During one of Hot Springs’ episodic influxes of motorcyclists—they love to ride “the rattler,” as they’ve named Highway 209 between here and I-40—a stout fellow in a leather vest, with American flag pins on the faded black cowhide and silvered pigtails coming off his head, wandered into the tent and listened to a few pieces of wood. “So,” he began with a twang and a sliver of a smile, “you’re one of these ‘leftists,’ right?”
I might easily have intoned, a la my spouse’s tendencies, “WTAF??!” or something similar, but I diidn’t, opting rather to reply with an inquiry of my own. “I’l bet you nine dollars you can’t tell me what that word means, or where it came from, how people started using ‘left’ and ‘right’ for something other than directions in the first place.”
Of course, he didn’t know, and in my nerdy way I told him about Robespierre and the layout of the revolutionary French Assembly of the early 1790’s. The same kind of, to put the matter mildly, inchoate imprecision of language characterizes a big swath of our citizenry’s political discourse, such as it is, and it typifies almost all the monopoly mediated depictions of how people communicate about policy and law and schools and taxes and other germane pieces of the poliiical puzzle. Because of the way that I’m built, basically, this kind of verbiage makes me go berserk pretty quickly.
In that vein, among the multiple ways that my sweet wife’s impacts have altered and improved my life’s ambit, one of the most consequential has been her introducing me to the Four Agreements. These have zero to do with other key elements of my world view, at least directly, yet they do act as a set of emotional operational guidelines that are not only critical to attaining any sort of happy empowerment but also likely to be central in any actor’s successfully playing a constructive role in relation to fellow members of the cast and crew.
As is my wont, I’ve rewritten these protocols so that they use my own terminology and contain amplification as my judgment sees fit. The second, third, and fourth of these guidelines, in my retooling, go like this. 2. No matter what comes down the pike, one should never, with common sense exceptions that involve things like people holding guns to one’s head, take what happens personally, as a personal insult or slight. 3. Without incontrovertible documentation, and despite the utility of positing hypotheses about why things unfold as they do, one should never assume that one can know others’ motives and purposes, especially if the presumption is that others dislike one or want to do one harm. 4. Whatever else transpires, one should do one’s best, giving as much of a focused and diligent effort as is humanly possible to make relationships and upshots work out well for all concerned.
In my way of thinking, the First Agreement—in many ways similarly to the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights—serves as the linchpin of all the other mandates. In my rewritten form, it sounds like this. 1. In all one’s communications acts, speaking and listening, writing and reading, one should be punctilious in a relentless commitment to honesty and clarity, again with obvious common sense exceptions like not responding to queries at gunpoint with the same degree of forthrightness that one would display among friends, acquaintances, or fellow travelers.
I introduce these ideas, these suggested watchwords, on a World Organization of Writers site that seeks political understanding and societal transformation for the simple reason that whenever social discussion among ourselves develops along sociopolitical lines in the here and now, it tends to vacillate, for the most part, between the nonsensical and the meaningless, between horse manure and non sequitur, between pretense and absurdity, without much indication at all that a space or time exists where or when hearts and minds can meet and, in good faith, as honest brokers, people can converse about the state of the world and their lives in it.
Lacking such a context of give and take and deep listening, practically speaking, only the imperial status quo can ever prevail, for without honest and thoroughgoing conversation, both understanding and organization are impossible to achieve, inconceivable to orchestrate, and clearly, without knowledge and cohesion no social movement worthy or even capable of general human progress can possibly take shape to oppose the meticulously studious and organized masters and rulers of things, who in any event hire minions and experts and pundits to pronounce the present pass, or something suspiciously like it, as the only possible way of doing business in the world.
Examples of such bombastic prattle are everywhere, the Marshall Arts tent a magnet for such silly and erstwhile opposed pronouncements. “Leftists just want to let the government take over everything.” Or, “You wingnuts on the right just want racism to be okay again.” I’ve heard exactly these words: “All y’all liberals just want the government to raise taxes till all of you can get welfare checks.” Another kind of statement has been as common as corn for years: “All conservatives love Trump because he hates environmentalists and activists as much as they do.” This kind of dialog is lunatic, no more than the bedlam of babbling in an insane asylum.
One can make a persuasive case for such a harsh conclusion since almost none of these conversationaalists can say, like the biker bloke who showed up at the beginning of this rumination, where terms like ‘leftist’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ or phrases like ‘right wing’ come from, let alone how their meaning might have evolved over time to have more than a name-calling purpose today. With relatively few ‘mainstream,’ or corporate, exceptions, in other words, crazed jabberwocky and delusional ‘debate’ are characteristic of the current context.
Perhaps the most significant contributory factor is easy to delineate. Its articulation was a central component of Edmond Osborne Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth. “We have not gotten beyond the powerful propensity to believe our group is superior to other comparable groups.”
In a world where Hydrogen Bombs keep proliferating, such thinking is so dangerously foolish that no other trigger so threatens to finalize the thermonuclear existential threat and its ecocidal prospects. So what can we do to improve our behavior? A step in the right direction would be to name people’s world views with terminology that would at least invoke real images of different political possibilities.
Along these lines, “socialist,” “Libertarian,” “fascist,” “radical,” even “progressive” or “free market diehard” or “rich” or “common folk” are certainly superior to the predominant ubiquity of ‘right’ and ‘left,’ ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal.’ Better still would be to note the empirically undeniable polarization that has happened between a tiny set of privileged owners and the vast majority of humanity that cannot survive without income from labor or charity or welfare.
When we pay attention to this immutable fact, we can bring into focus the social stakes in the arena of political discourse. Given the vast gulf that separates the tiny set that owns everything from the plus or minus ninety percent who have on average zero equity in terms of accumulated wealth, managing this huge herd of readily restive beasts has become even more important to plutocrats than profit, since without untrammeled control, things could change way too fast for the liking of the rich.
This primary priority is most easily manageable through one means or other of divide to conquer. Whether division and conquest are the purpose, as in a conspiratorial motivation, of the nonsensical dribble that defines the dialogs and debates that are a key part of any foundation for a people-powered policy orientation, they undeniably make constructive engagement and compromise that serves the masses utterly impossible to obtain.
E.O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist cited above, summarized things.. “Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. We have created Star Wars civilization, with stone age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. …And this god-like technology is dragging us forward in ways that are totally unpredictable. …We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
An idea of Thomas Jefferson punctuates this brief. “Indeed, I tremble for my planet, when I reflect that Nature is inflexible: that her response to our abuse cannot sleep forever.”
Here I go again, rambling and babbling, but I mean well. I care about human survival, and our present mix of inability and unwillingness to engage with fellow Homo Sapiens could easily prove a lethal flaw. To make spoken, as well as written or otherwise mediated, interactions both more likely to permit mutual respect and more helpful to explore common ground is thus a survival skill, an adaptive trait that we’d better begin to develop, “tout suite,” as my mother used to say.
Doing that is more than a matter of verbal signatures, but grounded, reality-based phrasing and the vaunted ‘First Agreement’ sure as hell couldn’t hurt. Here are the best conceivable options for accomplishing such an outcome, in the humble opinion of one lonely scribe on the fringes of things.
We should be using language that actually relates to the almost inconceivable difference between folks who have little or nothing and generally trustafarian success stories whose aggregate trillions of dollars account for the provenance over a sizeable portion of our dear mother Earth. Therefore, we could talk about “upper class” or “ruling class” versus “working class” or “wage earners;” we could juxtapose “capitalists” and “owners” and “corporate interests” with “workers” and “wage slaves;” if we wanted to be fancy, we’d learn how to understand “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat.”
Would that really make a difference. Who knows? Right? But if we can wrap our heads around the likely truth that we’re not being very effective in our communications with each other these days, we just might usefully ponder the implications of some search engine results: they offer power evidence of my point in this essay.
Thus, the nauseating <leftist OR right-wing OR”right wing” OR liberal OR conservative> yields a lot more than half a billion results. The better but still misunderstood and poorly used <libertarian OR anarchist OR communist OR socialist> gives us less than half that many hits. The much more pointed and punctilious and purposeful <proletariat OR bourgeoisie OR capitalist OR “ruling class” OR “working class”>provides only two-fifths of that 250,000,000 citations.
If our speech acts are at least as often as not pointless or counterproductive, mere bullshit at best, if our survival probably hinges on improving this situation, if we know that idiotic usages are most common and descriptive descriptors are least common, then we ought to commit ourselves to improving on the above search outcomes by reversing them.
That’s it: just a thought. I mean, if we want our offspring to live past the current generation or so.
By the way, I didn’t even throw “middle class” into the discussion today. This phrase represents the most monstrous commingling of manure and misunderstanding in the sociopolitical and political-economic realms, so much so that I’ve reserved a posting for examining this combination of falsehood and fantasy all by itself.