Can I See Another's Woe?

Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief? ...

No, no! never can it be
Never, never can it be
William Blake, 1757-1827

One of my responsibilities in Senator Glenn's office was drafting responses to letters from schoolchildren. Most asked Glenn about his orbital flight, or which President he most admired. But several times a fifth-grade class requested that the Senator place in "the dictionary" the new word their class had invented. These youngsters, (and, alas, their teachers and textbook writers) apparently believed that "the dictionary" is made by "the government" and that new words are legislated into currency by Congress.

Most grownups understand that language is not imposed from the top down by legislators, nor even authorized by experts -- lexicographers, professors or poets. However, everyone (even youngsters) understands the power of words. We know that words affect human perception, passion, thinking, and action, and that there can be no society or civilization without them. The relationship is deeply embedded in the co-evolution of speech and society.

Philip Lieberman observed (in Eve Spoke, 1998) that chimpanzees will eat living monkeys, oblivious to the screaming of their victims and apparently unaware of causing pain by their actions. We find this horrible, and if a human displayed such behavior, we'd lock him up.

The moral judgment Blake makes and we share -- that anyone who would act in this manner is depraved -- originates in speech -- the human ability to put words to experience, and conceive of oneself in the position of the "other". We don't hold chimpanzees morally responsible because we know they don't have the cognitive resources to imagine (in words) the pain they are causing, or to assign meanings (in words) to the cries they hear; neither do they have the linguistic resources to communicate with others and develop shared meanings that modify behavior.

But the power of language that makes mercy possible also enables us to be cruel. Homo sapiens, the only animal with language, is also the only species that deliberately inflicts pain as means to ends -- like power, profit, revenge, or fun. The ability to imagine and assign words to the suffering of others is the root of of human mercy. It is also of the root of human cruelty and the concept of Evil, as well as the foundation of terrorism and a driver of modern warfare.

So the words of human speech matter -- a lot. They are the lexicon from which we construct the parameters of the world we live in, govern our activities, and derive our moral judgments.

Politicians, preachers, playwrights, and pundits have been exploiting the power of language for thousands of years. Two centuries ago "freedom of speech" was recognized as crucial to democracy. For the last hundred years or so the advertising industry has been industriously manipulating the lexicon, coining new words and tweaking meanings of old ones.

With the coming of age of TV the opportunities for tinkering with the lexicon have increased enormously. We recognize the usefulness of "sound-bites" and "spin" ; we try to control speech with "political correctness"; we allow corporations wide latitude in deciding what the public should buy, read, hear, see or believe.

And many key people in the Bush administration think they can -- and should -- dictate the words and meanings of policy decisions and actions they take in our name and with our money.

They don't control our words -- yet. But this ruling elite has enacted legislation that infringes free speech, and is unwilling to let go of the idea of using "psychological operations" to influence public opinion. They have already put phrases like "collateral damage", "homeland security" and "compassionate conservative" into the lexicon to deflect attention from the cruelty of some of their actions, or even to suggest they are merciful.

Can we see another's woe? The words "collateral damage" have a very different affect than "bloody fragments of children", yet the former often means exactly the latter. And just what does "compassionate conservative" mean when it comes to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or family planning for poor women, or the children of Iraq?

Is it possible that a small elite in a heavily- armed, high-tech, affluent nation can control the public lexicon and thus manage the destiny of the planet for some short term? Yes, but it's improbable. Such a hegemony of a few over many would not be viable for very long, if only because language is fundamentally a democratic process, not amenable to decree, legislation, or regulation. The public lexicon is constantly being invented and reinvented, calibrated and recalibrated, formed and transformed by its users in colorful and unpredictable ways.

So, no, fifth-graders. No-one can put made-up words in the dictionary -- and must not be allowed to. We have to make our dictionaries together, by talking to one another and renewing our common language on common terms. As long as we do that efforts toward "central planning" of our thought and speech cannot prevail.

Can I see another's woe ... And not seek for kind relief? If we are truly human and not just extra-clever animals we must be capable of choosing mercy and abjuring cruelty, and join wholeheartedly join in Blake's refrain:

No, no! never can it be
Never, never can it be.

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