Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Will any Words Remain?

It was almost exactly one year ago that Senator Joseph Biden got himself into big trouble by describing Senator Barak Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Beyond the way in which the entire phrase reflected a condescending tone, the single adjective "articulate" provoked a flood of commentary for carrying a particularly disparaging connotation. However, if the problem of what D. L. Hughley called "the last vestiges of racism" can really be folded into the usage of a single adjective, modern Germany apparently has to deal with a far more complicated problem concerning the vestiges of Nazism. This latter problem is so complex that, as David Gordon Smith has reported on SPIEGEL ONLINE, it can only be negotiated through an entire dictionary:

The "Wörterbuch der 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung'" ("Dictionary of 'Coming to Terms with the Past'") examines around 1,000 words and phrases -- everything from "Anschluss," used to refer to the 1938 "annexation" of Austria, to "Wehrmacht," the name of the Nazi-era armed forces -- looking at how the meaning and usage of the terms have developed since the end of World War II.

As the introductory summary to his article puts it, the terminology of the Third Reich has created a "linguistic minefield" for ordinary discourse in the German language.

There are two consequences of having to weigh the negative connotations of every word you utter. One is that you cease to speak altogether. (This reflects the joke about the ant asking the centipede how it coordinated all its legs. Upon stopping to think about how to answer the ant, the centipede was unable to take another step and died of starvation.) The other consequence is that you get tongue-tied whenever you do speak. I experienced this problem on my first trip to Germany to attend a workshop in Munich. On my way back to the airport, the cab driver asked me which flight I was taking; and I replied, "Luftwaffe." We both quickly recognized my embarrassment, he was willing to grant me no-harm-no-foul, and he dropped me off at the Lufthansa gate. Another auditor might not have been so generous.

What I enjoy most about German is the way in which complex and subtle concepts can be packaged into just the right word. "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" is not about simplistic classification in the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad style of Animal Farm (whose author probably had one of the deepest understandings of connotation in literary history); as the lexical unpacking of the word explains, it is about "coming to terms" with some of the ugliest memories that any culture has experienced. The present generation of German speakers is sufficiently remote from that past that, at the very least, they need to be aware of connotations that invoke such memories, particularly when speaking to those for whom those memories remain vivid and haunting. The question, however, is whether differentiating between an innocent mistake (as in my cab ride) and intentional malice must always be a matter of negotiating a "linguistic minefield."

There is also a related question about the basic project behind this dictionary. In general the primary function of a dictionary is to provide denotations. Connotations are rarely ignored entirely, but they tend to be of secondary interest. However, in this particular dictionary, the primary function is to provide and explain those connotations. The result is that the reference work can be used as a double-edged sword. While the intention was to provide a reference work for those who wish to be conscientious about dangerous connotations of the words and phrases they choose, the dictionary can also be used as a code-book for those who intend to provoke (functioning somewhat as a "dictionary of hate-speech"). Furthermore, even the provocations can cut two ways, as a "guidebook" for both neo-Nazis and those seeking rhetorical devices to ridicule those same neo-Nazis. One might say that the dictionary has made it harder to make "an innocent mistake" any more, just as too many Americans would no longer tolerate the use of the adjective "articulate" as "an innocent mistake."

This brings us back to those two alternatives: capitulating to silence or tongue-tied fumbling. Neither serves the social necessities of communicative actions, the primary actions available to us for trying (whether or not we succeed) to understand each other and thus manage in the life-world. This is not to say that this Vergangenheitsbewältigung is making a bad situation worse; but it is reminding us of how bad the situation is, which should be taken as a challenge to do something about it!

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