by Dr. George H. Elder
Several years ago, I had a dream wherein I was acting as a future rebel who was bent on blowing up a colossal fortress. I was with a group of like-minded people that stealthily approached the fort’s towering blackish-gray walls. I was in awe, for the structure seemed to fill the ominous, nocturnal setting. The edifice stood atop a rocky promontory and seemed to organically meld at its base with the landscape. After avoiding several trip-wires, motion detectors, and other security devices, our group easily penetrated into the fort via cutting though bars that protected a huge sewage pipe.
I recall the stench and muck we encountered within, but soon enough we managed to find an access hatch that led to the fort’s lower infrastructure. We quickly separated into small groups, with me and another fellow ascending stairs and traversing a dizzying array of corridors. There was great fear, but we were well-trained, determined, and knew where we were going. Our mission was just, having to do with personal freedom–and our task was to do away with what we took to be a dictatorial power structure.
Many of the details elude me, but we had to constantly evade various traps and avoid cameras, with one ambush device being a waist-high metal rotor concealed within various walls that would rapidly deploy upon sensing motion. The purpose of the device was to knock intruders off their feet and crush them against adjacent cement walls–repeatedly battering them into a pulp. But we jumped over the rotors and quickly planted explosive charges here and there. I wasn’t positive when the charges would go off, but after the payloads were deployed our focus quickly shifted to getting out of the place–and especially after alarms sounded!
Hoards of “semi-women” wearing tight-fitting leather uniforms darted through corridors and raced up and down stairwells. Their bodies appeared feminine, but their faces bore mustaches, beards and goatees, as if there had been in a mixture of the genders that did away with the notion of male and female. Some of their weapons were very futuristic, and others were more old-fashioned–as in razor-sharp Japanese katanas. The soldiers were fast and agile, and I knew there was no escape. Part of me felt guilty for being part of a violent operation that could take lives, but another part knew that the battle had to be fought–though dying in this dark and sterile place of steel and concrete was a terrifying prospect.
I awoke just before they caught me, and the dream’s meaning remained unclear for some time. As fate would have it, my days of graduate school at Penn State were indeed filled with private and public battles, the most prominent of which involved free speech. To be brief, I was canned from my teaching position for making a stance against a policy that forbade me from asking students to become public or private advocates for various actions that they supported. I went public after being dismissed, and thus began a very explosive series of battles that obliterated any chances of securing future teaching assignments. Yes, my anti-academy polemics killed my career, although some of my opponents also suffered–with at least two leaving the department within a few years of my dismissal. I thought it a good trade.
Still, some elements of the prescient dream remained mystifying, such as the hermaphroditic soldiers. Yet thanks to an acquaintance who recently graduated from a prestigious school–the more subtle messages within the dream are at last coming into focus. There are those who work against freedom of thought without ever quite realizing that is what they are doing. They are taught that words like Black, White, etc., are essentially racist in nature because they are divisive descriptors that are based on stereotypical concepts. Similarly, terms like men, women, etc., are sexist because they portray gender-based stereotypes, including those words that are reserved for people of trans-gender, gay, and lesbian persuasions. Yes, one pays $60,000 to $80,000 per year to have their children taught these often “politically correct” doctrines, with the students smugly walking away from it all thinking that they are pretty damn bright.
And if one uses terms these graduates don’t like, one is quickly branded as being this or that–with words like paternalistic, antiquated, racist, and much worse being bantered about. These would-be academics claim to be superior in their discursive styles and ways of thought, although I noted they seem a tad inconsistent at times. I have recently been called a prick and cunt by some of these bright young folks, though the terms were couched in barely coded language. They disagreed with me, and ultimately strove to make their points the old-fashioned way. I found it very amusing–to be linguistically categorized as this or that by would-be elitists who supposedly seek to stand above using such crude tools of categorization. Granted, I was teasing them a bit, although my views were sincere.
Let us briefly return to the dream’s metaphors. Of course, the fortress is the overweening power of the academy to shape minds and actions, albeit in strictly directed and approved fashions. Some call this “political correctness,” though I call it operant conditioning. One is patted on the head and given “tasty” intellectual acknowledgements for displaying approved academic behavior–woof, woof. The hermaphroditic soldiers are the legions of freshly matriculated students who would deign to guide our thoughts, deeds, and language use. These nascent fascists don’t even know they are being fascists, such is the ardor of their conviction vs. their ability to grasp the nuances related to their academically instilled ways of thinking. Since the first step in gaining wisdom is to know that one does not know, I depend on the happy idea that life will eventually teach these young people what the academy has failed to.
I worshipped at the alter of higher education for many years, and am well familiar with the various linguistic relativity theories that run through some dated and recent suppositions regarding how people use language. For example, the notion that one cannot experience or communicate certain thoughts (e.g., racism) without specific words has been around for a very long time. The theory maintains that we cannot think about hate or rose or car or racism without having terms for these ideational and/or physical referents. Thus, one can slowly do away with racism by eliminating terms that could be construed as racist–although whom decides what words are or are not racist isn’t quite clear.
It is a simplistic concept, for what defines a thought? Surely, it cannot be words or language alone that defines thought. Our pets anticipate when we are coming home from work, often waiting by the door. They have no words for friend, time, happy, or situation, yet all of these “ideas” are in play. Furthermore, they often commune with us through nonlinguistic vocalizations and nonverbal com, expressing desires and other concepts that they often intend–as in hunger, play, and pet me. In fact, they can change or induce our subsequent actions and reactions, all without the use of anything we would call words or language. Thus thoughts and words are two different things, albeit that they can be and are related in some species.
The real task is to understand exactly how thoughts and words are related, which takes us into neurolinguistics, neuropsychology, and even neurophysiology. I delved into these weighty areas for many years, writing a text on the subject that was published by NOVA Science. The reason I did this was because many people in the academy were promoting ideas regarding how communication functions that I knew were inconsistent with what science has revealed. I will not bore you with the details because the subject matter can be weighty–yet some things are easily understood.
For example, it appears that we are categorical thinkers by nature, and even at birth. A newborn will attend a paddle-board stimuli adorned with stereotypical eye and mouth facial markers in strong preference to other patterns. A newly hatched chick will duck when the form of a predatory bird is presented. There are many hundred examples like these of hard-wired perceptual and reactionary traits, but the central point is that we continue being categorical tinkers as we mature–regardless of our education and quaint ideas about language. We know this from brain damage studies. To be sure, people with focal lesions can lose their abilities to recognize and/or name all manner of different categorical associates–as in faces, specific types of objects, colors, or even emotions.
We cannot “educate” our inherent information processing design away, nor am I sure this is a wise thing to attempt. Humans process information via abstract or concrete categorical association, something that has been proven time and again. This is the heart of metaphor, the ultimate means by which thoughts are shared. I wish there was more focus on this area being taught in the academy because most of what I see at present is a species of insular idealism and intellectual elitism that stands in sharp contrast to a lot of science–not that science should be our God. Indeed, what we don’t know would fill a universe vs. the scant array of texts concerning what we do know.
One can certainly contend that we should always be aware of what messages our words are conveying to a given audience, though the blanket eschewing words like Black, White, queer, etc., might not be the best way to accomplish this end. What is required is the donning of an allocentric perspective. This is a capacity wherein we strive to perceive ourselves as others perceive us, which is no easy task. It demands a removal of the self in preference for a greater focus on how others might be interpreting our communication and viewing our actions. This idea entails a greater understanding of external perceptions of our ongoing interactions rather than a strict concentration on word use alone. No, it ain’t easy.
At present, I am a dismayed by what continues to spew out of the academy. It’s the same old shit-on-a-shingle that was being crapped out when I got my doctoral degree. Well, I never fit into the academy when I was there, being far too course and blunt in my views. If a concept lacked support, I said so–albeit in harsh terms at times. You see, I was older when I got my PhD, being 46. I had worked, gotten knocked around a bit, and tasted both failure and success. When I was the age of some of the kids I have recently communed with, I was doing all sorts of drugs, getting into tiffs, and partying up a storm. I am not saying young people need any of that “reality,” but they surely need more life experiences before opining on how life works–let alone how we should use language. I opt to be optimistic, hoping that this generation will eventually learn to judge itself–as well as others.