Language and terror: Remembering Richard Rorty

It is paradoxical that as we subside into an increasingly post-literate culture typified by the tweeted or texted sound-bite, language only becomes more crucial to social stability. Humans have always been liable to heedlessly throw words around with little thought for the consequences. Now, in the full flowering of the digital age, words fire back and forth in an interminable crossfire, with certain terms quickly developing nuclear capability as zealots send them out wrapped in layers of distorted meaning.

In such circumstances, the eminently sensible voice of Richard Rorty is sorely missed. Rorty, who died in 2007, was one of our most compassionate philosophers. You can gauge his worth by the fact that he seemed to get under the skin of just about everybody, occupying a transient between-space in a manner off-putting to commentators who spend careers building conceptual fortresses behind which to protect their world-view.

It is hard to fathom why a scholar who considered the avoidance of suffering as the most noble of human goals should be subjected to so much opprobrium from critics. Rorty was alternatively disparaged as a nihilist and an anti-intellectual, and chided for his supposed relativism and ‘impotent poeticism’. Evidently, the idea that one’s own stubbornly guarded truths melt into air in the face of misgivings about the language used to construct them strikes an acutely raw nerve for many.

Rorty believed that language shapes reality. People develop shared (and by definition, limited) vocabularies around which they structure their lives. Rather than settle upon one monolithic vocabulary as ‘the truth’, he advocated perpetual dialogue and debate as necessary to discourage any single belief system from dominating others, often at the expense of liberty.

In his conception of the ironist, Rorty conjured an individual who maintains doubts about the vocabulary into which she has been inducted. The ironist is intuitively sympathetic to multicultural contexts, because she acknowledges the possibility of encountering other vocabularies which might enrich, or even render doubtful, her own long-held ideals.

Perhaps the most appealing image Rorty provided is that of the ‘beautiful mosaic’. By continually expanding their cultural acquaintance through encountering new ideas and vocabularies, the ironist revels in innovative ways of experiencing the world. Here, a broad range of cultural acquaintance is an inherently positive thing: it allows one to be ‘redescribed’ through the enhancing of one’s own vocabulary.

At our present moment in time, however, the increasingly prominent Western ideology is one which would seek to see any beautiful mosaic shattered in the name of cultural one-upmanship. Fear of other vocabularies and cultures, along with a nostalgic and irrational belief in the perfection of our own, feed into a resurgence of the kinds of attitudes that once characterised this country’s White Australia Policy.

‘Terror,’ ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ are the most prominent terms currently being employed as language weapons against social unity and cultural hybridity. They are used in ideologically suspect ways to reinforce populist agendas and further an us-versus-them narrative in political and media circles – a wrongheaded attempt to advance unity within a society, rather than between all societies.

We are all to some extent under threat from violence and extremism, both of which should be condemned. But for numerous politicians and many in the mainstream media, that ‘we’ is recast to isolate and exclude certain others, most conspicuously Muslims. Following on from European migrants in the post-war period and Asian refugees in the late twentieth century, Islam has become the latest other with which to do battle in order defend our supposedly advanced way of life.

The West is now at war against Islamic terrorism and therefore deeply suspicious of anything even remotely associated with Islamism. The idea of a ‘war on terror’ works as a kind of doubled-anachronism, sending us further down an ideological cul-de-sac. Notions of war are dubiously applied in contemporaneous contexts. It seems impossible to shake off the idea of war as it manifested in 1945: a righteous conflict victoriously concluded by a formal surrender on the part of ‘an enemy’. Apparently, neither Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq – nor equally drawn-out, ephemeral campaigns like the ‘war on drugs’ – have convinced us that war is no longer a matter of identifiable adversaries and definitive outcomes. And when the government claims to combat terror by siding with indubitable terrorists – Australia’s current alliance with the monstrous Phillipines dictator Duterte being but the latest example – the language of the battle only becomes more preposterous.

Literary scholar J Hillis Miller, who resembles Rorty in both his magnanimity and belief in a professional duty to ‘put everything in question’, says: ‘when something so politically important as the concept of the sovereign nation-state is on the way out, it is likely to be reaffirmed hyperbolically in its death-throes.’ Most hyperbolic of all in Australia are the calls – at the Hansonite extremes – to segregate or even oust one outsider (Muslim) culture in order to protect the principal. Such flat-earthers – equally noisy in debates around anthropogenic climate change – seem to believe that it might somehow be possible to wind back globalisation to the point where other cultures and religions no longer impinge upon their own. (Presumably, however, the idea of reverting to a localised, pre-internet age would in fact be unpalatable to a type so heavily reliant on the internet to sell its messages.)

The desire to simplify complex political situations by reverting to what Jeff Lewis of RMIT University calls ‘apocalyptic visions of good and evil’ is, though, not limited to the nefarious edges of politics. In a notable recent example, a QUT journalism professor, responding to a ‘terror’ event, tweeted calling for the destruction of Islam, showing that even supposed rational commentators are capable of recklessly employing language as an instant weapon. There is no room for doubt here, and certainly no thought of redescription: only a distorted, imagined good (‘us’) versus a dubiously defined evil (‘them’) and its supposed associates (Muslims, refugees; any identifiable ‘others’).

For Richard Rorty, the question “am I using the right language?” is one of the most important to be asked. When are we going to realise that isolationist language only pours petrol on the flames of terror and makes social harmony less likely?


Image: Rorty and Posner on Dewey / youtube

Dean Biron

Dean Biron holds a PhD from the University of New England and teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology.

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Suzie Gibson

Dr Suzie Gibson is a Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University. She has published widely in distinguished national and international journals that cover the fields of literature, philosophy film and television. Her research is informed by her knowledge of nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century literature, continental philosophy and feminism. She is a regular contributor to a number of online and offline publications including both peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed publications such as Screen Education, The Queensland Review, The Conversation, Performing ArtsHub and Overland Literary Journal. She has also written a number of important book chapters on popular culture figures, including James Bond and Batman in order to explain complex philosophical concepts through these iconic characters. Trained in literary and critical theory, she has published extensively on a variety of textual forms, including traditional and experimental literature and philosophy.

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