“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
ATTRIBUTION: Lewis Carroll [Charles Lutwidge Dodgson] (1832–1898), British logician, author, humorist.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 6 (1865).
Psychoanalysts must be especially wary of language and memories. At one time, memories were thought to be immutable; once encoded, a memory was never lost, merely unavailable. The evidence for this came from the early Neurosurgeons, who found that if they electrically stimulated different parts of the cortex, they were able to evoke long forgotten memories. Similarly, Freud believed that neurosis was caused by repressed memories; that is, childhood trauma were believed to exert their deleterious affects in the present by being forcibly, unconsciously, kept out of awareness. These objectionable memories were always threatening to emerge, and often did in disguised ways, producing symptoms. The child who witnessed events too horrible to describe would develop hysterical blindness as an adult. While these are over simplifications, and our understanding of personality, development, and mental illness has advanced a great deal from those days, these ideas live on in the popular imagination. Recovered memories (and their attendant law suits) were a growth industry at one time and continue to be used as convenient explanations for all sorts of dysfunctional behavior. [In my experience, most abuse is, in fact, remembered, but often in attenuated form with the affect split off from the memory; the job in that case is to help the person understand just how traumatic their experience was in an emotionally meaningful way.] In the last few years we have come to appreciate how plastic our memories are. It is remarkably easy to produce false memories in some people; it is also remarkable to what extent our memories change over time. Until a child is about 7 or 8 (when most of the Central Nervous System has finished Myelinating) memories are encoded primarily in visual images. Once the brain is sophisticated enough to do so, the child begins to encode memories primarily through language. This is a primary reason early memories are so illusive; we just don't think that way anymore.
Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.". Scroll down Wretchard’s site to his post from Friday, January 28th, titled “A Trip Down Memory Hole Lane” to see how the modern day fascist obliterates the past in order to control the present.
You might wonder what this has to do with the meanings we assign words. Words are symbolic representations of objects or attributes. Roger Simon wrote a post two days ago on the media use of the word “Insurgents” to describe the fascist Baathists and al Qaeda murderers in Iraq. The media managed to convince themselves (as has much of the Democratic party) that Iraq is indistinguishable from Viet Nam, that is, a quagmire. These words are meaningful. In a very real way they determine how one views the war in Iraq. Many have become so wedded to these types of words that their sense of reality has been impaired. The New York Times, which I still glance at from time to time, seemed absolutely shocked that the Iraqi people would prefer to vote for their leaders rather than submit to the ministrations of a Zarqawi. Bill Roggio quotes from the Times and adds his own take on the subject.
The necessity to oppose the Bush administration at every turn has unwittingly forced the Left to align with the enemies of liberty. Quick to seize on the statements of Senator Kennedy, the New York Times publishes a history-challenged article titled "Flashback to the 60's: A Sinking Sensation of Parallels Between Iraq and Vietnam", which attempts to draw comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, demonstrating their political opportunism and ignorance of history. The last real victory of the Left, the destruction of American efforts to fight communism in South East Asia, has warped their view of the American application of power. All future conflicts are viewed through the distorted looking glass of Vietnam. The analogy is severely flawed, the difference between Vietnam and Iraq could not be greater.
Once you appreciate how words capture events, relationships, objects, and encode them in long term memory, you can start to appreciate how important it is to choose our words wisely in describing events. Journalists used to pride themselves on attempting to be objective; too often now, they see themselves as advocates; neutrality need not apply.
Several people have commented to me that I am doing something similar on this blog, ie unfairly categorizing people and dismissing them; I have been told my language demonizes the Left and the Liberals and that is the equivalent of the calling the Republicans the party of Fundamentalists who are intolerant in the same way the Jihadists are. (I asked for examples and none could be produced; I would ask again that if anyone sees anything to support the contention, please let me know.) This is a common meme in certain precincts, ie that Republicans are fanatics just waiting to usher in either Armageddon and the Rapture or a fascist dictatorship. The left, and I include large parts of the Democratic party, in the blogosphere, and among their leaders, as well as the bulk of the MSM, and much of the University Professoriate, has lost the ability to differentiate between Bush and Hitler, between a “fascist” whose language you oppose and those who behead people and use children with Down’s syndrome as suicide bombers and would gladly bring on another Holocaust. As long as the killers are seen as Insurgents the war at home will continue and the true nature of the enemy will remain disguised.
One very hopeful note: the Iraqi people clearly see the “Insurgents” as fascists and terrorists.
That’s it for now. I will return to the plasticity of memory and its impact on perception in a future posting.