“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Though I would not encounter this statement by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein until a decade later, it already spoke to me when I was an 18 year-old student at the University of Colorado in the early 1970s.
A gifted and enormously popular professor of German History, Robert Pois, had shown the film “Night and Fog” to an auditorium full of students. Footage, shot in the concentration camps of the Third Reich and assembled with commentary by a French director in 1955, left most of us speechless.
But as we spilled into the hallway afterwards, one distraught young woman turned to a fellow student and loudly muttered, “Only animals could do this!”
But I realized that Germans were people like us. I was learning to speak German. I had some German friends. In terms of virtue or evil, Germans seemed not so unlike Americans.
So began the question: “How can people of one group be made to do bad, even unspeakably ugly things to people of another group?”
In 1975, I received a B.A. in German and International Affairs. I continued on at the Goethe Institut outside Munich, and landed off and on work as a Tour Manager, taking visiting Americans around Central Europe.
My language skills improved over the years. I became a graduate student at Georgetown University, taught German, and received an M.S. in German and Linguistics from GU in 1985.
It was during a semester abroad in Germany in 1982 that my question about how good people can be motivated to do bad things, even horrific things, was answered. Language, polarizing language, was key. Causing injury, or even death, to members of a designated out-group can seem positive, even moral, if we allow our worldview to be formed by the language of propagandists and demagogues.
The talk posted on this blog is this insight, brought to me by other, mostly German-speaking, linguists with resumes much longer, and whose research is much deeper, than my own. Their in-depth understanding of the power of language to manipulate and polarize expanded the limits of my world.
As a participant in our long-standing, civilized democracy, I thought it would never be necessary to give such a talk in the United States. But the language of deep propaganda is now seeping into American political discourse. This is information that does not belong sequestered in an ivory tower, or in the hands of back room political manipulators. It is for all citizens.