Philosophy and Linguistic Tyranny

Philosophy is no match for linguistic violence. Aggressive assertion bordering on the ad hominem can only elicit meditative silence or, egged on into heedless reaction, mad rhetorical venom. Philosophy not only cannot compete but also dies when language gets armed, and armed language cannot be disarmed by the probing question.

Moral probity and great earnestness, both taking shape in the question, collide with their other and then crumple up upon themselves whenever the respondent’s words are shot through entirely with contempt, a vicious and partially disguised form of hatred. Self-righteousness, impatience, fury, exasperation, disbelief all conspire to make any point–his–forcefully final.

A liberal person ceases to be liberal once he becomes a linguistic tyrant, rejecting any and all questions. Everything but what he asserts without challenge is a waste of his time, but he is too polite to let you know.

Richard Rorty, the great philosopher of conversation, was once asked what he’d do if he were faced with a Nazi. “Shoot him” was his coy yet candid reply. By which he meant that there are clear limits to the possibility of genuine dialogue, of speech, and don’t kid yourself, huh, into believing that careful, reasoned discourse shall open a man’s closed and festering heart. Should you try, he’ll laugh you down, calling you an ineffectual bloviator whose central task, by his lights, is obfuscation and inaction for to him all houses are burning down right now and the world is in the midst of one grand conflagration. If you’re thinking and not acting, insisting on thinking before acting, then you’re one of the enemies. You, being a philosopher, are a damned fool, a ninny, a hindrance, and he doesn’t, and won’t, suffer fools lightly.

This is not the end of the story since philosophy, being partially about reasoned discourse into what we do not know, is also constitutional. Zhuangzi’s epigram from somewhere deep in his great Daoist work The Inner Chapters is: “To argue is to miss the point.” To hold silence when confronted with another’s linguistic violence and indeed to try one’s best not to spread animosity and sow discord thereafter is a gift one gives to others even if they do not know how great is the gift they are receiving.

In Matthew 5:43-8, Jesus makes the most paradoxical, demanding claim imaginable, urging us not just to “love our neighbors” but to “love our enemies.” What, weirdly, would it mean for philosophy to love the bullshitter who cares nothing for the truth as well as the linguistic tyrant whose force forecloses philosophizing? Is that even possible?

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