On Language, Logic and Lies

EPIGRAM | June 27, 2011     

Epigram

Why we keep talking, talking, talking

The great 18th century French diplomat Talleyrand once said that speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts – a counterintuitive claim that explodes many sentimental myths about both communication and diplomacy. People never say what they mean: communication is not exchange, but aggression – and secrecy is at the heart of diplomacy. That is why we have reached the end of the age of diplomacy.

With unseemly haste, the new digital era has ushered in the end of individual privacy, just as it has ushered in the end of official secrets. Any whistle-blowing idealist or malcontent can download a thousand state secrets in seconds, just as credit card companies, phone companies, Internet sites and security cameras daily harvest data about our lives – some, if not all, of that information sold or shared for commercial purposes. Every day, diplomats blush to have their unedited, private remarks and reports published to the world.

Diplomats are the mouthpieces of governments, which also like to keep secrets – doubly secretive as such, for diplomats renounce the expression of personal views, just as they tend to keep their country’s true intentions tight in their hearts. Thus, diplomats always bear the mark of Cain – the sign of untruthfulness; an unsavouriness, as it were, for their professional hypocrisy.

The existence of such secrets has always been an open secret. The cynicism – the façade of sagacious courtliness of the diplomatic class – has always been blindingly obvious. Idealists like to hold diplomacy in contempt, but this contempt is often shadowed by half-denied self-recrimination. As Talleyrand well knew, what is corrupt in the world of diplomacy is corrupt in language in general; what we see – or think we see – nakedly in diplomacy is nothing less than the will to power that is the essence of communication itself. Language made the human ape the most dangerous of beasts, but also capable of expressing grand thoughts and tragic beauty.

Actually, two theories of language are in play. The idealist (and the common-sense Everyman) hews to the notion that communication – the exchange of meaning – is the primary role of language, whereas the cynic and the diplomat accept that language is a game of self-assertion and persuasion. This is why Plato disliked rhetoricians and poets, who had a similarly cavalier attitude toward truth.

But this style of diplomacy – the hollow, yet wiley courtliness left over from the era of Talleyrand (the prestige of the diplomat being one of the last glimmers of a feudal twilight) – is in decline, superseded on the one hand by corporate globalization (with its sleepless, around-the-clock, around-the-world ebb and flow of electronic money and data), and on the other hand by the spontaneous eruption of regional underclasses without a structured leadership, but loosely organized via virtual connexities supplied by cells phones and the Internet. Thus, the world was recently treated to the spectacle of the White House and the US State Department watching Al Jazeera for the news from Tunisia and Egypt, because the usual diplomatic channels of information gathering and analysis were hopelessly slow in comprehending the simultaneity of history in the new age. Ironically, this was taking place just as Wikileaks was emitting a stream of diplomatic secrets – cables, communiqués – such that, in that moment, almost everyone in the world seemed to know more than the diplomats.

At this juncture in the evolution of late capitalism, amid the instantaneous networks of global commerce and electronic media (characterized by simultaneity, instead of by sequence), we are changing the way in which we communicate. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan coined the ridiculous phrase “global village” to describe what he understood to be happening, but his analogy could not be farther from the truth. Villages are finite, relatively small networks that depend on linear, word-of-mouth transmission of data: the new protocols of exploding, simultaneous, virtual networking means that a man in Misrata can flash a photo of a tank exploding not just to his neighbour in the street, but to millions around the world instantaneously. The world has not become a village; rather, the village has become a total and unpredictable world.

But prediction is a fool’s game. The paradox of language is that it is both an impossible and a necessary tool of communication. The only way to explain the fact that language does not work is to use language. This is an impenetrable mystery, like the paradox of the Cretan barber – something to dog philosophers to their graves. Diplomacy has this Janus-like quality in spades. Truth is conquest; communication is impossible; diplomats prevaricate; but we keep talking, talking, talking.

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Douglas Glover is a Governor-General’s Award-winning novelist and short story writer. His last book was The Enamoured Knight, a study of Cervantes and Don Quixote.

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