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No Words Are Sacred

January 11, 2011
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Constitution of the United States

Language sets human beings apart from other animals on this planet.  Human language is more sophisticated by far than primitive forms of animal communication.  Dog owners know different barks signal happiness, prey, or danger.  However, among dogs there is no sound that makes danger.

The major difference between human and animal language is not one actually one of sophistication, but one of function.  Human language doesn’t merely communicate, it constructs our world.  This is what makes language not only highly useful, but also problematic and potentially dangerous.  We fight about language, we justify our actions and decisions on words that may or may not be correct, and we make some words sacred.

The best aspect of language is also possibly the worse aspect.  We formulate, construct, manipulate, and communicate complex concepts.  However, the more we do this the more real those concepts become in our minds, sometimes more real than the real world.  Written words are especially likely to be given higher status because they do, in some sense, have a more physical presence than momentary sound.

On Thursday, the 112th Congress of the United States read the Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives.  This is a noble endeavor.  However, it’s also caused quite a stir.  Allegations of political theater, editorializing, cherry picking, and fetishism have surrounded what really ought to be a normal, even a mandatory, event for national politicians.

The version of the Constitution which was read did leave out superseded sections.  This is reasonable.  On the one hand, they read the current Constitution.  On the other hand, they left out those rather pointed reminders of the imperfection of the original in an effort to glorify the document as a sacred banner for their upcoming legislative efforts.  The critics have a point.

If the Constitution were perfect, the authors would not have bothered to include methods for amendment within it.  After all, I’ve always interpreted the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” as the right of citizens to own weapons so that they may protect themselves from and overthrow a tyrannical government should it prove necessary (sort of like the authors did).  However, I also believe parts of the Constitution are necessarily flawed.  I think event the authors would agree no private citizen should be able to park a loaded howitzer on their lawn.

Even the NRA wouldn’t go that far (would they?), yet they have fought for the rights of people like Jared Loughner to own and carry weapons based on these few words in this ‘sacred’ document.  Even if the NRA might agree that no one as unstable as Mr. Loughner should actually have a gun, that is exactly what the liberal gun laws of Arizona, the most permissive in the country, have allowed.  And we know how that turned out.

Following the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona, which left six dead and fourteen wounded, there have been several responses.  Some have called for stricter guns laws.  Others have looked instead at recent violent political rhetoric.

In other words, did language have anything to do with creating a world where someone like Mr. Loughner, now widely described as “mentally unstable,” could see violence as a legitimate solution to political dissatisfaction?  Most people place the blame where it belongs – on the individual – rather than on the rhetoric.  But that hasn’t stopped people like Sarah Palin from  hastily removing a map she had posted showing gun sites targeting Democratic representatives.

It is unknown whether this particular map or any other specific rhetoric influenced Jared Loughner.  Given his mental state, it’s likely he would have reached the tipping point eventually, but the rhetoric might have given him a target just like the Arizona gun laws gave him the means.

The Tucson incident is a very extreme example.  The hubbub over the reading of the Constitution is a very minor example.  However, there is one more idea worth pointing out.

Will Buckingham over at thinkBuddha.org has recently posted an article titled ‘The Dull Monk in the Third Row Theory of the Evolution of Buddhist Doctrine,’ in which he points out the different between how language can be used and how it is interpreted.

“First let us imagine the Buddha – if nothing else a master storyteller – standing in the centre of some village, and spinning a yarn. This story, like any good story, is filled to bursting with jokes, ironies, witty asides, double meanings. The audience are lapping it up,” Buckingham writes.

“But there, somewhere in the audience, around the third row, is a monk of a particularly pious cast of mind. …As the Buddha speaks, he hangs upon every word, or almost every word – leaving out the more ribald jokes, if there be any, for they offend his sense of propriety. He is tone-deaf to double meanings, the quips, the asides. Even as he listens, his is weaving everything he hears into a structure of pleasing proportions, a cathedral of doctrine, with an imposing exterior and, when one steps through the door, soaring and awe-inspiring vaults.”

Buckingham’s point is that while reading the Buddhist scriptures we need to keep in mind that some things may have been lost in translation, so to speak.  However, he also points to another common problem of language: the meaning of the speaker or author is not the same as the meaning of the listener or reader despite the use of the very same words.

We need to keep in mind that words are never sacred.  Language is never sacred.  The Constitution is not sacred.  The “right to bear arms” is not sacred.  The scriptures are not sacred. By sacred, I mean sacrosanct, immutable, untouchable, perfect.

Language is an imperfect and often dangerous tool.  It is also arguably the most useful tool ever created by, so there’s no getting around using it.  Nor should there be.  Many words, those of wise teachers and learned people, are worth great respect.

However, we must question even, especially, those words we respect.  That is the only way we will come to understand them.

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