Rhetoric, Language, and Community
Dr. Walter Greason
8 May 2012
Professor Daniel Rodgers, distinguished historians of ideas at Princeton University, recently discussed the importance of language in the late twentieth century at the University of Pennsylvania. His main argument in his new book, The Age of Fracture, is that Americans adopted a vocabulary – a rhetoric – of alienation and despair in the last decades of the Cold War. This transformation of our concepts and the words we chose to represent our world crippled the public ability to craft policy based on the social structures that governed capitalism. We made “choice” synonymous with “freedom” and “the market” became the basis of our cultural judgment. The reliance on these kinds of concepts to govern ourselves oversimplified the society into a series of “two-person” metaphors, especially as seen in Supreme Court decisions after 1988. The complexity of social relations and the history of the civilization became irrelevant to our law and national identity.
As provocative, troubling, and persuasive as Professor Rodgers’ argument is, the fractures in our discourse that he describes are not total. However, the concepts that bind us closer together may be even more disturbing. Biology works as an example here. Between 1970 and 2010, our knowledge of biodiversity and its infinite functions became more complex than at any previous point in human history. Our language for communicating this knowledge expanded exponentially. Epidemiology became its own transformative force in understanding human experience. The Human Genome Project offered billions of new ways to understand human community that simultaneously offered liberation and damnation. Instead of the individualistic language of ‘choice’ and ‘the market’, genetics has re-defined communities of ‘autism,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘obesity,’ and ‘depression’ – just to name a few. These communities defy our conception of ‘choice.’ They reinforce old religious notions of ‘destiny,’ bolstered by their empirical foundations in science. Private think tanks like Singularity promote ideas like transhumanism and synthetic life that could radically alter humanity’s ideas about itself and its possibilities.
Professor Rodgers offers us the chance to carefully consider the power of our words and ideas to reshape humanity every day. Our possibilities have never been greater. Nor has the threat to our best ideals been more profound.
Dr. Walter Greason is a Visiting Scholar at James Madison University. You can contact him at www.waltergreason.comor on Twitter (@worldprofessor1).