Making Existential Threat Real

I watched the docudrama VICE about Dick Cheney’s life and rise to power. It presents him as being behind promoting ‘climate change’ rhetoric over ‘global warming’ because, in research using a focus group, people perceived it as less threatening. This is probably because it feels more abstract and neutral, not quite real. Everything changes, as the climate deniers spin it, warming and cooling over the millennia. Putting the state of emergency in those terms elicits no profound human response and opens up the field to manipulation by reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominators.

To fight this, we need to be very concrete and viscerally emotional in our language. Maybe even ‘climate crisis’ doesn’t quite capture it. Better yet ‘climate emergency’, ‘climate catastrophe’, and ‘climate disaster’. We need to speak directly of increasing ‘death rates’, ‘property destruction’, and ‘national threats’ from ‘violent weather extremes’, ‘heat attacks’, etc. And we need to make sure the imagery of the damage and deaths gets regularly shown in the media like war footage during the Vietnam War every single time a major weather event happens and simultaneously repeat ad nauseum that extreme weather events are increasing and worsening with ‘global heating’. Burn those images and words in the public mind.

The right-wing partly won the battle of ideology by framing the rhetoric of public debate. Even though people do think that climate change is happening, it isn’t quite real to most of them and they can’t fully connect it to human causes, at least in the US. Most Americans still don’t see ‘climate change’ as man-made, even as they think the government should do something about it — still, the urgency is not there. Maybe we need to go so far as to talk about ‘humanity-wide self-destruction’ and ‘human species suicide’. And we need to be specific about who is our enemy. Corporations with records of environmental harm and externalized costs should be labeled ‘ecological terrorists’ and ‘enemies of the state’. Whatever specific language, we need to develop the structure of ideological rhetoric where a few key phrases are repeatedly drilled into the public psyche. We can’t be subtle and timid in our language.

The right-wing will always go to extremes to win. But the political left, especially the liberal class, has gotten into the bad habit of pulling their punches. This is partly because much of the liberal class (e.g., the Clinton Democrats) are essentially right-wingers themselves in terms of being neoliberal corporatists and neocon war hawks. They have been pushing the Overton window right for decades. Those of us genuinely on the left with a beating heart for justice and compassion need to fight this battle as if it mattered, as if our lives and the lives of our loved ones depended on it because they do depend on it. We have to be blunt and combative in speaking truth to power. We need to inspire respect by demonstrating strength of character and courage.

Our words need to match the horrific dangers we are facing but also give expression to the sense of what can be done about it. We should speak of those powerful interests and ruthless psychopaths who are attacking us, destroying our homes, threatening our children, holding hostage future generations. It should be portrayed as a war because it is a war, a struggle for our lives and survival. Our language needs to be radical and revolutionary, a fight for freedom and democracy and liberty, for a better society and a hopeful future. We can’t be afraid to use the language of religion, patriotism, community, family, or anything else. No tool should be left unused. We must hit them with everything we got and do so with utter passion.

Imagine how Martin Luther King Jr. would speak about worldwide environmental destruction and life-threatening corporate power if he were still alive now. Use the exact same kind of language. He would not back down from a fight, would not hold back from using the harshest and most damning words to evoke an emotional response from the public, to hold the ruling elite accountable. And he would make sure to stage confrontations that could be seen on the news to make it viscerally real. He had a flair for the dramatic.

We need to relearn that skill. We need to remember how to dream big, big enough to meet the challenges before us. But if we are to get others to feel the urgency, we first have to feel the urgency ourselves. We will be able to fight with all our strength when we finally feel in our own hearts what is at risk, that the threat is real and immediate, that this is literally a life and death struggle, that there is no later on — this is it, now or never. When there are leaders who talk the talk and walk the walk, then and only then will the public follow, then and only then will there be political will to take needed action.

* * *

Climate Catastrophe In Slow Motion

Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment
by Damian Carrington

The Guardian Paves The Way For Canadian Media To Be More Blunt About The Climate Crisis
by Audrey Carleton

9 thoughts on “Making Existential Threat Real

    • Yeah, calling it genocide gets right to the point. And it as honest of a descriptor as possible. That is literally what it will mean. Mass extinction of other species is just the beginning. So, an accusation of a crime against humanity is more than applicable, as the harm is real and will impact billions of people over many generations. We need honest language like this that points to truth, rather than obscures it.

      • As an interesting (to me) side note I’ve been working on a lengthy piece about the state (poor) of contemporary American poetry. One of the things that struck me about your piece was your point about weak language, ambiguous and soft verbiage especially from the liberals. It’s a cross culture issue. In a mass production Borg assimilated world language everywhere loses its spark and is either hyperbole or limp or both.

        Of course lofty/poetic language isn’t easy. MLK per your example was gifted.

        At the same time it’s a pressing need.

        Environmental genocide is exactly what’s occurring.

        Call it what it is.

        Act accordingly.

        • It is all across our society. It is how so many people speak. It’s not only that you don’t find people like MLK. You also don’t find people like Thomas Paine. Nor like Henry David Thoreau. Nor like Abraham Lincoln. The Kennedys were the last politicians capable of a rousing speech. Even Reagan, a professional speaker, was incapable of genuine passion. Few people are left who know how to give a moving speech. I’m not familiar with contemporary poetry. But I do know in fiction that there are still some great writers who can use language with mastery and power. It’s just that those writers are not in the mainstream, rather they are obscure and read by few. MLK, Paine, etc in their day were in the mainstream and famous.

          There is something about what culturally dominates the world right now that demands limpid language. Maybe it’s the influence of mass media. Even though MLK used mass media to great effect, he didn’t grow up on mass media. He learned his rhetorical skills by going to church and hearing a minister sway a crowd. There are so many possible explanations. As a society, we have much less trust and much more cynicism toward emotive language. Even basic journalism has changed. It’s almost as if news reporting is supposed to be boring. Read articles from old newspapers and they often were much more engaging and not wary about rhetorical flourish.

          Maybe it goes back to Julian Jayne’s archaic authorization. The power of language. We fear it. And we have good reason to fear it. MLK wasn’t the only one who used language well in the 20th century. So did Hitler. It is what makes Trump safe. As long as we keep our leaders pathetic, they can’t threaten us in the way old school dictators could. I don’t know. There is something odd going on. It’s as if we’ve decided as a society this is a constraint we must impose upon ourselves. We can’t allow powerful language. Even many Republicans have turned against Trump because of his wanton use of words. The majority of Americans think Trump’s tweets are racist. He betrays the cultural norm of weak language and it makes most people uncomfortable that he speaks so brazenly. Still, we can allow someone like Trump because he poses little danger as his use of rhetoric is so simple-minded and ineffective, relative to the great dictators and demagogues of the past.

          This says something about the public mind in the world today. The last remnants of the old oral traditions are finally dying out. And with them are disappearing not just ways of speaking but of thinking, perceiving, and acting. But it is uncertain what will replace it. Maybe that is why so few speak with force. As a society, we haven’t yet discovered a new voice for the times. We are like children who came to class unprepared and don’t know what is going on. When the teacher calls upon us, we mumble.

        • I’ve noticed how strong language is even censored in quite explicit ways. Use the word ‘ignorant’ in a comment on Amazon and it will be deleted. It doesn’t matter if one is accurately describing someone or not. That word itself is verbotten. It is politically incorrect. But I’m a person who likes to call a spade a space.

          If someone is ignorant, I call them that and I mean it in its literal sense, that they lack knowledge in a particular context. I even use the word to describe myself when it applies. For example, just yesterday I spoke of having been ignorant of nutrition studies for the first 40 years of my life until finally researching it for myself this past year. About this topic, I had been ignorant and that is a fact.

          But even in calling myself ignorant, the bots on Amazon would delete such a comment. What is not allowed isn’t calling someone else a supposedly mean name, no matter how accurate. The strong language itself is what is out of bounds, even when used with self-deprecation. I’m sure the poetry publications act in a similar manner. If a poet uses powerfully emotive language, their work simply will not be accepted by mainstream publications and so they will be effectively silenced.

          That is an interesting change. What does it signify? And what is causing it? It seems to go hand in hand with major websites shutting down their comment sections or making them hard to access. Also, we see how social media, from Facebook to Youtube, is shutting down alternative views. And of course, progressive Democratic candidates who speak with intellectual and emotional honesty are disparaged and dismissed by the DNC and corporate media elite.

          Maybe it’s the sense of how close public outrage is to the surface, in this age threatening with populist revolt. The powers that be know what language unleashed was able to accomplish in the past. And even if only on an unconscious level, they understand what has to be suppressed to maintain control. In the process, so many in our society have internalized this constraint. Impotent language has become a social norm. You will be punished or simply silenced if you transgress.

          • I would say the primary culprit is mass culture.

            I define MC as mass produced products which are part of a system that broadcasts propaganda/marketing/pr language that is also essentially the same either in form or content but crucially is delivered/injected via the same or standardized formats – TV/radio/video/print

            The result is a dumbing down of language.

            Here is Italian author, Italo Calvino on the subject:

            “It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty – that is, the use of words. It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meaning, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the sparks that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances.”

            He wrote that in the 1980s but it’s a much older problem.

            The consequences however are as you describe them and its reflected as you say in constraints that reflect exactly what one would expect in a tyrannical system – the stifled attempts at rebellion and the collaboration or Stockholm Syndrome impulses of those who have been captured.

            Poetry is I think a fascinating example.

            Poets we now consider overwrought (Keats, Byron, Shelley, etc) were in their day considered crude or not “poetic” i.e., refined in their language or poesy.

            They in turn considered themselves to be rebelling against a formal stuffiness.

            Jump ahead a hundred plus years and Rimbaud and Baudelaire repeat that argument and in the US so does Whitman.

            Things go back to a formal stuffiness after that until the 20s but it’s Eliot who beats out the more jazzy Modernists like e.e. Cummings (who mostly runs afoul of the official NYC left after he publishes an anti Stalin piece in the early 30s and is sent into a kind of exile) and other less famous assorted hep kats.

            Things stay stuffy until the 50s when you get the “confessional poets” like Sexton and Plath who flame out quickly and of course the supernova of Ginsberg and the obscenity trial over Howl.

            That’s the crucial moment.

            Ginsberg wins the battle but loses the war.

            There’s a brief simultaneous moment with NYC based poets but several curious things occur.

            First the rise of mass media and the slow but increasingly fast decrease in the number of media outlets in print with a corresponding increase in the sameness of media/sales language.

            And of course the rise of TV.

            The big language of Whitman and Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque big language gets defeated by the rise of TV and the language then goes into Rock.

            The big poetic language, the inciting, provocative beautiful if sometimes mystifying language is suddenly in Dylan, The Beatles, and The Who and The Stones etc.

            But they unlike poets have music – loud music and of course become very much creatures of mass culture – massive concerts, TV and the marketing machine.

            The Doors after all sold light my fire to Goodyear to use as a commercial jingle.

            Talk about synergy.

            And colonization.

            The key factor after this is deregulation.

            I think the gutting of previous rules for the media as part of the Reaganite counter revolution are crucial.

            Previously a company/robber baron could only own a max of around 15 stations.

            After Reagan it was thousands and so we have the rise of cable and Clear Channel and the Fox imperium and its been a catastrophe for freedom and a triumph for corporate fascism contributing directly to the current crisis.

            The gutting of the restrictions is analogous to voter suppression in its direct impact, the destruction of diversity and the corresponding rise of populism, reactionary politics and fascism.

            As one would expect as the diversity of thought evaporates and there is a rise in mass produced mass delivered propaganda to buy x and to do y coupled with economic terrorism and mass surveillance, people start to all sound the same.

            MFA factories rise in the 1980s and reach fever pitch or saturation in the 90s/00s with the result being on the one hand a proliferation of “literary journals” which seems a net positive until one reads them and discovers they all not only sound the same but all sound dull in the same way or they are not just boring but boring in the same way – because of course independent publishers were cannibalized during deregulation leading to the triumph of accountants over editors.

            Add in the collapse of the dollar, the rise of artificial scarcity/inflation to boost the stock value generally and specifically of the recently formed mass media giants and anything that doesn’t fit is cast out.

            Just watched the Scorsese documentary on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour and while fascinating for many reasons one moment is telling. Dylan talks about Ginsberg and the death of a universal or national poetic voice.

            In a separate interview unrelated to the doc he says that the media’s declarations of what’s “in” and what’s “happening” are only a reflection of what’s been monetized and anything that’s authentic is deliberately outside their view because it has not been “valued” yet and therefore has no place inside the monetizing language which has replaced the previous system of aesthetics.

            None of this is an accident though some of the impact may be unintended.

            The goal was and remains boosting profits and doing so through a mass delivery system that controls language and in turn controls expression by making it subservient to the primary goal of making more money.

            We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

          • That sounds about right. There is something about mass media.

            In researching regional languages, I was surprised by what I found in tv programming earlier last century. Most of it was produced for a local audience and the local differences were still distinct. You could hear the heavy ethnic accents. All of that has disappeared and nearly everyone on corporate media talks the same. Even the BBC teaches its media personalities to talk Standard American English.

            There had been a concerted effort to outlaw non-English languages and force assimilation during the earlier period, but it took a long while to fully eliminate the local differences. Even into the world war era, many Americans were still primarily identifying with their state or region. National patriotism doesn’t come naturally, as humans tend to identify with their families and communities. Those traditional ties have to be broken first. Public education was one of the means for accomplishing this end.

            Another thing were all the propaganda programs from the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon. They funded war movies, of course. But they also had journalists on government payroll. Writers and artists, literary magazines and writer’s workshops, etc were being secretly funded. The government took an active role in shaping art and popular culture, in the ideological fight against the Soviets. The government also invented American studies to be taught in universities as a way of indoctrinating the youth, especially foreign students. Some professors were even spymasters.

            Combine that with the growing corporatism that was also a response to communism. The mergers further eliminated diversity of identities and ideas. As you say, none of this is an accident. Piece by piece, it was created. Not that there was necessarily a grand vision behind it, other than the aspiration for authoritarian power.

  1. Great article. The root of the problem with liberals in the USA is a semantic one undoubtedly, rooted in the very essence of their identity. The first step toward semantic honesty would be for the liberals to start calling themselves what they really are, or what they should be: “socialists”.

    • That is a good point. The language we use is inseparable from how we identify ourselves. And our identities are central to everything.

      The Cold War pushed a censorship of language, specifically of left-wing rhetoric. The persecution of left-wingers for so many generations has bred timidity out of fear that has since then become a mindless habit. That has left a permanent mark on the public mind.

      To relearn powerful language is to regain a strong sense of identity, a sense of being what one is fighting for.

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