As in other countries in the western world, there is a strange new atmosphere in Germany. Although the traditional freedom of expression has not changed in this country, the feeling is spreading that certain things can only be said behind closed doors. Otherwise, you will suddenly be accused of extremism, racism, homophobia, denial of reality, hostility to progress and the like.
The list of verbal weapons with which people and opinions are attacked on a daily basis is long. For example, we read about «science deniers», «misogynists», «climate sinners» and «enemies of democracy». It is therefore understandable that peace-loving contemporaries have become wary of entering the battlefield of the «free» exchange of opinions, where they are exposed to dangerous offence and slander.
We are talking about a phenomenon known as the radicalisation and polarisation of communication. Even in neutral reporting, there is constant talk of «struggle», as if people are fundamentally opposed to each other, as if they have to constantly assert themselves against opponents and enemies. This culminates in sweeping judgements such as, politics is «failing», the economy is «cheating», the press is «lying».
This tendency contrasts with another, which at first glance appears to be exactly the opposite. It is called «sensitisation» for language. In order to avoid discrimination of all kinds, there is a call for conscious use of terms. This is most obvious in the area of «gender-sensitive» language. However, terms that have or could have a discriminatory connotation are also being removed from our vocabulary in relation to population groups, minorities or ethnic groups. However, this sensitisation is not left to individuals and their linguistic sensibilities. Instead, «experts» tell the language community that certain terms need to be changed.
In private conversations, however, the traditional «insensitive» use of language continues unabated. At the kitchen table, people continue to talk about «teachers» and «pupils» and «colleagues» without hesitation. However, as soon as the audience grows, written statements are due, or even a microphone and camera appear, i.e. the dangerous terrain of the public sphere is entered, the speaker switches to the «correct» use of language. This raises the question: What are people actually sensitised for? For the language itself – or for the person who hears it?
A kind of new diglossia (bilingualism) has developed, a phenomenon familiar from dictatorial countries (e.g. «special operation» instead of «war»). If you are caught «speaking the wrong language» in public, protestations of innocence are usually of little help. Although you won't be imprisoned for such an offence in this country, «language sensitisation» taken to extremes can lead to a devastating level of controversy and reputational damage.1
Words such as «language dictatorship» and «language policemen» are already circulating.2
Words instead of thoughts
This is reminiscent of what Rudolf Steiner calls «thinking in words». «What prevents people from having thoughts in the widest circle of our lives is that for ordinary day-to-day usage people do not always have the need to really penetrate to the thought, but that instead of thought they are content with words. Most of what is called thinking in ordinary life takes place in words. One thinks in words.»3
How is that to be understood? Don't we always think in words? Is it even possible to think without words?
The language we use is a product of the past. It reflects the society, the cultural values, the way of thinking of earlier times. In addition to all the wisdom and depth that it carries over from ancient times, language also contains everything that we distance ourselves from today (or at least endeavour to do so): the egotism of tribal and ethnic groups, the contempt and discrimination of other peoples, the patriarchal society, the slavery of the Greeks and Romans. All of this has left its mark on the language.
As a product of the past, language always puts up a certain resistance to the progressive development of consciousness and must be constantly renewed. In the words of the French linguist Roland Barthes: «When it comes to language, man is both master and slave – slave because he is dependent on collecting what is «lying around» in the language, master because he can use the finds as he pleases.»4
To put it more concretely: a person is a slave above all in relation to the words he finds in the language and which he can only change to a limited extent. People are masters with regard to the sentences that they can form from the available word material. He can collect the word material that is «lying around» and combine it into his own statements, can «spin» a thread of thought from the words and «weave» the threads into a text. (The word text comes from the Latin textus «the woven, braided»).
Clear thinking unfolds in the sentence
In this sense, every authentic oral or written statement by a person is a «text». Behind it is an author who «means» something. The more this «opinion» moves away from the content and values of the past, the more difficult it becomes to express it in the words of conventional language. This can lead to a «struggle with language», as Steiner calls it, because language already expresses something «by itself».5 We called it «echoes» above. These are associations and memories of something past, emotions and resentments that are aroused because the words in question may have been «soiled» by unpleasant predecessors. In short, words are carriers of feelings. Corresponding to their watery, emotional character, words always have a more or less «blurred» meaning.
Clear thinking can only really unfold at the next higher level of language, in the sentence. Here the words have to «subordinate» themselves to the train of thought, have to «obey» the laws of syntax, are «inflected». Connotations are authorised or «defused» by the context. If necessary, the words are redefined. If it is not possible to express the desired meaning straight away, a second sentence can be added to relativise and explain the first. The train of thought is then not derived from the individual words, but from the way in which they are «linked». This is human activity, not linguistic activity. The longer and more differentiated a text becomes, the more the individual words take on a «serving» function. (...)
Dependence on the word
In this context, Steiner speaks of a «bondage» to language and, like Roland Barthes, uses the image of the «slave».6 What binds man to language is precisely this semi-conscious sphere of feeling, where man is «grown together» with language in his soul, even in his body through the unconscious mother tongue acquisition in early childhood.7 Here, he «swims» in the language and experiences it in all its power and depth. But he must also be able to detach himself from it, to «emancipate» himself, as Steiner calls it, if he wants to develop as an individual. Words per se have no reality in earthly life, they are nothing absolute (i.e. «detached»). Is the use of «man» and «he» through this paragraph accidental or ironic?!