Just published: Another of dg’s worldly epigrams at the international affairs magazine Global Brief. Here are the opening paragraphs. Click on the link or buy the magazine to read the rest.
The great 18th century French diplomat Talleyrand once said that speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts – a counterintuitive claim that explodes many sentimental myths about both communication and diplomacy. People never say what they mean: communication is not exchange, but aggression – and secrecy is at the heart of diplomacy. That is why we have reached the end of the age of diplomacy.
With unseemly haste, the new digital era has ushered in the end of individual privacy, just as it has ushered in the end of official secrets. Any whistle-blowing idealist or malcontent can download a thousand state secrets in seconds, just as credit card companies, phone companies, Internet sites and security cameras daily harvest data about our lives – some, if not all, of that information sold or shared for commercial purposes. Every day, diplomats blush to have their unedited, private remarks and reports published to the world.
Diplomats are the mouthpieces of governments, which also like to keep secrets – doubly secretive as such, for diplomats renounce the expression of personal views, just as they tend to keep their country’s true intentions tight in their hearts. Thus, diplomats always bear the mark of Cain – the sign of untruthfulness; an unsavouriness, as it were, for their professional hypocrisy.
I wonder how the world would change if diplomacy were conducted in sign language, which is a completely pictorial and concrete language. Abstractions are nearly impossible to communicate or explain in sign language. To explain them you have to rely on another language translated into sign language so that the words are actually “foreign.” Does language that describes what is seeable also hide truth?
Renee, I am not sure sign language would change this. I’d challenge the idea that simple gestures are simple. There is a context of situation, facial expression, tone, speed (of gesture) that would have to be read into the “simple” gesture.
According to the theory, yes all language conceals truth. But don’t forget this is an epigram, a form of balanced antithesis, a thought experiment, not a dictate.
I don’t think I used the word simple. The question is does obfuscation require abstract language. Because abstractions are not part of American sign language. (I was a certified sign language interpreter in AZ).
Why does establishing credibility sound so obnoxious ?
Sorry. In haste. I know you didn’t say “simple” but I was using that as shorthand for “concrete” and “without abstractions.” But I think the point about language is that every “word” is already an abstraction. A word is a sign not the thing itself. A sign in sign language also is not the thing itself.
Yes, words are abstractions, but words can also become things. Sometimes the thing itself is a word. Just don’t try to talk about it! Let that word be. Let that poem alone.
Interesting essay and exchange! Renee, questions are for you as you know ASL. There are visual puns…so do you think that demonstrates an ability to step back from word meaning? And this observation may be all wrong, but it has seemed to me that the deaf community in talking about people or situations tends to be very direct and blunt –you might say refreshingly so — in ways that hearing folks would consider rude — or undiplomatic. Does that have to do with the absence of abstraction? Or if signs express something concrete and factual, it’s pointless to take offense at a fact?
My son, who has full hearing, was in a day care with deaf kids from when he was 6 weeks until he was 3 years old. The idea behind integrating hearing and deaf toddlers was (in part) that the frustration of the “terrible two” that arises largely from the struggles of language acquisition could be tempered by teaching the kids sign language. I don’t know how solid the data are to support this idea, but it makes sense that, even though, as dg says below, the sign is already a symbol and therefore an abstraction, perhaps the lesser abstraction of signs was an easier transition for the kids. Renee might be onto something re diplomacy.
Diane: I have to think about the visual pun question you raise. Hmmmm. As to the deaf community being direct and blunt–absolutely. I am referring now to people whose first language is ASL. I think it does have to do with a lack of abstraction. All the words we use not to say something directly are gone in ASL. The “B” verbs don’t exist even. I have been to Chicago becomes, Finish Touch Chicago. If you’re talking about someone, you spell their name, point to a space that you designate as them and then point to that space every time you would use their name–no pronouns. If the person is fat, you show that. One last example. I had to explain to a woman who was mildly mentally impaired and deaf (with very low English skills) that her brother had died. I had to say, can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t sleep, can’t talk, dead. She would say, ride bike? No. Then she would repeat, brother dead, can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t sleep, can’t talk, can’t ride bike, dead. Direct, blunt, graphic. Actually, an even better example is the signs for fellatio and cunnilingus. They are essentially acting out the act. Ask me about the health class I had to interpret for–40 kids, the teacher who, bless his heart, got to speak, and me.
Also so interesting! In ASL you act out fellatio and cunnilingus when in English we have to resort to the Latin!But it does sound like to express some concepts you have to use suggestion, metaphor, poetry. I’m not sure how that would play in the diplomatic arena. Opens the communication up to so many different interpretations…
Wish I could have sat in on the health class!
The oddest thing about the death of privacy is that we have a whole generation that doesn’t really care. We went from “Oh no! The government is reading my mail!” to “Rats, no one is reading my blog” in a few short years. I remember the comic poignancy of a story DG read story at residency a few years ago. Each section was a blog post with the sad ‘zero comments’ as punctuation. We feel marginalized now, if no one is invading our privacy.
Steve, yes, it’s a paradox. The desire for privacy diminishes as privacy diminishes. (Actually, the self is disappearing as well.)
You have a brain for paradox.