During the late Nineteenth Century, Gottlob Frege said that every sentence was a proposition in that a truth value could be attached to it. That meant that every sentence (except those that were obviously just for emphasis, like “Ugh!”) was either objectively true or not. The blue unicorn is there behind you or he isn’t. One can quibble about whether this is only true of sentences with Western grammatical constructions, but the point is telling about English and associated languages. It is not far from that to Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite description, which said, at the turn into the Twentieth Century, that every sentence says about its object that the object exists. The blue unicorn exists even if only as a figment of your imagination. That is perhaps the high point of the philosophical view that language could be reduced to the same thing as science: a set of assertions that could be put to the test of their truth because what else was there? All statements were either true or nonsense. There is no place in that sense of language for metaphor or symbol.
The way around this is to notice that while it may be the case that, strictly speaking, sentences are true or not, that often is not what people find interesting about them. If I hear gossip, I care less about whether it is true or not than about the images it puts in my mind to contemplate. Yes, I might wonder if the rumor that JFK had an affair with Marilyn Monroe is really true, but it is the contemplation of that rumor which is intriguing, and so I remember her singing a sexy version of “Happy Birthday” to Jack at a birthday party given for him. Language, in fact, has many ways of qualifying a truth claim so that it is a sort of truth where the truth of the matter is not really central. Look at some contemporary political examples of the ways language can evade or easily satisfy the demands of truth.
One such evasion takes place when commentators take a statement that says one thing to say another because it is easier to borrow an older meaning than to cope with the present instance for what it distinctively means. So the commentators of MSNBC as well as their guests castigate Donald Trump for having engaged in the ages old anti-Semitic trope that Jews suffer from dual loyalties when they criticize Israel for having barred two U. S. Arab Congresswomen from visiting. For what else could it be than an invocation of that racial slur when he says Jews should support him and Israel over their interests as U. S. citizens? Well, there is another reading that, in fact, provides an even worse account of what Trump said. He was saying that Jewish loyalty to Israel is perfectly legitimate and that the problem is that some Jews, out of ignorance, do not honor that loyalty by disapproving of these two Congresswomen. So promote your identity issues; it just makes sense, even as Trump decries other groups, such as Blacks and Hispanics, for advocating on behalf of their own identity issues. Jews are an exception. Thanks a lot, President Trump. That slander is neglected because the first one, that dual loyalty is disgraceful, is invoked instead because it is so recognizable. Language, or rather the quickness whereby we can use language to alter what is said, makes that possible and so what was really said, the truth value of that, gets displaced.
Sometimes social structure can be a resource that language deploys so as to engage in the displacement of a truth by a closely associated half-truth or lie. Courtiers at Versailles would proclaim that they were doing Louis XIV’s bidding or looking out for his interests when in fact they were currying favor for themselves. But linguistic usage required that they play at being subservient, which is what the Queen of England’s ministers still do when they say they are representatives of Her Majesty’s government. A complicated contemporary example of the use of deference concerns those same two Congresswomen whom Trump castigates. Liberal newscasters greeted them when they were first elected as heralding a progressive moment in American society. Congress included not only Blacks and Hispanics and gays and a lot of women, it now included Arab women. (Two Arab men had preceded them.) News clips showed them and the other two members of “The Squad” (one Hispanic woman and one Black women) being sworn in and posing for pictures with Nancy Pelosi. Early gaffes, such as Representative Ohlan saying that it was Jewish money that accounted for bi-partisan support of Israel were treated as rookie mistakes, just the sort of thing that their elders could tell them are not the sort of thing to be said in public. But three of the four (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, but not Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who is African-American) voted against the resolution Pelosi pushed through the House denouncing the BDS Movement, which wants to boycott Israeli institutions. Despite Pelosi’s best efforts, Trump sees something usable, and so goes against the two new Arab Congresswomen, they thinking they are being picked on for being Arab rather than because of their views, which are anathema to most in America. Barring them from entering Israel played into their hands, making them sort of martyrs to their cause, which is the mistreatment of Arabs in the occupied territories. The news media have become increasingly queasy because they are more aware than they were before that the BDS Movement wants to delegitimize the Jewish State rather than just ease the conditions of occupation and so no longer praise the two Congresswomen though that has not gone so far as to criticize them either. They are caught up in Nancy Pelosi’s dilemma: how to defend her junior colleagues against Trump without allowing him to cast the media or her as defenders of the anti-Israel position. So language, whether critical or in praise, comes into action when the prestige structure is clear, and it will take something else to push the two Congresswomen out of the limelight. I notice that neither of them have appeared on any Sunday Morning gabfest. I surmise that they have refused invitations so that they cannot be queried on where they really stand on Israel. Trump is building up some points with his base, but I doubt the story will carry itself into the general campaign of 2020. Too many other things are likely to intervene, such as the collapse of Great Britain or a Recession or some new Trump statements, given how unleashed he now seems to be from those who can calm him down. Remember, the Democrats don’t have to win over Trump supporters, just allow them to be disgusted enough so that they don’t show up at the polls.
Here is another way language can be used to play tricks on you. A political gaffe has long been recognized as an occasion when a politician bursts out with the truth despite his disinclination to do so. Joe Biden has been long known for his gaffes. These predate his present campaign and so are not signs of mental decline but only of his style. Yet what are often called gaffes are, in his case, simply times when his misspoke, which simply means didn’t get out the words he meant to. And yet these occasions are treated as gaffes, as if they showed his real attention. Newscasters still cite the time when he spoke of fellow primary candidate Barack Obama as “clean” when clearly what he meant to say was “clean-cut”, which is not an insult because it does not proclaim that other African Amereicans do not bathe. So why refer to it at all? Because newspeople think they are doing “research” when they refer to something from the past as if to show there is a pattern there. The word “gaffe” allows them to do things they would not otherwise feel entitled to do, the word covering up a distinction between what it is and what it is not.
Obviously enough, not only those on the liberal side of the spectrum engage in the fuzziness whereby language allows people to say things that are not strictly speaking true but which nonetheless seem authoritative because they have the guise of being reasonable or a reason. A columnist in the New York Post commented on the decision to fire the officer who put a chokehold on Eric Garner. He thought it was just an attempt to appease Liberal opinion. He said that it was debatable whether Officer Pantaleo had indeed applied a chokehold. Opinions differed. So that way what had previously regarded as settled or established, that the officer had applied a chokehold, is now dismissed by simply claiming that the fact is in dispute. No one is going to ask for the details. Who are the experts who disagree with the finding. And this becomes a generalization that covers other matters that are not included, like the assertion that Eric Garner had eleven times said “I can’t breathe.” All the facts, by implication, are in question because one fact is put into question even if only by just saying so. And yet there is nothing wrong with this strategy because we also apply it when any finding gets questioned, as when I say that because Greenland once contained pasture land, and grapes were grown in Newfoundland, it follows that global warming is not as alarming as climate change advocates make it because in historical time conditions in the world have been warmer. All claims are up for grabs until my own pet objective has been answered. Similarly, Pantaleo is innocent if I can cite one fact in the case against him that is undecided or can be claimed to be so. There is no way to list all the verbal strategies of which people can avail themselves, much less which ones act in a way that favors one set of causes over another.
What is infuriating about language is that, far from being a set of strictures which guide or contain reasoning so as to make language clear, language is so flexible that it allows you to say anything you want to , even if it doesn’t make sense. So you can take back an argument you have just made by adding a “but” or a “yet”; you can add an extraneous thought by using an “and”; you can pose a contradiction by saying “notwithstanding”. You can offer up partial or truncated arguments or offer up metaphors to fill the lacunae in an argument; you can allude to material not in evidence or cite authorities never worrying whether that violates strict canons of logic or just begs the question. Most of all, you can interpolate irrelevancies or so muddy the question with verbiage that nobody knows what you are talking about, which is just what Dwight eisenhower prized when he was President. He made sure no one understood his position. There are also the incredibly complicated and subtle things I have discussed in this essay. And yet language is so full of possibility that we would not want to shackle it, to make it confirm to the kind of language Frege and Russell prefer. Let the people and the politicians speak. They will either sort it out or not sort it out well enough to serve the American interest.