“My grandmother, who lived in a Moravian village, still knew everything through her own experience: how bread is baked, how a house is built, how a pig is slaughtered and the meat smoked, what quilts are made of, what the priest and the schoolteacher think about the world; she met the whole village every day and knew how many murders were committed in the country over the last ten years; she had, so to speak, personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when people at home had nothing to eat. My Paris neighbor spends his time at an office, where he sits for eight hours facing an office colleague, then he sits in his car and drives home, turns on the TV, and when the announcer informs him that in the latest public opinion poll the majority of Frenchmen voted their country the safest in Europe (I recently read such a report), he is overjoyed and opens a bottle of champagne without ever learning that three thefts and two murders were committed on his street that very day.”
~ Milan Kundera
Most people in our country live in the abstract. What I mean is that they don’t judge the world by what they see happening or by their own experience, or even by their own judgment. In this freest of all democracies, men paradoxically depend more than ever before on distant and alien sources for their opinions. If we want to know how the country is doing, where it is going, who is going to be president, who is killing, who is being killed, what sort of laws are being changed, etc., we turn on the television or the computer and take what information we can find. We have no choice, of course. Our reality is far too complex for any one person to grasp in any comprehensive manner. The individual can only pull bits and pieces from the wires as the information flies by, and hope that what he grabbed was accurate.
This has some strange effects on our perception of reality. It tends to turn things upside down. For example, isn’t it odd that everyone hears all about the president every single election, but few could name the members of their own city council? That’s democracy working in the reverse, in its most ineffective manner—everyone paying attention to the one vote that they are least competent to cast, and completely disregarding the parts of their democracy that actually touch them and on which they’d be competent to decide.
Yet this will appear normal to the voter simply because the television is clamoring all day about the distant caricature running for president, reinforcing the impression that the presidency is the one vote that matters. In comparison to this display, he’d have to spend a great deal of energy to actually meet his local representation, which never appear on TV and so might as well not even exist. In this way his perception, not only of his own competence, but of his own ability to become competent, is reversed and exaggerated. He ends up ignoring the area of his activity where he could have maximized his impact, focusing instead with utmost intensity on those things which concern him least.
I have used politics here as a simple example, but this distortion of reality applies to our general perception of the world. We’ll miss a local school board meeting that could affect local children because we are too busy watching a hostage situation taking place in a school clear across the country. We will see the distant crisis as more “important,” and we are right in a way, but the crisis is not important in the sense that he can do anything about it. It is tragic, but it is also not our responsibility because it is out of our reach, regardless of how long we sit glued to the television watching it.
This is how it goes with every tragedy, every disaster, every war, and every new disease. Always the death tolls parading across the screen. Death is real of course, and the ability to cope with death is important. But the disturbing carnage we see on the news does not give us a healthy, reasonable exposure to death—television only showcases death in its most fearful or anxiety-inducing forms. It sensationalizes death in such a way that it actually inhibits people from coping with it.
Real death that actually affects most of us—the kind we need to know about and experience in a healthy way—then becomes overwhelmed by all the tragedy on the television. Our concept of death becomes distorted and destroyed because of this exposure to things that have nothing to do with the parts of reality we actually touch.
This process deeply impacts us. It forms and informs us when we expose ourselves to it, and we are always being exposed to it. Our “information age” rips us from our immediate reality and forces us to become involved and concerned with a reality that is real but is not ours. We then begin to think, act, and even communicate with one another in accordance with that false reality.
This counterfeit reality is what we will call the verbal universe. It is an abstract world made of constellations of ideas, words, and prejudices; and it is, I believe, a development particular to large, technologically developed societies accustomated to experiencing reality second-hand, whether that is via the news, the classroom lecture, the television, or the internet. The essential condition is that an entire people form their picture of the world and even of their fellow persons based not on direct experience but on what they have seen or heard through some type of media. The verbal universe is also born of complexity because complexity overwhelms the individual by piling more information on his plate than he can possibly digest. This is exacerbated within democracies, because in a democracy a man is expected to have an opinion on everything, from the causes of cancer to the side-effects of vaccination to who is in the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter that he is truly incompetent in regard to many, if not all, of these things. It doesn’t matter that even experts are often unsure about them, and that he, working full-time on a production line or in a grocery store, could not possibly know any better. He simply must have an opinion on every issue, every candidate, and every subject; and that is that.
Enter the verbal universe. The verbal universe provides an alternative to that impossible expectation of competence by instead providing the illusion of its fruition. The verbal universe offers the man an array of neatly packaged opinions; it offers him answer to everything; and it offers him a common language —a specific set of keywords and phrases—through which he can then communicate his new opinions with others, so long as they also received their opinions from the same source. By “source” I do not mean that their opinions have to be exactly the same. They may very well be contradictory opinions, but the communication still succeeds so long as they both participate in the common verbal universe with its common language. Two men may hold opposite opinions, having selected very different “packages” from their source, but they can still speak thanks to the common language, and that is what matters most, because successful communication is what provides the feeling of human potency.
Now the first thing you should notice about this verbal universe is the fact that it does not help people think or “know” in any meaningful way. In fact the whole reason it develops is because people do not have the time or aptitude to think. The keywords of the verbal universe, then, are simply tools to facilitate opinion-formation, even enabling two people to debate a given issue with great vigor and passion, yet without really thinking about their premises at all; and, what’s more, this enables men to “communicate” without having to consider what their opponent is saying either. Communication, within the verbal universe, is not communication: it is something more like a transaction or an exchange of mechanical responses and clichés. It has lost the human element.
A communicant does not have to meet any other person, they simply have to go through the ritual in which they compare keywords and opinion packages, either finding themselves in perfect conformity, or else they find their packages incompatible. If incompatible, they will deploy a second set of phrases, clichés, and pseudo-arguments to demonstrate that their combination is better, and that their “opinion outlet” is superior. Neither person need ever really hear what the other is saying. They only need to go through the motions. Men are then enabled to converse in a way that gives the appearance of meaningful communication, but both are talking without speaking, and hearing without listening.
This sort of inferior communication survives and thrives for a variety of reasons, two of which we’ve mentioned. First, it is an easy solution to the impossible problem of competence in everything. Second, once the verbal universe is adopted, it flatters the participant beyond all reason, thus reinforcing the illusion. Once a man is convinced that he is capable of judging any matter, no matter how complex, for himself, then not only will he be dependent on the verbal universe for its comfort, but he will also become completely impervious to any doubt about his opinions once they have been adopted.
However, there is a third and final aspect of this universe which has helped it to overwhelm the entire modern world, and that is its efficiency. The verbal universe is able to accumulate and disperse information much quicker than reality itself ever could. And in a world which almost instinctively prefers the fast over the slow, the verbal universe wins out almost automatically. The real world is always too slow, steady, and patient.
Keywords, slogans, catchphrases, and clichés: these are the tools of the verbal universe. They are its power and you can use them to recognize its work. Its language consists of vague, common words, usually almost meaningless in themselves but in the verbal universe loaded with meanings. Think of “love,” “hate,” “democracy,” “education,” “sexuality,” “patriotism,” “freedom,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and so on. Even the word “American” has the power to convey massive amounts of emotion, even if, in actual context, it means something else, or nothing at all. These are the central tools utilized by the verbal universe to offer each person the ability to communicate without communicating and to think without knowing. And almost always the thinking and the speaking is about events which have nothing to do with the person.
As you learn to recognize this false reality, you’ll find that it is paradoxical because those who use it can communicate with anyone anywhere. Listen to two men on the street talking politics, parroting what was on the news that day. They go through a grand ritual, do they not?—either patting each other on the back or facing off as mortal enemies. And yet if you stopped them midstream and inserted some strange notion, something off the beaten path, they’d look at you as if you were speaking an entirely different language. And that’s because you are. You are an alien, because you are not from their universe. That’s the conundrum. If you really want to communicate, you’ll have to accept the fact that real communication is difficult and that real subjects are complex. If you want to avoid impoverished, mechanical, cliché-dialogue, then you may have to feel like the idiot in the room.