Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: July 2012

Why We Create Jargon

People could object to our arguments on this issue, saying, yes, you do have an audience in the West, but these people don’t understand anything because their aren’t speaking the same language as you. My answer to that is this: no one speak’s anyone’s language! Even when your wife speaks to you, she isn’t speaking your language! When you talk to your wife you adapt. You adapt to your friend. In each situation you attempt to create a special jargon. Why do jargons exist? Why are there all kinds of professional terminologies? Because people know that they are all different animals, but they try to shield themselves from this rather terrifying fact by creating a certain common idiom that can be a code language for “your own kind.” This is how you create the illusion that you are among your own kind, that in this certain group they understand you.

Joseph Brodsky, in conversation with Solomon Volkov

After Wittgenstein philosophers have tended to become impatient with arguments that allow for any kind of solipsism – the idea that we are each an independent consciousness, one which in principle could be thought of as radically singular – even utterly alone in the universe – cut off from others. The implication of Wittgenstein’s thought (although he is less dogmatic than his followers) seems to be that as language is a shared and public ‘game’ – and one that cannot be conceived otherwise – so we cannot conceive of ourselves as radically really cut off from each other or from the world of things about which we talk.

Consciousness requires language, language requires other people.

However Brodsky’s point seems to slightly relax the rigour of this position. The flip-side of our shared public language is the inevitably uncertain status of our shared understanding. We are talking, communicating even, and we are certainly talking about something real. But do we really understand each other?

I live in a world where I can see red things, I know what I mean by red and I can talk to other about my experience. But I can still be uncertain that what you mean by red is quite the same as what I mean by red. I still cannot see the world through your eyes.

Brodsky implies that we fear solipsism and that we fight against this fear with jargon. It is, on this analysis, not that language guarantees the reality of a shared public world – rather language is the means by which we battle (often without resolution) to assure ourselves that we are not alone, that we are at one with others. However this ability to construct a new code, a code just for us, is also an admission of the weakness of that shared code. It does not guarantee understanding – and if it did why we would we have to build a fresh and keep building.

We construct language in the hope that we will be understood; but this is a hope, not a fact.

Jargon is a special version of this language; jargon sacrifices intelligibility for shared social warmth.

Bureaucracy and Evil

I think that office, the KGB, like everything else in the world, is a victim of statistics. That is, the peasant gets to the field, and there’s one strip left to harvest. The worker arrives at his factory, and there’s an order waiting for him. But the KGB people get to their office and there’s nothing there but a portrait of their leader, but they have to do something after all to justify their existence somehow don’t they? This is very often where all these fabrications originate. All this came about largely not because Soviet power was so bad or, I don’t know, Lenin and Stalin were so evil, or some other devil was whirling around somewhere, right? No, it’s just bureaucracy, a purely bureaucratic phenomenon, which, given the total absence of any checks and balances, grows like a weed and gets up to God knows what.

The poet Joseph Brodsky as recorded in conversation with Solomon Volkov

This thought is of course similar to that of Arendt’s analysis – that evil is banal, shallow and spreads like a fungus. Also, like Arendt, Brodsky is particularly sensitive to the especially dangerous kind of power that is inherent in bureaucracy – the power of the bureau, the office, that is, the power of no one.

The evils of the Holocaust and of Soviet Russia are far greater than the evils created by our own bureaucracies. The modern welfare state is subject to many more checks and balances – a little democratic accountability and much more integrity from front-line practitioners: social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses. Most people have not become anonymous cogs in the system. They can still distinguish right from wrong.

However, as we go upwards, up into Whitehall, I am less convinced. When I was much younger I went for a job interview to join the ‘fast-track’ civil service scheme and I got into a heated argument (me, can you believe it?) with the psychologist. He wanted to know whether I would do something I thought was wrong. I said I wouldn’t. He felt that too much guilt was a problem – I thought guilt was incredibly important. Clearly I wasn’t made for the civil service.

Today I can only imagine the conversations going on in Whitehall. I imagine (and hope) that almost all of the civil servants who are enacting the 30% cut in social care services for disabled people and the £18 billion cut in benefits to the poor think that what they are doing is wrong. But I also imagine that they think they’ve got no choice. Their political masters have asked them to make cuts where cuts can be made, without any undue political backlash. As clever civil servants they have done what they were asked to and targeted the very groups a decent society should want to protect. Is this evil? Yes. But it is the particularly shallow and empty kind of evil – where no one can be held responsible – that typifies the modern bureaucracy.

You Can’t Overcome Ethics

In what sense do we repudiate ethics and morality? In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoise, who derived ethics from God’s commandments. […] We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. […] We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat […] for the Communist, morality lies entirely in this compact, united discipline and conscious mass struggle against all exploiters. We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose all the fables about morality.


And the perfect response to this powerful and emotional nonsense is given by Shostakovich:

Don’t believe humanists, citizens, don’t believe prophets, don’t believe luminaries – they’ll fool you for a penny. Do your own work, don’t hurt people, try to help them. Don’t try to save humanity all at once, try saving one person first. It’s a lot harder. To help one person without harming another is very difficult. It’s unbelievably difficult. That’s where the temptation to save all of humanity comes from. And then, inevitably, along the way, you discover that all humanity’s happiness hinges on the destruction of a few hundred million people, that’s all. A trifle. Nothing but nonsense in the world, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol once said. It’s that nonsense I try to depict.

From Testimony

Lenin follows the logic of Marxism. The underlying logic of all Marx’s writings is a powerful moral revulsion at crime, injustice and oppression. But he allows himself to be lost in imagined historical forces, necessities and mass movements. In the end his moral vision is fatally corrupted and becomes a tool for the worst of dictators, for the worst elements in all of us.

We must never lose a sense of our own individual moral responsibility – if we do we stop being human.

The Paradoxical Commandments

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

[© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001]

I came across these words in the brilliant song “Anyway” by Maggie and Suzzy Roche – although they don’t credit the author who (with a little investigation) turns out to be Dr Keith M Keith. I find them inspiring and helpful – especially on those days when you are feeling a little ‘misunderstood’ or hurt.

The song “Anyway” does not use the words of all of the Paradoxical Commandments – but it contains an additional and lovely final verse:

You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway

Two Kinds of Collaboration

…a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say ‘From this day you will be a genius cog’, and everyone else will consider it a genius. It does not matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader.

Dimitri Shostakovich from Testimony (conversations with Solomon Volkov)

This statement is taken from a book which is still treated with suspicion by some – they think either that Volkov fabricated these exchanges or that Shostakovich himself was guilty of re-inventing his own past.

It has been interesting to read Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich, a book which explores the process by which the composer, like so many others, was made to collaborate with a communist regime that he loathed. MacDonald argues, persuasively, that the horror, tragedy and vicious pettiness of communism is reflected in many aspects of his music – if you have the ears to listen.

This book also reminds us how many of us in the West were willing to suspend disbelief in the crimes of communism. The dream of a utopian, state-controlled future was enough to lead many intellectuals to simply disregard the uncomfortable truths that kept emerging Soviet Russia.

Shostakovich’s own collaboration can be understood. He had to try and protect himself, his family, his friends, and his music. He was threatened with death and he saw many of those he loved and respected led away to death. But how can we excuse the collaboration of Sartre, George Bernard Shaw and so many other Western intellectuals, who simply didn’t want to admit that they were wrong? Their own collaboration helped to perpetuate the largest system of mass murder in human history and their only excuse was that it might have been a little embarrassing to admit that they were wrong.

We are Contradictions

Our life is impossibility, absurdity. Everything that we will is contradicted by the conditions or by the consequences attached to it. That is because we are ourselves contradiction, being merely creatures…

Simon Weil as quoted by T S Eliot in The Aims of Education

Every Statement

Every statement is an exaggeration, including this one.

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