- Notre Dame students react to Osama bin Laden’s Death Announcement, May 2, 2011 (Source: The Observer)
It’s a question of epistemology: how do you know what you know? Given that these students came of age in the Homeland Security era, their deference to official media does not surprise. But their response seems very shipyard worker or trade school student: knee-jerk, emotional, unquestioning.
If we pause and look back, we might remember the story as uncomfortably sterile. It began with a made-for-TV SEAL Commando raid and ended with an unannounced burial at sea. But it seemed inorganic and lacked dimensionality. Photos of the President watching as a spectator thousands of miles away felt surreal. Thin and electronic, there was little bloodtrail as killings go. It even lacked a corpse and evidence thereof:
Though the Abbottabad raid has been described in great detail by U.S. officials, no physical evidence constituting actual “proof of death” has been offered to the public, neither to journalists nor to independent third parties who have requested this information through the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous organizations filed FOIA requests seeking at least a partial release of photographs, videos, and/or DNA test results, including The Associated Press, Reuters, CBS News, Judicial Watch, Politico, Fox News, Citizens United, and NPR. On April 26, 2012, Judge James E. Boasberg held that the Department of Defense was not required to release any evidence to the public. (Source: Wikipedia)
Despite a sole source problem, the media blitzed the public with mimeographs of the official report, and the public and these students bought it. Later, after their FOIA requests were denied, none of these major media organizations retracted the story. This degrading of reality from that which is physically observed to that which is simply reported emasculates language of its ability to help us discover and convey truth. The truth in this case is that we simply cannot know when, where or under what circumstances Osama bin Laden expired.
Is this a case of deverbalization? Easy for you to say.
On May 1, 2011, the New York Times’ newsbreaking headline “Bin Laden Is Dead, Obama Says“ made clear the Times understood the distinction between Bin Laden dying, and making the claim. Their need to attribute to Obama calls into question the assertion, and is fundamentally different than a headline like “Bin Laden Is Dead, According to Evidence.” Obama understood this distinction – that the story’s credibility would swing on the Administration’s narrative – because the Administration made the decision to suppress the physical evidence.
The idea that unsubstantiated claims should be embraced as fact recalls Karl Rove’s dictum that the Executive Branch doesn’t respond to reality, it creates it. From a 2004 interview with NYT Magazine’s Ron Suskind:
[Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
At its heart, therefore, this story presents a language problem with serious repercussion, as no other person figured in more heavily to the dramatic shift in foreign policy and American public life since September 11, 2001. Without the integrity of language in tact, the public lacks a factual context to evaluate a decade of national security policies.
To deverbalize a society is to dehumanize it. A loss of verbal integrity plunges society into a social darkness of varying degrees, ultimately mutilating the fundamental way in which people relate to one another. Language can mutilate the thought process. Seen in this light, language is everything.
– Theologian J. Daryl Charles, The New Verbal Order
Neil Postman, in a classic work, noted that communicating through language requires serious effort that is often undercut by our own infatuation with being entertained:
Learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories. . . Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and comercials.
– Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman, 1985
Just Me Asking: Is free inquiry at Notre Dame dead?
If young scholars as these can be moved to spontaneous celebration by fantastic but unsubstantiated Presidential decrees, and if the hollowing out of language itself is an enabler, one could imagine darker forms of mobilization of the young, the ignorant and other socially disenfranchised groups.
But how about that guarantor of dissent and speech – the University: can it offer a back channel to truth and integrity to deliver us to terra firma?
There was a time when geographical isolation and distance offered communities like Notre Dame time to catch their breath and authenticate incoming news. But media ubiquity has compressed time and warped geography. In this case the pure abstraction of Osama bin Laden evinced persuasive power far greater than the tremendous physical distances that news had to travel, distance which normally would have intervened on the side of reticence.
If natural barriers have fallen, then institutions like on-campus reporting could fill the gap to help students see past image to reality when truth is in question. But at Notre Dame, it fails to do so, as University Administration control over The Observer denies students the opportunity to deliberate, to question, and to form their own narrative based on rigorous study of history and primary sources.
Student writers and their editors thus reprint and recycle Associated Press stories, which are a secondary news source, and are captive to the language, predisposition and point of view of their sources. This photo is but one example, where the staff photographer sought out examples of student behavior confirmatory to the official report, while surely there were more open-minded students whose response might have revealed doubts.
While most are familiar with Orwell’s 1984 and its warnings, few are aware that Christian author CS Lewis also weighed in on the dangers of ceding control over language, as he related truthful language to the foundational layer of a traditional value system.
Hitherto the plans of the educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them – how Plato would have every infant ‘a bastard nursed in a bureau’, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry, – we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the manmoulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irrestistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please. . . A dogmatic belief in objective value is [therefore] necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.
– CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 1944
If this discussion seems esoteric, I’ll close with a few practical suggestions. If you are a university student at Notre Dame or elsewhere, think about using your time as a student to build a reverence for language and history, and apply that context to news accounts and other media when trying to assess the world around you. It takes courage to make independent judgements about the quality of such information and to form individual opinions accordingly. Few of your peers do it, and the journey will be worth the effort.
If you are an adult professional, this is a call to reflect on the role of language in the commons, how its emasculation threatens our fundamental ability to communicate with one another, and to recognize that distortion of speech is a primary currency of the War on Terror (the other being fear), and that perhaps each of us should search for practical ways based on our own professional skills and social position to resist these attempts.