Many words current in our culture carry within them a whole buried world of political assumptions and psychological payoffs. Just to use these words is to submit yourself to a powerful attempt by the words’ coiners or redefiners to shape reality and to impose a view of it that they consider advantageous to themselves.
Often such words are used to establish what Bronislaw Malinowski called, a “phatic communion,” that is, a tacit agreement that draws a line around a “we” and excludes a “they.” Such words have a militant as well as a triumphalist role: when used against the “they” these words are a way of skating over uncertainties in the evidence and reasoning that support the in-group’s conclusions: the words themselves assume the existence of their referents. After all, how can you have a word that does not refer to something? Yet, as the deconstructionists have shown us, the murdered uncertainties do not go away, but continue to haunt the word, sous rature, under erasure, greatly enriching its emotional and ideological force with the semantic guilt of the original erasure.
In a sense, such words are always lies, not because they do not refer to a reality (often, no doubt, they do), but because when used they represent an attempt to sneak through a set of conclusions without arguing them: to shape the playing field in such a way that the nature of the game and perhaps the identity of winners and losers are foregone conclusions. Further: to use such words is essentially an attempt to trick the interlocutor, as in the old journalist’s question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” or the psychoanalyst’s, “How do you feel about your mother?” The trick is that to join in dialogue on these terms is already to have conceded the other person’s implied assertion. Yet since the asker of the question or the user of the loaded word has opened a conversation, it would be churlish—breaking the fundamental human contract to join in dialogue when it is offered—to refuse to answer. To refuse to answer would, moreover, suggest that you had a guilty conscience, that you had in fact committed the crime of which the “we” convicts the “they.”
And this crime is often so horrible and unredeemable—un-Americanism, say, in the 50’s, or racism or sexism today—that the very imputation of it disqualifies the accused from standing in his or her own defense; to defend himself against such an accusation is to defend the crime. The vileness of the crime, by a sort of metaphysical “tunneling,” affects the guilt or innocence of the accused. The words that are used to do this are words of great power: they already partly convict their targets of witchcraft.
Examples of such words include, for example, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (which automatically and without argument makes it impossible for Zen Buddhists, animalists, polytheists, and atheists to be patriotic Americans) and the slogans of both the pro- and the anti-abortion movements. The subtext of the word “prolife” includes the following questionable and inconsistent assertions: (1) that what is valuable about a human being is life (yet the skin-tissue I kill when I scratch is alive, and suitably cloned possesses all the genetic inheritance required to produce a new baby Frederick Turner); (2) that human life begins at the moment of conception, not before or after, and not gradually; (3) that a soul is implanted from outside into the human body at conception; and (4) that the word “life” is an acceptable synonym for “soul.” The term “pro-life” has the form and appearance of something you could not possibly disagree with. How could someone be “anti-life”?
The same goes for the term “pro-choice.” Nobody would be anti-choice. But the word contains just as many questionable assumptions as “pro-life,” among others, that: (1) since the fetus is not a human being, its choice, if you were to wait around long enough to find out (as you might wait for a sleeping person to wake up in order to ask her something) does not count; (2) getting pregnant in the first place was not a choice—also perhaps (2a) if you think it was a choice you are obviously a sexually repressed and dangerous protofascist; (3) the father’s choice does not count either; (4) the whole issue is one in which choice is a valid factor, as it is when we choose between brands in the supermarket or between political candidates; rather than one in which choice is not a valid factor, as in the choice of whether or not to kill a neighbor.
The point is that for one who believes (as I do, for instance, though it does not concern this essay) that abortion before the last trimester is a sad but often acceptable substitute for bringing an unwanted baby into the world, the word “pro-choice,” though perhaps a nice public relations coup, can produce only Pyrrhic victories. The slogan makes it appear that to agree with it you have to kill and bury any doubts you might have about issues 1, 2, 2a, 3, and 4; doubts that are more horrible as ghosts than as live opponents. On the other hand, a true lover of whims, inconsistencies, and follies—as I hope I am—might find it hard to say goodbye to such a good friend.
Other examples of such haunted and machicolated terms include the word “skills,” especially when used in an educational context. This word buries the unargued assumption that a skill is separable from, and implantable in, a human person, and that the content of a mind is unimportant compared to the mechanical methods in which it has been trained. In a deep sense the word denies the original capacity for causation in the human being, and the uniqueness of each human world view, while placing in the hands of those who teach “skills” the reins of the republic. Another word of this kind, which makes up for its lack of subtlety by a certain breathtaking seizure of the initiative, is “needs,” as in “my needs.” Here what is crudely but effectively concealed is a bold preemptive attempt at a coup: the redefining of what I happen to want as what is necessary for my survival (and what you should therefore give me).
Some terms, like “profit motive,” contain two distinct and competing sets of cant. In this case one of them consists in the capitalist’s implicit fudging or stretching of the notion of monetary gain to cover all ways in which you might profit from something; and the other implies that anything you do because you want to do it is selfish and exploitative. Could you possibly be motivated by anything other than profit, in its broadest sense—”what doth it profit a man . . . “? Yet wouldn’t it be nice for the unmotivated, the failures, those paralyzed by their own self-indulgence, self-hatred, or inertia, to be able to smear all success as basely mercantile in its motivation? “Capitalist,” by the way, is another such word, though the brilliant coloration of its inconsistencies is beginning to fade with time, as it becomes harder and harder to distinguish capitalism from modern economic organization in general.
Everyone can find favorite examples of his own. But the need for a cant-detector is no less now than it was in the 18th century, the golden age of cant detection; perhaps greater. Those loaded or haunted words can be dangerous, attracting as they often do much of the free-floating hatred that is still left over from the great spasms of mass cruelty we have endured since the French Revolution. (I am grateful to ZsuZsanna Ozsvath for this insight.) At the same time their fecund absurdities can be a reliable source of entertainment. Thus it might be valuable to develop ways of translating or deconstructing such words into their underlying assertions and payoffs.
One of the richest and most delightful veins of cant can be found in the word “patriarchy,” especially when accompanied by its little seal of ontological validity, the definite article: “the patriarchy.” If it’s a “the,” then there must be only one of it (as opposed to there being several different patriarchies and kinds of patriarchies, together with other organizations that are not patriarchal). Moreover, as a “the,” it must definitely exist, and all persons must agree that it exists. “A” patriarchy, on the other hand, might or might not exist; you would have to use evidence and reasoning to decide whether something was or was not a patriarchy. Not so “the” patriarchy. If you don’t see that it exists, obviously you are so snowed by its propaganda that you are blind to its reality, or you are part of it and involved in a coverup.
Even the nature of the patriarchy is implied by “the.” The patriarchy that one means is the bad one, the hegemonic, controlling, oppressive one, to use three more prime examples of the loaded word. “The” somehow rules out any disagreement on the nature and definition of patriarchy, as it rules out any question of whether it is a good or a bad thing, or whether it was good at one time and bad at another. “The” rules out any investigation of the issue. Indeed, if the patriarchy is the patriarchy, the very use of evidence and reasoning to decide whether it is or not, is already a clear sign that one is a member of that fob-pocketed, bulging-eyed, and beetroot-complexioned fraternity of tyrants.
There does exist, however, a tempting defense against the definite article here. It consists of a deliberate misprision, a delicate little finesse or modulation whereby the “the” could be metamorphosed in a flash so as to take on the quality of “the” in “the unicorn,” “the phoenix,” or “the gods,” or, as many baby boomers now use the term, “the Establishment,” an ironic reference to the general gremlins of paranoia that inhabit social life. Here the definite article gives its seal of approval not to the existence of the mythical beast, but to the shared agreement to entertain it as a delightful counterfactual object of thought.
But if we employed this defense, we would be robbed of the veridical or scientific use of the term “patriarchy,” with the inoffensive indefinite article. We might still want to ask such reasonable questions as, is there such a thing as a patriarchy? Is the society one? Are there other kinds? If “the” patriarchy were just like “the” unicorn, “a” patriarchy might be as hard to find as a unicorn. To keep the package (that is, the word “the”) while changing what is inside (that is, from the “the” of a single accepted truth to the “the” of a playfully shared myth) would be entirely in the spirit of the coiners of “the patriarchy,” but it would play into their hands by abandoning the criteria of evidence and reasoning.
This essay is in no sense an argument about whether there are or are not societies that can legitimately be termed patriarchies; nor whether there is or is not just one patriarchy, “the” patriarchy; nor whether patriarchy can or cannot coexist with other forms of organization, for instance matriarchy or democracy; nor whether patriarchy dominates a whole society or is just the characteristic structure of a certain sphere of life, the fatherly, while other spheres of life, as the motherly, are governed by a matriarchy; nor whether the manifest decline of the institution of fatherhood in our own society compared to most other societies the world has known—to the extent of mass abandonment by fathers of their wives and children, and universal ridicule of fathers—can be reconciled with the proposition that ours is a patriarchal society; nor how such a society could find its philosophical underpinnings in so fervent an antipatriarchalist as John Locke, who as long ago as the 17th century predicated the modern democratic liberal capitalist state upon the utter abolition of political patriarchy; nor whether fathers or mothers are better off in an ultimate sense; nor whether or not patriarchy is a good thing—or was a good thing in our society while it existed.
The point is that though all these issues are still under investigation by research, imagination, logic, and moral sensibility, and the argument over them is not yet finished, the use of the term “the patriarchy” assumes falsely that the evidence is in and the logic concluded. The term “the patriarchy” asserts by its very existence that there really is this one tyrannical form of organization, and that it privileges one group of people over another, unjustly and in all spheres of life, and that this is no longer—or never was—a subject for argument and legitimate disagreement.
It should be noted that inquisition would probably reveal my own views on this matter to be, if complex, reassuringly “liberal,” to use another loaded term. But those views are not the subject of this essay, which is the interesting use of words to deceive and coerce, a small natural history of a special variety of cant.
As we have seen, evidence and reasoning are two of the prime victims of the loaded word. Now, evidence and reasoning are not useful for everything, as anyone should know who uses them regularly. But concealed in the “the” of “the patriarchy” is an assumption that those who believe in evidence and reasoning do not in fact know the limits of their usefulness, and that they are therefore blind to anything else. This is the mild implication, and it may even serve as a useful corrective for those who might forget the limits. But underneath it is a more extreme assumption, that evidence and reasoning are the classic oppressive tools of the patriarchy; and this implication, because of the economy with which it is packed into the definite article, is normally immune to refutation.
Such a refutation might be: very well, we abandon evidence and reasoning as the basis for making an assertion. On what, then, do we base the assertion that evidence and reasoning should be abandoned? Easy. On our feelings. But that would mean that anyone who did not have those feelings would be quite justified, indeed, correct, in disbelieving the assertion. And to try to argue or persuade that person into a belief that evidence and reasoning should be abandoned would be self-contradictory, as such a person could only be convinced by using evidence and reasoning, which the believer in feelings has forsworn.
There is another answer to the question of what we should base our beliefs on, if not evidence and reasoning: the radical answer, that it is a matter of power. Unlike feelings, power shares with evidence and reasoning the advantage that it is not private, subjective, and incommunicable, but public, intersubjective, and easily demonstrated to others. (So goes the argument, though of course feelings are indeed communicable in poetry and other arts; but we are a long way from poetry here, alas.) Just as power is the only thing that supports the patriarchal rule of evidence and reasoning, so a transfer of power to those who maintain the opposite position is the correct method for convincing those who believe in evidence and reasoning that they are wrong.
So far, so good. But since in this radical view power justifies truth and truth justifies morality, wouldn’t those who are in power be morally correct in crushing those who oppose them? Since it is the assertion of such dissenters that the patriarchy is more powerful than they are, then the dissenters are inviting disaster. When the dissenting side is weak, it behooves it to give at least lip service to free speech, reason, tolerance, and so on, even if they are to be discarded once their task is done. The only protection for dissenters who base their morality on power would be the forbearance of the believers in reason, to withhold the brutal exercise of power that their radical opponents would find perfectly justifiable. Perhaps this forbearance might be the Achilles’ heel of the patriarchy; however, such a reflection does not sit well with those who would overthrow it because it is tyrannical.
But the payoffs in the term “the patriarchy” are so rich that these fine and airy logical ramifications can expediently be ignored, especially if they are so crushed up into the definite article as to be unrecognizable. What are those payoffs? The best way to examine them is to enter, imaginatively, the unconscious monologue of one who was making the optimal use of its comforts and conveniences—one who had so readjusted his or her personal reward system that the rewards of the term “the patriarchy” would indeed be rewarding. Thus:
“I am unhappy and unfulfilled. I have not created anything that is valuable, because I am so unhappy. In fact, if I took the effort and the risk to create something valuable—the years of service and devotion—it would be useless because I am unhappy, and would achieve nothing. I don’t even need to try.
“Actually, creativity doesn’t really exist: it’s just a term people use when they approve of something, that is, when it serves their interests. What is, really valuable—what would make me happy—is the approval of others. But I wouldn’t want to be indebted to them for their approval, and be at the mercy of charity offered out of the goodness of their hearts. They should be compelled to approve. The problem is that people approve of happy people, and this isn’t fair. People should approve of unhappy people, because the unhappy bear the burden of other people’s happiness.
“If my unhappiness were nobody’s fault, it would be unbearable, because nobody could ever make it better. There is, as I’ve already realized, no such thing as creativity, and thus new happiness can’t be created out of nothing. Those who claim it can be are lying to protect the store of happiness that they themselves have robbed from other people, a store they maintain by getting the approval of other happy people, and pay for by approving them in turn.
“If my unhappiness were my own fault, it would likewise be unbearable. Because either I would have to do something about it, which I can’t because I’m so unhappy, or someone else would have to do something about it, in which case I would feel guilty and indebted to him—since happiness can’t be created but only taken away from one person to be given to another. If I just accepted my unhappiness, what would be left of me?—since what I am is my nonacceptance of unhappiness. Besides, this talk of my unhappiness being my fault is just ‘blaming the victim.’ And the victim is always the good one, the right one, because I am a victim, and I am right and good.
“My unhappiness, then, is the fault of other people, those who are in power over me. Those people are the Jewish bankers—no, correction: the bourgeois property owners—no, correction: the patriarchy. It is the patriarchy that stands between me and the approval of others, between me and happiness, between me and power.
“And they can’t deny it. If I feel it, it’s real. What can they know? When they imply I’m wrong, that just proves that they are the patriarchy; because only a patriarch would tell you how you are supposed to feel. If you haven’t experienced something, you can’t know anything about it; all that stuff they preach about ‘imaginative sympathy’ is just part of their mutual approval game, their patriarchal hoax.
“People can only understand other people’s experiences when they have had exactly the same experiences themselves, except that the powerless can always understand what it feels like if you’re powerful. (You feel just great.) But the powerful can’t understand the feelings of the powerless, and no attempt at communication can succeed. We are all absolutely alone.
“My unhappiness is something unique, special, mine, something that defies all their efforts to define it. And I can see their inability to define it makes them feel unhappy too, which is only fair. Maybe some of the happiness they’re losing will come my way. Or maybe they’re just pretending to be unhappy, and actually they’re even happier in the thought that I’m unhappy.
“But at least I know now who the enemy is. He has been crushing me, taking away my power; when I loved him it was a stupid waste, because he collected all the happiness I gave away and kept it for himself. Why should I give my approval away? My power?
“Power is happiness; power is the ability to compel the approval of others. But there are people who seem to be happy, creative, and not particularly powerful They don’t like to be elected to powerful committees, or so they say; and they seem to neither know nor care how to make a committee go their way. What about them? They’re the worst of all, because they are secretly maintained by the patriarchy as a false counter-example to my true explanation of the nature of happiness and creativity. Such people should be killed.
“I shall seek out instead the company of those who, like me, are unhappy, powerless, and unfulfilled, and who know that creativity is a hoax. Those people and I are we, and we will approve of each other. Together we may be able to achieve majorities on the committees that the patriarchy has so unwisely provided in its effort to present an image of tolerance and democracy.
“And isn’t creativity really this, after all, this listened-to and approved-of scream of misery, rage, and rebellion, that I can utter in the presence of others like me? Isn’t creativity simply doing and saying exactly the opposite of what those ‘happy,’ ‘creative,’ powerful people in the patriarchy do and say? Who said this creativity was so difficult and mysterious? After all, it’s really quite automatic. All you have to do is study the output of the patriarchy, keeping track of each new idea and form of expression that they introduce, and then just stand it on its head.”
This is a fictional self-portrait of only the ideal user of the term “the patriarchy” (in its loaded or haunted or tendentious sense). Many of the intoxicating rewards of the term would be wasted on someone who did not fully recalibrate his or her personality and value system so as to take advantage of them. For instance, it might be necessary to adopt “the” patriarchy’s own imagined contempt for the task of bearing, raising, caring for, and educating children, a task traditionally regarded as being at least as important and creative as science, art, and government. (Would it be tyrannical, or merely unrealistic, to expect half of the human population to go through the sacrifices and discipline necessary to be great artists?)
But the use of the term in this way does tend to persuade its users to embark on a recalibration of their value priorities. And this reshaping constitutes its peculiar power to transform the world into a place of anguished and frustrated rage, from which one rises as a tragic protagonist, eyes filmed with hot tears, chest shaken by sweet sobs, clad in the streaming robes of self-pity, into a new dawn of justified hatred and certified virtue.
Even without such a full makeover, however, the term can do yeoman service. There is a roaring trade to be driven by the opportunistic and sturdy guardians of our educational and cultural institutions, who may not themselves be psychologically equipped for the full benefits of using “the patriarchy,” but can profitably purvey its comforts and Death of a White Pine by Paul Ramsey Water lessened. Pine beetles reaped. The vanished tree Invades my sleep. Narrative of Light Light enters the moss On the banks of the railroad. And travels the railroad To the horizon’s distance And the distant sky. delights to those, especially the young and insecure, who can use them as they were meant to be used. Others, by lacing their discourse with an occasional reference to “the patriarchy,” can thus cheaply reaffirm their credentials as belonging to the consensus, and so enter into the phatic communion of the elect. Finally, others yet, who may—because of the vigor, cheerfulness, originality, or basic honesty of their natures—be quite immune to the linguistic system dominated by the use of “the patriarchy,” can use the term as a casual piece of invective or as a way of putting those whose ideas are somewhat backward in their place.
Irony aside, however, it would be a mistake simply to deplore the use of the term. Each cultural period has its own complex and diverting absurdities, and its own fascinating morbidities. Where would we be without Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground, even though we have seen the malice it depicts bear a shiny and venomous fruit in the Gulag? Perhaps we need not rush into a dismissal of the cant words, but should watch their beautiful and grotesque exfoliations with a certain thankfulness that we live in an age of such wonders. But we need also to be prepared to deal with their more poisonous effects.