and emotionally inflamed by an allegedly non-existent Deity.

Through his writings, talks and debates, he nevertheless demonstrated the power of polemical fireworks as he mobilized and roused the legions of those supposedly liberated from the yoke of these purportedly “medieval” superstitions.

Taking a diametrically different view, mathematician and scientific philosopher David Berlinksi derides what he calls the “scientific pretensions” of atheism, challenging the speculative forays from inconclusive and, at times, conflicting evidence in various scientific fields. Berlinksi is as eminently readable in his sardonic and satirical rapier thrusts against the dogmatism of fundamentalist atheists just as Hitchens was so compelling in his incendiary outrage at the gullibility of religious rubes. 

People flock to these books, not because they point out anything profoundly new (these debates have been with us for quite some time), but for the pleasure of enjoying the performance. They make us think, yes. They make us feel, perhaps. But they also certainly stimulate our ability to be cognizant, delightfully so.

Plato warned about the dangers of rhetoric. He warned of reason being seduced and swindled by linguistic sleight-of-hand and verbal embroidery.

But Robert Pirsig, gave modern voice to a co-equal disquiet about the divorce between the “search for truth” and the “search for beauty.”

The classical rhetorical triumvirate of ethos (the credibility and standing of the communicator), pathos (appeal to common emotions and intuitions) and logos (logical reasoning) is something we would do well to recover…and to teach again.

Emotions swirl within us. Thoughts cascade in our minds. If they remain inarticulate, or are rendered specious or trivial through a paucity of language or our inability to flesh out and convey what we intend, or because we haven’t been guided to be able to marshal the nuances of what we think and/or feel, we run the risk (and our relationships with us) of becoming far less than they might be.

We don’t need the flatulent zeal of charismatics, but we don’t need the dribbling confusion of one-liners and pop cultural lamentations or affirmations that so often pose for communication in modern life either.

Perhaps a world of increasing complexity and challenge needs us as citizens, as business leaders, as contributors to things we care about, to show up mentally, emotionally and linguistically.

We need to show up to listen, to evaluate, to challenge, to engage, to learn, to generate, to design, and to hold the feet of our leaders to the fire of accountability. We can’t be misled by drivel, and we must demand more than the empty drumbeat of slogans or the gewgaws of simplistic jargon.

Plato’s teacher and mentor, Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living. Well, without our ability to communicate artfully and expansively, such examination will flounder and fall flat.

Surely, we must muster all the armaments of education and with the widest possible consideration of alternatives, take an articulate, passionate and persuasive stand for our beliefs, our convictions and our aspirations. Perhaps we can rededicate ourselves to that in the year to come.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once opined that truth is the shifting residue from a competition of ideas. If not “truth”, then perhaps at least human progress.

But ideas can only meaningfully compete when they can be fully expressed and genuinely understood. Only then is progress possible.

Let’s give passionate, meaningful voice to such understanding as we take a stand for it.

Omar Khan