Thursday, December 08, 2005

Languishing in Unthinking: On Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize Speech

Harold Pinter took the opportunity of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, to lambast the U.S. Foreign policy. An astute observer of language, Pinter noted that

"It's a scintillating stratagem," Mr. Pinter said. "Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable."

We just had our students defend their senior theses yesterday. One of my students made a similar observation of the role of language in obstructing critical thinking. The word he focused on, however, was "freedom." While I do agree with Pinter, that the American public often languishes in unthinking, I would add that it is not language alone that allows such laziness. The rhetoric that puts reason to sleep is paired nicely with firmly entrenched cultural images about what "American" or "freedom," looks like. If I ask my class what Aristotle means by freedom, they quickly rush to the last scene in Braveheart. Or they think of the rugged individualist, who is free to drive his Hummer, dammit!

What I find most inspiring and haunting in Pinter's speech is his indictment of this Administration's participation in torture of prisoner abuse. Pinter wisely portends that:

"If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision, we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man," he said.

I have been thinking, less articulately, of this very point since I wrote my rather controversial entry on false allegations. Our institutions, policies and procedures are ineluctably bound up with promoting or corrupting justice. If we allow injustices, and even build them into our institutions--even if we can justify them rationally--we nonetheless corrupt the very ideal that we rhetorically invoke to defend our practices. Torture not only dehumanizes the prisoner, but it dehumanizes the so-called patriot, who is willing to participate in this evil for a "greater good." Can it really ever be worth it?