The Controlled Demolition of Meaning

Demolition of Beirut Hilton 2002, photo by Jamal Saidi (Reuters)

When tall buildings have to be taken down in a built-up area, some highly and specifically skilled people are called in. Demolition experts place carefully weighed and shaped charges in very carefully calculated locations throughout the building structure; a lot of complicated wiring harness gets installed… and then one day, those lucky enough to get a front-row seat can enjoy a remarkable spectacle and a tribute to modern engineering.

The charges go off in a precisely choreographed order, so that the building collapses within its own footprint — pancaking downward floor by floor like a reverse rocket launch, folding up (or down) in a great cloud of dust. Some rubble flies outwards, but the safety limit is quite well understood and wire netting contains most of the shrapnel. Instead of toppling like a tree and smashing structures on either side, our unwanted building accordion-folds like a paper lantern.

I think often of controlled demolition when I read a certain kind of rhetoric, the kind that pancakes or collapses meaning. Sometimes called “reductionist,” sometimes criticised as “hyperbole” and sometimes as “conflation,” this kind of argument seems to be more prevalent than it was a while back. Myself, I call it “sloppy thinking” — and potentially damaging to the quality of public dialogue.

A classic example of collapsing meanings is the reflexive free-association practised by rightwing demagogues among the American political chatterati, who conflate public health care proposals with “socialism,” socialism with “Communism,” and Communism with Stalinism. Boom, there went four separate floors of the skyscraper of political history, dynamited into one flat mess. Public health care equals Stalinism, and don’t you forget it!

The famous “Godwin violation” of Internet discourse mocks (and calls out) this collapse of meanings; Godwin’s Law guarantees that as any online argument continues, eventually the probability of someone being compared to Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.0. This usually means there’s been a loud Boom and several storeys of meaning have just pancaked, because.. very few people are in a position, or have a track record, that merits a realistic comparison with Hitler.

I ran into one of these myself recently (a Medium article which has since been taken down) in which an outraged (presumably) trans activist compared J K Rowling to both Hitler and Churchill. Apparently Rowling had made a sarcastic public comment on a rather laboured bit of prose whose author was trying very hard to be gender-neutral… while discussing menstruation. The situation has its humorous aspects for most readers, but some people really didn’t find it funny that JKR found it funny.

Our overheated essayist, for one — s/he/they found JKR’s dissy remark comparable to advocating or practising the use of poison gas to exterminate oppressed minorities. I think the implicit argument goes something like this: “Rowling displayed a lack of sensitivity, which equates to a prejudice or bigotry, based on gender; Hitler and Churchill were both prejudiced based on race and ethnicity; Hitler and Churchill both advocated (and one practised) the use of poison gas to exterminate people against whom they were prejudiced; therefore they are morally equivalent to one another, and Rowling is morally equivalent to them.” Rather a lot of pancaking going on there, which presumably is why the article disappeared fairly soon after I read it.

Before the stones start a-flying, let me say that I personally do not enshrine “humour” in some special, values-free zone insulated from social justice concerns. I’m no stranger to critiquing other people’s ideas of what’s funny, particularly more privileged people’s ideas of what’s funny about less privileged people. No one who’s done time in any feminist or gay rights endeavour can evade the need at some point to analyse and confront misogynist and homophobic jokes and the power they exert in mixed company. Even apparently trivial or elliptical snide remarks can constitute a quotidian, deniable barrage of micro-agressions that remind the less powerful, every day, of their relative social position. And this is true whether we are speaking of race, gender, class, or whatever arbitrary attributes people latch onto to feel superior to others.

I too have been young, passionately political, and outraged. However — even at my most frustrated and fed up — I doubt that I would have written an essay comparing even the most annoying or offensive misogynist “humourist” to Hitler. And I do think that in order to be usefully compared to someone who advocates the use of poison gas to exterminate oppressed minorities, one should, you know, actually advocate the use of some lethal technology to kill large numbers of people. Merely being rude or dismissive, imho — even outright obnoxious — doesn’t get you into the big leagues. One can be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic — rude, or glib, or just plain careless in speech — without being Hitler.

Controlled demolition of meaning is an equal-opportunity sport; anyone can play. When I was young it was not uncommon for fiery young Leftists to refer to anything and everything they disliked as “Fascist.” Again, entire multi-storey structures of meaning were pancaked down into a small footprint: the ignorance, sloth, and venerable conservatism of our local City Council, or the discriminatory practises of a local real estate agency, were conflated with the takeover of Italy by brownshirted mobs under the leadership of a charismatic populist demagogue, and their strategic alliance with the Nazi regime. Though the temptation to use such convenient shorthand is understandable, much is lost in the process.

For one thing, trivial and petty local malfeasances are lent a grandeur and historical importance that they don’t merit. Mayor Stick-in-the-Mud may be an unpleasant person who opposes every progressive measure; Realtor Sellemquick may in fact discriminate against people of colour; but their petty small-town antics are hardly going to make the history books or change the course of nations. Sometimes I fear we aggrandise our opponents so as to aggrandise ourselves and our struggles with them, to raise our tedious and often dispiriting struggles against the legions of Babbittry to a more heroic scale.

On the flip side, surely it cheapens the massive tragedies of history to invoke them every time we don’t like something or someone. There have been plenty of mass exterminations in history, Hitler’s campaign against European Jewry being a particularly well-documented instance; the human suffering involved in these pogroms is staggering, unimaginable. To invoke them rhetorically whenever we don’t like the joke a third-rate comedian told, or a flip comment made by a celebrity, or a decision made by the corrupt little Old Boys’ Club that runs our city council…. it seems to me somehow to demean and belittle the genuine, mind-blowing, inconceivable scale of historical cruelty and wickedness.

I would be the first to insist that there’s a fractal and hermeneutic connection between all sin and sorrow in this world. Cruelty, unlike many human activities, remains quite effective and consistent “at scale.”

The key elements of wickedness and cruelty remain the same whether grand or petty; or perhaps what I mean is that the ineluctable pettiness of greed and cruelty is always present no matter how grandiose the fantasy of domination and control, or the scale on which it flourishes. The short-circuiting of empathy, the profit motive, xenophobia and Othering, in-group bonding via the vilification of an out-group, and so on… The patterns recur, whether in individuals or mobs, in person or online, today or yesterday. We recognise them.

And yes, the cumulative petty bigotries of the Babbitts, the picayune ambitions of control-freaks in the local bureaucracy, the snide little insults and rudenesses offered to the Other among us, the glib dismissals, the cold shoulders, can add up under the right historical circumstances to reigns of terror and buckets of blood; just as the mostly harmless bacteria all around us can under the right circumstances add up to a lethal infection. But usually, not today.

So while I do believe we need to bear in mind at all times the connection between micro behaviours and macro structures of power (i.e. that the personal is political and that history does resonate into the present day), still there’s a sense of scale, proportion, or historical accuracy that I think we do well to cultivate and maintain. Precision of speech and thought, careful definition of terms, and doing our homework are important if we want a more peaceful and productive public discourse.

When we start practising the controlled demolition of meaning as a reflex or a preferred technique in rhetoric and polemic, we run the risk of losing meaning altogether. Words with very specific historic contexts become generic slurs or dogwhistles, and their historic context frays away. Turning “Hitler” into a generic insult or label for anyone we consider immoral or bigoted, or “Stalin” into a generic label for anyone left of Newt Gingrich, risks erasing the real, complex, and highly instructive history of the real Hitler, the real Nazi Party, the real Stalin, the real Bolsheviks, how they managed to get hold of the levers of power, how their ostensibly diametrically opposed ideologies produced such strangely similar results.

We also often conflate the early stages of a process with the worst possible eventual outcome of the process (collapsing meaning timewise, folding long timelines into flat events). Thus anti-mask protestors perceive government regulations compelling mask-wearing as the “thin end of the wedge” of a totalitarian, Big-Brother state that will command and control every aspect of their lives. And more cautious or conformant pro-mask individuals may see the non-mask-wearer strolling in the park as the thin end of a wedge of non-compliance that will escalate or avalanche into a plague of Biblical proportion, killing millions. Either way, a relatively insignificant decision in the present moment (mask, or no mask) gets buried under several storeys of the rubble of collapsed meaning.

It is harder work — but I think worthwhile work — to constrain our discourse to the boundaries of what is accurate, proportionate, and presently realistic. Anti-mask protestors may indeed increase the risk of infection in their local region, and some extra people may die because of this. Government bureaucracies do tend to proliferate rules and regulations, control-freaks often gravitate to jobs in local government and policing; and this makes some of us nervous when they get a license to impose novel restrictions. But to leap athletically from either of these statements to (a) huge national death tolls, or (b) Orwellian dystopias, merely muddies the waters and further paints each “side” of the debate into its own exaggerated (and dark) corner.

Once the ante has been raised this far — apocalyptic pandemic death tolls, and totalitarian dystopias — it’s very hard for anyone to listen to anyone else. The obvious and urgent necessity to avoid the worst-case scenarios to which we have eagerly leapt, means that nothing Those Other People have to say can possibly be relevant or acceptable.

Heaven knows we have enough scenarios spinning out of control around us, and far too much to worry about. We don’t need to push every single issue, every disagreement, to feverish drama. It doesn’t promote civility or reasonable debate; and civility and reasonable debate are what protect us from more aggressive forms of conflict. Note that I will refrain here from collapsing several storeys of meaning; I will not claim that sloppy thinking and hyperbolic rhetoric are leading us immediately into civil war or armed insurrection, and that people who indulge in either should therefore immediately be silenced or fined or whatever.

I just think it’s not helping, and we can do better.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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