“So, civilitas, civilisation. Etymologically, the word contrasts with barbarity: the civilian with the soldier, civil law with criminal law. The problem with it, and thus our need to consider ‘Uncivilisation,’ comes about when the term gets co-opted by various forms of domination. That doesn’t make civilisation bad. It only affirms the badness of domination masquerading as civilisation. We should remember that our civil rights and civic duties are also part of civilisation. So is the duty to civil disobedience in the name of upholding a more civil sense of what is civilised. I don’t think we need to engage too much in the displacement activity (displacement from the urgent imperatives of action) in fussing about how we use these words. People who fuss overmuch about words rarely get much done. Let actions speak louder.”
Alistair McIntosh, ‘Popping the Gygian Question’, Dark Mountain 1 (my italics in the last three sentences)
As a writer who is constitutionally incapable of not fussing (endlessly) about words, I bristle whenever I’m told, as by those three sentences, to shut up and just act. Now I can grasp what McIntosh is bothered by here, and sympathise with his frustration. Pedantic sparring over the roots and meanings of words can often, in an insulated academic context, work as displacement; undermining and muddling the strength of motivation and belief that action requires. But to silence all conversation and enquiry around words, to set action up in opposition to words, even in an off-the-cuff remark, creates a loss. It throws a heavy tarpaulin over a predicament and hopes it will go away. If I were to go along with what this quotation asks of me, that would mean silently accepting that barbarians = soldiers = criminals. But predicaments like whether, or when, such an equation holds true, never go away. I’d like here to unwrap these bundled predicaments of words, turn them around to consider their different sides; redress them in fabrics, ribbons and twine to enhance their shapes and expressions. In order honour them, to listen more closely to the stories they might have to tell.
Language is a process, constantly changing but at different rates, some fast enough for humans to notice, others not. There are words whose meanings alter drastically within the space of a generation: I still can’t get used to ‘sick’ meaning ‘fantastic’ for people half my age; in the same way that my mother could never quite cope with ‘gay’ getting rerouted from jollity to homosexuality. Other words shift far more slowly, at the rate of hour hands, creating the illusion that they’re not moving at all. ‘Human’, perhaps? Thus, fixing a meaning to a word as a prerequisite for action is a bit like standing in a forest and shouting at a beech tree to stop growing, so that you can do something about it.
The Earth, as we know too well, is rapidly losing diversity. Diversity of plant and animal species, of human lifeways, of languages. One of the basic understandings of modern ecology is that diversity is a requirement for healthy and robust ecosystems: the more different varieties of, say, potatoes, that you have, the more likely that at least some will prove resilient to new diseases and pests, or to changes in climate; ensuring both their own survival and that of the creatures who depend upon them for food and shelter.
There is a parallel loss of diversity in how we use everyday words. I’m not thinking so much of documented reductions in vocabulary; I’m trying to get at the growth of an encultured resistance to engaging with the layers of meaning and possibility within specific words, a defensive need for words to function as one-dimensional labels, and an outpouring of dysfunctional reactions (anger, hysteria, silencing, denial, polarity), when faced with circumstances when words won’t operate like that.
More precisely, certain words are getting yanked and distorted within our culture in two seemingly contrary directions at once. One good example is ‘violence’. Ran Prieur has a great essay unpacking this word violence, in which he pinpoints one half of the problem: a tendency to use violence as a catch-all propaganda term for a variety of acts and behaviours which, when scrutinised more closely, are not all accurately described by labelling them thus. His survey considers ‘vigor’, ‘control’, ‘cruelty’, ‘extermination’, ‘eating’, ‘toolmaking’, ‘toolbreaking’, ‘spectacle’, ‘nihilism’, ‘revenge’ and ‘balance’. Throwing the tarpaulin labelled ‘violence’ over all these actions points to a loss of elasticity and diversity in thinking, and a spreading intolerance towards certain kinds of energetic and animal behaviour, especially on the part of humans: strong emotional reactions, standing up vigorously to an aggressor, or killing another creature in order to have something to eat.
The other half of the problem is exponential doublethink: instances where use of the word violence would be absolutely appropriate, but has been swept out of mind and denied to feeling by contorted rebrandings like ‘collateral damage’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘enhanced interrogation’. As Derrick Jensen observes, violence is sustained most effectively where it is rationalised out of sight, and relabelled as perfectly reasonable behaviour.1
Pinned between these encroaching walls, how it is possible not to keep questioning words? Or, to look at the predicament from another side, what happens if we act in the name of certain words without questioning them? They might, for a while, set hard enough to make a crust to stand upon, to rally around. ‘Sustainable development’, ‘uncivilisation’, ‘stop the war’. But underneath, molten questions and challenges are moving all the time; sooner or later the pressure of what has been left unsaid and unexamined will break to the surface and demand attention. Part of the momentum of the Dark Mountain project for me is just such a breaking-through under pressure, to examine words and stories that have become sclerotic, out of touch, no longer flexible enough to cope with our probable futures.
But there are two aspects to this rallying and shattering around campaigning words, which need to be distinguished. A reality is that campaigns often fail simply because entrenched power interests ride roughshod over them, even when the words are well-chosen and there is widespread support for what they embody. The Blair government’s decision to go ahead with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in the teeth of massive public opposition, is one obvious example. In the aftermath of defeats, there’s always the possibility of lashing out sideways, worrying away at the defeated words; when under the circumstances, campaigning words are the wrong trees to be shouting at. But on another side, the drive to campaign under headings honed down in the interests of clarity and simplicity – or, more precisely, honed in reaction to an encultured inability to engage productively and compassionately with complexity – is going to leave awkward questions and vital nuances unaddressed, and the campaign platform a hostage to seismic lurches in credibility.
It helps to find ways to question words without getting into adversarial arguments with them, which tend to replicate the original problem of trying to stick fast to a preferred meaning. Anthony McCann offers the beautiful suggestion that we might lift up words and look beneath them for the attitude of the person who wrote them; in like spirit I try to pay attention to the qualities of energy and attitude which animate how a person uses words, to work out if I’m allowed to just sit and enjoy the sunshine with them, if we can begin a tentative conversation, if I’m being invited to help, if I’m going to be properly heard, if my listening skills are being tested, if all we can have is a tit-for-tat educated debate, if I’m being shouted at, if I’m just supposed to shut up and sign up to the master plan. All of which can apply as much to reading a book by a long-dead author, as to sitting in a lecture theatre listening to a talk, as to the effort to be more mindful as to what qualities I’m projecting into what I say and write.
A number of critics of the Dark Mountain project have reached for the blade labelled ‘just a load of poetry’ to twist. Why is poetry pretty much a dirty word in some cultural circles? Poets get caricatured into oblivion, underfunded, shunned like a plague, pushed to the margins, divided into competing factions and ruled over. One response is that poetry works hardest to question words and their uses. You’ve probably played the game of saying a word over and over and over (‘kettle’ is my particular favourite, I have no idea why), until it stops meaning what it’s supposed to mean, gets unmoored from the thing or idea it is supposed to stand in for. Poets do this as part of their vocation. They turn words around and around under magnifying lenses, run them through experimental mazes, subject them to extremes of heat and cold and pressure until they disintegrate and miraculously reform. They have long, rambling conversations with words, learning their stories with an inquisitive ear and eye. They learn to budget with words, getting to know which are cheap, which expensive. They tune into the synasthetia of words. Beside what ‘violence’ means (and great poets never lose sight of it), what does it sound like, alone or tucked between other words? How does it look, sitting in twelve point Georgia font upon a page of 100 gram laid ivory paper? What are its rhythms, its accents, its velocity, its heft? How does it feel brushing against the skin of your inner forearm? If you made like a two-year-old and put everything in your mouth to test its worth, how would ‘violence’ taste, sticky with your saliva? What inklings does it bring, who are its helmeted and crinolined ancestors?
Poetry is always facing outwards as a specialist branch of literature, while plotting in secret to overflow all over the place and refuse to stay put. One it gets a word within its treacly, salty embrace, that word becomes a baby again, full of promise, demanding to be endlessly fussed over, never behaving exactly as predicted.
No wonder we’re scared of it.
1. Anthony McCann ‘A gentle ferocity: a conversation with Derrick Jensen’, Dark Mountain 1