essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
There are two main attitudes towards words. The first, older attitude is magical. Knowledge is power, and knowing the name of a force, entity or process gives you power over it. The gospel of St John expresses this view well in saying: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god”. The word ‘word’ was originally the Greek word logos. This means the divine power of god which creates order from chaos. ‘Word’ is knowledgepower. It is seen in magicians’ spells, who summon and control demons because they know their real name; it’s seen in blessings and curses we all use, an unconscious use of words in this magical sense; and the exaggerated respect placed by some in learned people, who are thought to have power because they have a mastery over words. The Torah does not reveal the name of god, using ‘el’, lord, or ‘yhwh’, whose syllabic content is uncertain. It is god who names, though he later gives that power to Adam before he is expelled from Eden. In later Greek culture the Sophists taught rhetoric, power with words that could sway men’s reason. We still distrust the overuse of words, which is one reason why organisations often have a plain word policy for documents. In literature ‘purple prose’ is a fault (which leaves us open to manipulation by a crafty ‘plain speaker’, who seems more genuine than he is).
The other main attitude to words is to see them as symbols, containers which can be filled with meaning and passed on to other people. Words form part of a language, have a history, and evolve meanings which change from place to place and time to time. Words have an etymology, and sometimes they revert back to older meanings unexpectedly. ‘Bread’ was slang for money in both 17th century London and 1960s America, for instance. Words in this sense are a bit like music. They have tones, and overtones. A skilled writer can use words aptly, and resonate the overt meaning with other, subsidiary meanings. This is an effect often used in poetry, but we use it in everyday language and slang too. The use of irony, sarcasm, puns and slogans amplifies the words’ meanings with associated meanings and the effect can be quite complex. A simple example is the double positive, “yeah, right!” to mean ‘no’, or express disagreement.
Although I realised that these kinds of overtones were present in language, and that words had a history, sometimes a quite fascinating one, I didn’t fully realise that words, or some words, retain several quite distinct meanings that are all quite current (though some of these are backward looking, others developing and changing). This means that two people can have a conversation, use some of these words, and both come away quite satisfied, each with a quite different idea of what has been said. I’m not talking about selective hearing, where a person hears what they want to hear, or what they expect to hear. I’m talking about keywords.
Keywords is a book first published in 1976 by Raymond Williams. It is one of my key books. It is an examination, not of sub-categories of language such as slang or acronyms, or of the history of words, but of how changes in social organisation, such as a war, an economic depression or inflation, a proliferation of conservative or radical organisations, affect values and in turn affect meanings. This has always gone on of course, and forms the etymological section of a large dictionary. But from the second world war onwards the rate of social change has accelerated, and certain words retain meanings in some spheres while they are acquiring modified meanings in other spheres, and identifying which meaning is meant requires some skill by speakers and writers, and readers and listeners alike. It is even more important now than ever before to be aware of one’s audience. As Williams notes, it is an area where a dictionary is not much help: the better ones will list all possible meanings, but that doesn’t help you decide which one was meant.
Some interesting keywords I found in Keywords of the 130 mentioned are: bureaucracy, communism, democracy, ecology, ethnic, family, history, individual, myth, nature, originality, popular, unconscious, and western.
A democrat can be many things: a member of the USA’s majority party which saw itself adhering to Thomas Jefferson’s principles in the early 1800s and with now more of a social platform than its rival and former partner the Republican Party; someone who believes in social and political equality for all people (such people have usually been affiliated to anarchist groups attacking political parties of all kinds, or one of the range of socialist or communist parties who support their cause of equality); a participator in the process of representational democracy nominally observed in most countries of the western world; or, historically, someone in ancient Greece who supported the demos against the aristos. Early Christianity was considered to be radically democratic (because the world was ending soon).
However, lines are continually being crossed. There have been ‘democratic’ elections in states ruled by dictators in which there was only one candidate, voting was supervised by soldiers carrying machine guns, and the result was proclaimed a unanimous, popular victory. From ancient Greece to Jefferson’s America to Robespierre’s Paris to contemporary politics, democracy has had many meanings, been restricted to a specific group of citizens, and the amount of participation of these has usually been limited, and varied quite extensively.
In ancient Greece, for instance, the demos, people, were farmers and small traders not represented in government, which was usually controlled by the party of aristocrats (‘the best’) who were considered as having the skill, and the time, to carry out government. The demos were first represented by tyrants (tyranny is another interesting keyword), aristos who by doing so sought to gain power for themselves, and the word tyrant acquired its pejorative sense from the aristos whom they dislodged. The first democracies were only nominally so, popular rather than democratic. But Athens produced a series of politicians who structured popular power into the constitution, by using selection from all the citizens by lot for the various decision making boards of the city. This first democracy was so-called ‘direct democracy’; it was limited in various ways. By restriction to citizens of citizen birth, over 50% of the population were excluded from power, women, children, ‘foreigners’, those of mixed birth, and slaves. In some courts voting was by acclamation, so democracy was just a yell. In all courts policies or cases were presented by rhetors or skilled speakers and the demos were notoriously swayed one way or the other by their arts, sometimes both ways alternatively. By the time of Pericles, Athens’ greatest general, the demos were controlled and placated by a dole and a handout of bread, and led by the most skilled speaker in the courts, Pericles himself. It was a dangerously unstable system, and some would call it only nominally democratic. It was also the greatest cultural achievement in the history of humanity, and people have been wondering ever since if there was any connection between the culture and the political system.
The same instability was there in the regime established in France by the Revolution of 1789. So strong was the feeling aroused by the exploitation practised by the ancien regime that revolution, when it exploded, was unplanned and haphazard. A prison called the Bastille, which was also an arsenal, was broken into for arms. Revolutionary regimes were set up, and replanning of all aspects of society were proposed, but before many of them could be carried out the revolutionary fire was quenched in repressive regimes at home and war with most of the other countries of Europe. Democracy in the French Revolution was confined to theory, the rest being what is often dismissed as ‘mob rule’, with all the disadvantages associated with that term. However, it was one of the key events in history, and inspired a lot of people interested in how democracy might be put into practice.
When Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues drafted the Declaration of Independence he had in mind the idea that rights of citizens, and their enforcement through democratic principles, could be recognised through constitutional means, via a system of representation. This was a revolutionary idea. Implementation was gradual, but Jefferson believed the machinery was there. Unfortunately when America entered the arena of power politics after the second world war the practice and theory of democracy were sometimes sharply distinguished. From the middle of the 20th century we have entered an era when what is said can be a substitute for what we propose to do.
Already it can be seen that we have a basic division, when considering meanings of democracy, between theory and practice. We have, in the practice, two types, direct and representative. We have various restrictions as to how ‘the people’ who share the power of government will be defined. We have various manipulations of democracy which are undemocratic, such as redefining electorate boundaries to suit the party in power, proxy voting and lobbying by interested parties. There is the control of a power group, self appointed to bring about the rule of the people, who never retire, and seem indistinguishable from aristocratic regimes, as in the case of communist Russia or China. There are abuses of democratic processes, multiple voting, hacking of vote counting computer programs, turning political campaigns and governments into TV sitcoms, smear campaigns.
So when you speak of democracy, are you meaning the proposition that every person should be given an equal opportunity? There are those who would reply that people are not equal in skills and talents, so why should they be equal in opportunity. There are those who would say that opportunities can never be equal, because of a widespread human characteristic of taking advantage of every system ever devised, and the clear fact that some people’s self-interest is clearly more equal than others. Theoretical democracy may be moral, but is it practical?
Perhaps democracy means that all people should be given rights and a voice in government. But as in practice it means just a group of people, then what group is meant when talking about democracy? Should the bum asleep in the park be given a turn as mayor? Should immigrants be able to vote for more immigration? Does the Fascist Party have a right to take over? Before you know it the democrats will be excluding quite large groups of people.
Democracy, it seems, can’t be too clearly defined. The British Westminster system is a case in point. It was felt by many in Britain that a system of government in which two or several parties competed, and alternated in government, would best serve the interests of the people. But any one who tried to prove this would be, at most, inconclusive.
Democrats: registered party members, right wing, left wing, ‘realists’ (“power corrupts”), rights of man supporters, utopians, working politicians, lobbyists, socialists, elitists, realists (or corrupt system manipulators), reformers, minority rights activists, on it goes. In the period leading up to the second world war, Stalin, Trotsky, Churchill, Hitler and Truman were all ‘democrats’.
My own feeling is that the political division is really between those who feel the greater involvement of the majority of citizens in self responsible government is a good, and those who feel the provision of basic goods and services to the majority is a good, rather than division on traditional left wing right wing lines. The first division calls for assertion and involvement in government by the electorate, the second tends to be more controlling, from above, “for the common good”. Both attitudes are vulnerable to distortion of course.
The early Christians gave the word ‘myth’ a pejorative sense it still has, that of false. They lived in a world where the Greek religions had been discredited, as they faded away with the cultures that gave them birth. The Roman Empire had helped spread many traditional but unfamiliar religious systems from Asia and Africa. Because Christians were at first a sect of Judaism they were affronted by the many gods of polytheism, at times seeing them as demons sent to mislead people. In this context the stories that once accompanied Greek, Asian and Egyptian religious rituals seemed spurious, unlike the stories that accompanied the Christian religious rituals, such as the crucifixion. This tendency was reinforced in a way by the contemporary tendency, emanating from big cities such as Alexandria, to codify and collect cultural material, much in the way folk traditions were collected in 19th century Europe. The myths in this process often lost their religious associations and were seen as mere stories, most famously in one of the world’s most influential books, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
This Christian sense of myth, as a way of referring to a part of non Christian religious systems which, as the Christian religion was the one true faith, must be necessarily false, was the dominant one until the new science of anthropology was born in the 19th century, and the new science of psychology was born in the 20th century. All of a sudden ‘myth’ became a keyword.
The concept behind anthropology was that other cultures should not be dismissed, let alone destroyed or exploited, as primitive or inferior ones. They were seen as valuable evidence giving light on the evolving cultures of humanity. Comparative religious systems and practices were looked at in Frazer’s Golden Bough, and a pattern sought, which could be used to explain some of human behaviour, and just why people believed what they did. This anthropological examination undermined the faith of many 19th century scientists, who found examples, for instance, of several earlier instances of a crucified god who rose again on the third day prior to the story of Jesus recorded in the gospels.
The word myth became politicised, with fundamentalist Christians combating the new science and its findings by reiterating the earlier sense of false, and scientists emphasising their use of myth as quantifiable, scientific data.
When Sigmund Freud used Greek myths to describe certain obsessive patterns of human nature when he formulated some basic concepts of the new science of psychology, he partly resolved this conflict between religion and science. The Oedipus Complex, though it referred to a story about an early king of Thebes in Greece which was a legend, or proto-historical account rather than a myth, placed myth in a non confrontational context. Myth evolved some more positive meanings: a basic pattern or process in the subconscious; an aspect of the creative part of the brain; a way of looking at situations in a non-reductive way and avoiding the sterility observable in some scientific methods.
The word is now used with a political overtone. A reference to Christian mythology, once considered shocking, can be used to attack the intolerant, aggressive attitude some Christians have to divergent faith systems. It is still used dismissively, in phrases such as “the myth of disarmament”. Those abandoning Christianity use the word positively to describe some of the processes within a new faith they are exploring, whether it be Druidism or Hindism. Christians who want to reinvent and revitalise their faith use it in the same positive sense. It is still used in the scientific sense, as when anthropologists describe the stories underlying the Cargo Cult of the South Pacific.
Keywords have a context which need to be deciphered, aside from any academic, etymological connotations they may have. For instance, does the “myth of disarmament” advocate disarmament, regret its non observance, or is it used as an introduction by a munitions seller? We need to know context, as we always have, but also measure tone and emphasis, identify the major meaning if several are implied, have some knowledge of the attitudes of the speaker/writer we are responding to, identify if values are being questioned or if there is an attempt to influence us. Keywords make communication harder, but more interesting. They can of course be used to exclude communication, as jargon, but that is another story. As for ‘facts’, that’s another keyword, and definitely another story.
Is democracy a myth? Are myths democratic? There are many more words to explore in Keywords.
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.