Feelings, Faith and Facts: The Alternate Reality of Language

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There is a most important additional consequence of the sort of brain activity fostered by religious ideation and it involves the use and effect of language.  Scan your cable/satellite religion channels pretty much any hour of any day of the week and you will witness a familiar scene:  one or more men or women speaking animatedly to an audience of generally well-dressed folks who, from time to time, nod or vocalize in agreement.  The substance of the speech is typically an explication and extrapolation of Biblical text, applying it to current events.  If there are multiple speakers or presenters, they will not disagree with one another; the stories they present to the audience will have one direction, one point, one meaning.  The purpose of the talk is not to raise questions, but to state definitive answers.  The audience does not ask questions or otherwise participate in criticism of the subject text or its interpretation as presented by the speakers.

The apparent purpose of the enterprise is not to present or examine anything new, but to restate, reinforce, something already believed.  The presentation is conducted within an agreed verbal context:  the world has a supernatural aspect that you believe “with your heart”; what is important in the world is what you believe and how strongly you believe; the beliefs presented to you here are true, now and forever; information that tends to challenge your beliefs is false and dangerous and is to be avoided; information that reiterates and strengthens your beliefs is to be held onto and repeated.  Things are true because they are said to be true.  Reality is not just defined by words; it is created by words.  “In the beginning was the Word . . .” [1] If we all say it together, or indicate assent when it is said, it is real.

This is a powerful use of language that continuously and covertly conflicts with that other, analytic, use of language:  to separate, examine, compare, challenge, reject, modify, debate bits of reality, conditional perspectives, qualified truths.  This is the difference between language as an attempt to represent reality, and language as reality.  In the context of religion, the only reality is lexical; our gods are constructed of words and only words; there is nothing external to our brains that god words could represent.

At this point, a note of transparency is necessary.  I am not a solipsist.  I understand that there is something outside my brain.  From a quantum mechanical viewpoint, I agree that reality is the interaction of my perception and quantum wave fronts.  Whatever the status of my writing-table here, it always has some existence, at least as probability waves, beyond the word “table”, even when I am not here.  I do not – and any group I am a part of, no matter how large, does not – create this table by saying “table”, no matter how much I or we believe in it.  My table does not depend on “my table.”

But if my (large) group gathers to discuss our god – say, Zeus or The Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) – the matter is quite different.  Then the very existence of our god depends on language.  If all of us say, “Zeus lives”, Zeus lives; if we all say, “Zeus is dead”, Zeus is dead.  While Zeus was created a long time ago (and continues to exist as “Zeus”), the FSM did not come into existence until January 2005. [2]  Whether one calls the FSM a parody, a civilized response to the teaching of creationism/intelligent design as science or mere blasphemy, the FSM has the same quality of existence, purely lexical, as all other gods, including Zeus.  In the beginning was the Word and this Word is “Pastafarianism.”

But that doesn’t quite work, does it?  Even today, Zeus is more “real” than the FSM.  And this fact demonstrates the power of language to create reality.  There are many more words about Zeus, over a much greater span of time, spoken and written by many more people.  Zeus has a much more robust lexical presence than does the FSM.  Gods are constructed of, and maintained by, words.  That is why, on all those TV channels, in all those churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc., on an hourly, daily, weekly basis the various gods are nurtured by language, maintained by words.

This well-used religious function of language has to endure only one little tweak to yield what I call performative language, language that creates in the secular world.  A recent, now iconic, example is “Mission Accomplished.”  While then-President Bush had articulated no clear mission and had not in any way specified what had been accomplished, if enough of us said – to ourselves, to others, on banners and bumper stickers – “Mission Accomplished”, why then a mission had been accomplished.  The language itself performed the act of accomplishing a mission.  Any reality here is purely lexical, but it is no less real for that.  Just as no current event, no matter how hideous, will indicate to most people that their god is nonexistent, so the ensuing events in Iraq failed to dissuade Bush-believers from the reality of “Mission Accomplished.”

This performative language is what permits the Fox News Effect.  From Activist Judges to The War on Christmas to The Myth of Climate Change, if you have a big enough megaphone and enough talkers to make repetition seem less repetitious, you can use performative language to create just about any reality you choose.  And given our religion-nourished predilection to accept purely lexical truths, the transition from the church pew to the TV room couch continues apace.

But the transition has not been smooth because it relies on the truncation of language, the inhibition of information flow and, thus, it has come into sharp conflict with that other use of words.  A recent stark example comes from a Democratic administration:  Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).  Here the governmental intrusion has nothing to do with behavior or even principle; it is only about language.  Reality is created and nourished by words – I am gay – so we extinguish the reality by outlawing the words.  Unless we understand this performative language effect, DADT is only absurd, literally the child putting her fingers in her ears and shouting, “La, La, La, La, La.”  If I don’t hear about it, it doesn’t exist.  We can preserve this lexical alternate reality by determinedly hiding the underlying reality – that there are gay people in the military – and we do it by prohibiting the language that represents that underlying reality.

Another, less direct but no less powerful, example is the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Representational language promptly resolves at least a few obvious questions about it.  How does the marriage of two gay people harm or even threaten your heterosexual marriage?  Wouldn’t you defend marriage by requiring sexually linked couples, gay and straight, to marry?  Wouldn’t you outlaw divorce?  How does forbidding marriage defend marriage?  Such questions have never been answered no matter how importunately we have posed them.  Performative language tells us why.

DOMA has nothing to do with the defense of marriage and everything to do with the defense of “marriage.”  DOMA should be DOTWMA, the Defense Of The Word “Marriage” Act.  That this is so was hinted at early in the proceedings when other words, “civil union”, were offered as a label for government-sanctioned, gay, sexual partnerships.  The government’s prohibitive interest was directed, not at the underlying partnership reality, but at the lexical reality of “marriage.”  You can be married but you can’t say that you’re married.  This was at least a glimmer of recognition that the underlying reality is primary.

No such glimmer is apparent in the current Debt Ceiling Debacle.  The alternative-reality language, “No New Taxes” is so strong for some legislators – fortified further by other powerful language, the Norquist Pledge – that the underlying reality, the harshly inevitable reality of the global economy, has faded away for them.  They say, “Cutting spending and lowering taxes is good for our nation, even if we default on our debts.”  That is truth because they call it truth.  For some of them, it now seems possible to live every day like Sunday, [3] in the alternate reality of pure language.

Well, up to a point.  Unlike the religious-language world, which can never be successfully challenged by an external reality, the secular-language world can be.  Performative language can create an alternate economic reality, but that language reality will be challenged by the reaction of the rest of this nation and the rest of the world if we default.  There is an external reality that is separate from language reality.  And when the two collide, like matter and anti-matter, things go bad in a hurry.

By all media accounts, the most prominent current purveyor of secular alternate-reality language is Michele Bachmann.  From the erroneous location of Revolutionary War battles to the not-even-in-the-ballpark cost of presidential travel, her language appears to us as intended to be representational (although risibly ignorant), while actually it is performative; it continuously creates a reality that conforms to her beliefs, just as it would in a church setting.  This helps to explain her utter lack of embarrassment, her dismissive rationales, when her errors are pointed out:  she is not trying to represent objective facts; she is, rather, shaping a reality to fit her feelings and, apparently and ominously, a reality that also fits the feelings of her millions of followers.  Thus, she cannot be wrong.

I first heard the phrase “lyin’ for the Lord” decades ago, well before I perceived religion to be anything more significant than a benign cultural eccentricity.  Explained to me by a “born-again”, it meant responding to the perceived and unwanted intrusion of non-believers by giving them information that would satisfy them and make them go away, quite without regard to factual accuracy.  It could include giving a “No” answer when the known factually accurate answer is “Yes”.  Interestingly, the phrase tacitly recognizes the representational aspect of language even while using language in a performative way, to maintain the believer’s separate reality.

When Bachmann and her husband Marcus – and I personally don’t care whether he’s gay or bi or whatever – were first asked whether Marcus was conducting so-called “reparative therapy”, a fraudulently claimed “cure” for homosexuality, at Bachmann & Associates, the clinic the Bachmanns own, they denied it. [4]  When a Truth Wins Out undercover video demonstrated the flat untruth of that denial, the Bachmanns clammed up. [5]  If Bachmann is indeed a Christian Reconstructionist as has been well argued,[6] homosexuality would be seen by her as the work of evil spirits and it would be possible to “pray the gay away” as reparative therapy claims to do.  This incident thus shows two levels of performative language:  the No-for-Yes in communicating with non-believers and the use of magic words to alter the basic brain architecture that determines sexual orientation.

This language/reality disconnect helps explain our frustration in listening to politicians whose religious acculturation has habituated them to performative language.  We watch cable newspersons ask questions in representational language and we expect representational answers, but we get responses in performative language.  There is even an approving term for this sort of response, a term I first heard somewhere during the Bush II years.  The use of performative language was then called “staying on message.”  Whatever the question, the response was always used to reiterate the language reality then a-building.  The Iraq War will pay for itself; Saddam is building nuclear weapons; the Iraqi people want us to occupy their country; etc.  If we keep saying it, it is true and it is true because we keep saying it.  The language creates the reality.

So if we labor assiduously today to maintain this language reality, if we say the right words in the right order the right number of times, maybe, just maybe, we can keep external reality at bay until tomorrow.  And tomorrow and tomorrow.

For the Debt Ceiling Debacle, tomorrow is August 2.  We shall see.

ARC – 7/31/11


[1] John 1:1, KJV.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Spaghetti_Monster

[3] And I admit here that I am speculating about the status of their religiosity.

[4] http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/12/whats-going-on-at-the-bachmann-clinic/

[5] http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/07/undercover-video-exposes-marcus-bachmanns-gay-curing-clinic.php

[6] http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/4838/god%E2%80%99s_law_is_the_only_law%3A_the_genesis_of_michele_bachmann/

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One Response to Feelings, Faith and Facts: The Alternate Reality of Language

  1. Pingback: The Divided States of Christian America? |

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