Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gaslighting, ironyboarding, and the ideological privation of language

A while back I noted a recurring feature of liberal discourse - one that appears most distinctly in the sociolect of semi-erudite liberal gamers:
Just as they've invented mostly absurd theories of "sealioning"...these people have also hijacked all kinds of legitimate concepts and critiques in some of the most ridiculous ways imaginable. For instance, gaslighting...This is an indefensible (and frankly disgusting) appropriation of a concept created to protect people who are subject to serious, often life-threatening abuse...[but] The flamewars of Gamergate were, for many...the worst thing they have and will ever experience, even when they were not actually subjected to anything actually qualifying as harassment...
Recently, this popped up on my radar once again when I came across their latest innovation: "ironyboarding". A close variation of this appeared earlier today on CNN's State of the Union, when former Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer attempted to defend Donald Trump from accusations of sexual assault:
Well...he's been waterboarded by these issues. It seems like it's been somewhat of a put-up impression on Donald Trump from all these people lining up. It's just unbelievable.
Conceptually, this rhetoric is pretty straightforward: both speakers complain about what they feel are unfair attacks from a large group of people, and both compare this experience to being tortured by waterboarding. And in both cases, the move is identical with what we saw before: the speaker takes a word that we would ordinarily reserve for a far more traumatic and painful experience, and uses it to suggest that they are going through something comparable.

This move is not unique to modern internet liberals. In fact, Barthes argues that it is in fact the defining move of "bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature." (Mythologies, 140)

Barthes is using the somewhat dense and idiosyncratic language of mid-twentieth century radical French philosophy here, but one of its implications is quite simple. Continually, powerless people are coming up with ways to talk about their exploitation and oppression. This language and way of talking is directly rooted in history: it expresses the lived experiences of the powerless, which are often quite painful and horrendous. For the powerful, the ability that powerless people have to talk about their shared experiences is extremely threatening. There are all kinds of things they try to do about it, censorship being one of the most blatant and draconian examples; but under capitalism, a far more common approach is for powerful people to simply co-opt the language of the powerless. Since they control so much of our culture - our news sites, our book publishers, our television, our film, and so on - this is extremely easy to do: they just use the old words in new, less threatening ways, and insist that this is what the word naturally means. This is what Barthes means when he talks about the transformation of "History into Nature". Language loses its historical connection to real oppression and exploitation; it becomes abstracted into something less threatening to the bourgeoisie, who then deny the word's history and insist that it naturally always meant something like its new meaning.

Note that none of this implies conspiracy or deliberate Orwell-style language manipulation. All that matters are two things: first, people tend to use language in ways that they find personally convenient. And second, the people who are inclined to use language in a way that isn't threatening to the bourgeoisie are the people who happen to have the most influence in how our language is used. These are the people who write our books and produce our digital media, or who at the very least consume most of it. Together, both of these facts create a systematic tendency of our culture to neutralize language, to make it less threatening to the powerful and less emancipatory for the powerless.

Once we understand this property of language - what Barthes calls its privation - it's easy to see why liberal capitalist culture is so prone to the specific kind of hyperbole we see in the co-option of "gaslighting" and "waterboarding". Both terms were developed in opposition to quite specific afflictions of the oppressed; by their historical meanings, it is absolutely impossible to "gaslight" or "waterboard" someone on the internet. But with sufficient abstraction and generalization, privileged and powerful people can leverage their control of our culture to make it seem like they, too, are experiencing something analogous to the plight of the oppressed. Note that this is not simply a problem of "appropriation", as if all forms of linguistic borrowing are equally sinister; what makes privation dangerous, specifically, is the way that the people who control our culture can use this appropriation to disempower everyone else.

Unfortunately for liberalism, privation makes language an (at best) unreliable vehicle for political progress. It will always be impossible to develop a vocabulary of critique and resistance that the powerful cannot, eventually, neutralize and co-opt for their own ends; today's rhetoric of justice and equality will always be tomorrow's rhetoric of oppression and hierarchy.

Insofar as progress has anything to do with what goes on in the discourse, then, the powerless can really only rely on two things. First, on human creativity: on the amazing, infinite ability that we always have to find new ways of describing our world and talk about our problems - our capacity to develop a new radical language just as quickly as the powerful can co-opt the old one. And second, progress depends on critical thinking: on our ability to look past the mystifications of bourgeois ideology, its appropriation of language, and to pull back that veil of rhetoric and strike at the core of meaning underneath.