We Are Losing Words

Aug 26, 2013 | Updated Oct 12, 2013

A Yale grad student is impulsively strangled by a co-worker. A young man leaving work near the main New York City post office accidentally bumps into a passerby and is stabbed to death. A congressman shouts from the floor, insulting us all. Kanye West steals a microphone at the MTV Video Music Awards. And on and on it goes. What's up?

As a culture, we are losing the ability to speak, to reason, to talk things out. We are losing "words." TV, email and eBusiness have given us a lot, but they also engender a context that often bleeds us of the normal interplay and untidy elegance of language. Too many conversations are routinely foreshortened as a result of our mediated, digitized world. And without words and their rightful context, all that remains is action. Extreme action. Think reality TV. Think talk radio. Think Capitol Hill. Not to mention what happens on our own street corners and in our homes.

As an anthropologist who traded his backpack and quinine for a Hartmann three-suiter and Dramamine, I travel the country speaking to the "folk" in an effort to uncover the mind and mood of the American people. I hear a lot of talk that goes something like: "Technology has helped us. Technology has hurt us. Information technology doesn't entice people to be critical thinkers, to be insightful thinkers who can analyze and question. Many kids aren't even spoken to by parents, who are either absent or too busy. And everybody in the family eats a different meal in a different room, while doing their different thing. We are conversing less. So we're missing social skills, communication skills. That ubiquitous phrase, "whatever," short-circuits our capacity for focus and persistence. Many of us do not know how to talk to people about what we want and need to say. As a result, we are all less safe."

A 16-year-old girl from Los Angeles made this observation: "TV and smartphones allows us to see things quickly, and computers allow us to do things quickly. So 'quick' feels like success and that feeds upon itself. The quick solution becomes a quest by itself." Result: A culture of entitlement, the expectation of instant gratification. And when thwarted, just hit out.

In today's economic context, when I conduct group discussions with young or old -- and particularly with 30-something males -- I often hear a common story of a throttled anger and a tacit expectation of loss seething beneath the top-of-mind chatter. Theirs is mainly a defensive attitude toward the world. A typical refrain is: "There's not a lot of positive coming in these days. And no one and nothing is out there to help me. It's everyone for themselves. You've got to grab for what you want, and the hell with everything else."

We live in a time when it is difficult to rely on the societal culture to gird the making of meaning. A common couplet ending to this current narrative is: "My parents knew their future. I don't even know my present."

For more than four decades, the fragile bonds of American society were held together by the overarching mythology of the Cold War and the global contest with communism. Although challenged by the civil rights revolution of the '60s and frayed by the Vietnam War and Watergate, the social fabric of the United States was supported by external threat and domestic prosperity.

With the disappearance of America's Mr. Hyde, the seeming unpredictability of terrorists, and the apparent decline of trust in our market democracy and in our lawmakers, the mythological underpinnings of American society have eroded. Heroes and villains alike have lost stature, motivation and staying power. They reflect a society beset by seemingly random success, normalcy, failure and violence. They thrive in a world where large events play out on small screens and small events loom ever larger.

We see so much nowadays and much of what we see seems out of whack. A current example: A-Rod's contract (regardless of his present legal problems) is worth as much as the Washington Post. Huh?

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his novel, Immortality, alerts us to a world in which it is impossible to make distinctions regarding what is important and what is not. In that context, he says, we have but one choice: to make the world the object of our game; to turn it into a toy. Life then becomes a plaything in which people are objects, too -- objects that can be tossed aside or put down.

Another Czech writer, Vaclav Havel, has oriented us to the fact that what the world currently needs is more understanding, not explanation. Understanding takes focus, self-control, resilience, optimism and creativity. It also takes words.