Following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, Wendell Berry penned an essay which examined how the integrity of language mirrors the integrity of the person who uses it. Berry criticized the officials who were trying to clarify the dangerous situation to an alarmed public, and pointed out how inept their language was for the task:
The Commissioners speak a language that is diminished by inordinate ambition: the taking of more power than can be responsibly or beneficently held. It is perhaps a law of human nature that such ambition always produces a confusion of tongues.
Berry has made his living by farming and writing. He is a profoundly religious man, one who reads Scripture deeply and takes it seriously. Here, he was alluding to the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, when a project of inordinate ambition — building a tower to reach Heaven and rival God — began with people speaking a unified language but ended with babble, a descent into lasting incoherence.
Techno-talk, as Berry recognized, can be a sophisticated kind of babble. This dismays us, for we have been raised to think of technology as springing from trained and objective minds. And indeed, technology could not arise without that mastery. But when the genie is escaping from the nuclear bottle — or from, perhaps, the Bio-Safety Level 4 lab in Wuhan — we are no longer dealing with a limited phenomenon that is merely technical and easily objectified. We are now dealing with the lives of human beings, in all their irreducible variety and complexity. The mastery of the laboratory and of computers does not result in a mastery of communication, of connections to the actual people suddenly exposed to the consequences of the decisions of unelected technocrats who wield vast power.
At Three Mile Island, a grave danger had arisen which threatened people’s very lives. The problem was that the experts with power over people’ lives were not speaking plainly and honestly. Instead of respecting the minds and hearts of those entrusted to them, the commissioners said what they hoped would rescue their careers and power.
I am not averse to either technology or power. But I don’t believe that all we have the power to do is right. On the contrary, we are all morally bound to assure that whenever we do employ power, it is beneficial and respects the lives and well-being of all affected by that power.
This is something that is far from simple. Too often, well-intentioned actions have unintended side effects that create more harm than good. We know this from experience in our own lives. Aiming for the good, we hurt ourselves. And if we grasp the nettle, we learn the value of humility and how it can spare us such hurt, or at least help us minimize it.
It is bad enough when we harm ourselves. It is worse when we harm others. But those invested in their own power, those who have sold themselves on the lie of unlimited expertise, will not readily admit that they have done harm. Rather, they wish to control the perceptions of those they have hurt and protect themselves and their power.
Instead of coming humbly to the people who have entrusted them with power to together find a way forward, they exclude all but themselves from having a meaningful say. Who are we to have a say in a technical problem? Only they, the experts, should have a voice. And that means very much controlling the story, controlling what may be said.
And when the discourse and the debate is poisoned by the desire to control and manipulate what may be said and what may be thought, the consequences are grave.
As Berry put it:
The result — though power may survive for a while in spite of it — is confusion and dispersal. Real language, real discourse are destroyed. People lose understanding of each other, are divided and scattered. Speech of whatever kind begins to resemble the speech of drunkenness or madness.
This is a fairly precise description of our speech now. The divisiveness of twitterdom might well seem incomprehensible to the average person of the pre-social media epoch.
Power’s intoxication is hard to resist, and sincerity and empathy are the first casualties of the stupor it induces. A quipster (perhaps Groucho?) said: “Sincerity is the most important thing in life. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” And it seems that the purveyors of manufactured sincerity even believe themselves.
Berry saw this coming in the ’80s:
We don’t trust our “public servants” because we know that they don’t respect us. They don’t respect us, as we understand, because they don’t know us; they don’t know our stories . . . People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover, they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.
Take Berry’s words with you when you next listen or read the words of people in power. You will be able to discern between those concerned mainly with protecting their own power and those who care to know us and earn our trust. Assert the unique expertise you have in the concerns of your own life and all its story. There can be no more important political act.