The First Plague; Language. by Lou Cespedes
What is language? This is a question that has entertained philosophers for centuries. In an article on the Encyclopédie, Dennis Diderot wrote: “The language of a people gives us itsvocabulary, and its vocabulary is a sufficiently faithful and authoritative record of all knowledge of that people; simply by comparing the different states of a nations vocabulary at different times one could form an idea of progress.”
A “crisis of language” – in overly simplistic terms – would at the very least throw the edifice of “knowledge” into question; it would compromise the “authoritative record” upon which our social order depends. It would also imply according to Michele Foucault, as he wrote in “The Order of Things”, that “words” wouldn’t function as the “empty mold” in which knowledge lodges itself to perfect language. As words become less reliable so too does knowledge, and our language becomes more “imperfect”. This is what it means to live in a post-truth world, where words are empty vessels and confusion reigns, where myth takes the place of science, and reason is abandoned.
In Isaiah Chapter 6 v.9-11 G-d commands Isaiah: He said, “Go and tell this people: “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” And he answered: Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged”
In our community, not only do we speak a myriad of languages, which adds to its diversity and cultural wealth, but we also speak dialects of root languages, Yiddish, Haitian French Creole, regional Spanish, Patois English, among our standard languages. In a community of predominantly West Indian peoples, these languages mark a divide and sometimes a portal between cultural habits, norms, values and mores. This constitutes a first layer of separation in our community among racial and historical lines that taxes our ability to have constructivedebate or dialogue. I was once told sternly that African Americans and Caribbean people are not the same. I’ve heard many times about the tensions in our community among West Indians and Haitians. On more than one occasion during my political campaign I was accosted for not being West Indian, although I am of Cuban descent, and chastised by African Americans for being mulatto Latinx. I have trouble understanding when my Jamaican neighbors speak to me, although I sense their love and give it back. I resent when I see someone say things angrily to me in a language I cannot understand; but these are the quotidian realities of living in New York City.
The crisis of our language is yet more complicated and pervasive because it reaches into the dark regions of racism, religion, and politics. It is a plague in our community, not unlike that described in Isaiah’s commission by G-d’, because language no longer allows us to achieve basic understanding, much less consensus. This collective disease is exacerbated by the means we now have available to speak – without speaking to one another. Social media communication has evolved into a language paradigm all its own, clearly visible among generational fault lines. Speech is uni-directional, and we’ve fallen into “safe spaces” or “echo chambers” where we are unwilling to reasonably debate on our commonality and shared values or goals. We now speak through images, video GIF’s or memes. We define thought in 200 characters or less, we have no patience for dissent, but instead constantly seek affirmation in “likes” or “followers”, without building what Jürgen Habermas has termed “discourse ethics”: the belief that our institutions can only be tested and strengthened when the public searches for the truth through rational debate. This is woefully missing in our community, but it is also missing in the language of our elected and religious leaders, and in how we observe and interpret our empirical world.
In addition, poverty in our economics and our language can be identified not only through the collapse of public education in our community, and in the generational ignorance that it engenders, but also in the efficiency through which the superstructure of language facilitates and distills false perceptions of our unique reality, often with brutal consequences. Conversely, we see through the example of our Jewish neighbors, how language or expression employed to critique their community, elicits a near unified response, through all forms of media, that uses language to deconstruct language, that parses speech and disables the speaker, who invariably is made afraid of speaking for fear of being labeled with a word that has import and meaning because it is uniquely tailored to them. Being a called a “racist” does not have nearly the same consequence as being called an “anti-Semite”, whether deserved or not.
“If you see something say something” was popularized after September 11 th terrorist attack. Today, “social distancing” and “stay home stay safe” have become maxims that will further polarize New Yorkers, even those among us that speak the same language and share the same culture, work in the same spaces, and those that worship together, but do not necessarily share the same economic conditions, opportunities or immunity. This is made clear in our community’s recent experiences with job losses, infection, death, debt, police abuse, and double standards for public or private congregation.
Many in our community are “essential” but “dispensable”, while others – in whiter, richer, and more powerful communities – are “indispensable” but “non-essential”. The essential are at the service and mercy of the non-essential – imagine that! When paired with the economic and social disparities we live and die with daily in black and brown communities, it is catastrophic that we lack the language and knowledge to articulate and stake out positions to communicate our collective demands, while we are lulled into accepting “platitudes and catch phrases” doled out by our leaders that have no impact on our lives and futures, and which simultaneously guarantee our own peril and ruin.