Language Theft and the Enclosure of the Commons

This is the final post in a series of three.


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No one can ask a monk to call black what he sincerely believes to be white, for that is to violate his integrity.

                                                —Terrence G. Kardong, OSB*


The fully manufactured fiction disguised as news, plays on repeat in kitchens and car repair shops and fast food restaurants—and like frogs in a slow-simmering pot, millions of people gradually lose any semblance of the truth. They never see it happening, until one day statements no longer require scrutiny to be ratified into belief. They only need to have been spoken.

                                                —John Pavloitz, “When Your Leaders are Liars”**


The word “traitor” [. . .] has no real meaning [when used today with what might well be called “official correctness”]. It is used not to describe a reality but to turn someone into a pariah. The iron wall is rising. It will cement into place a global system of corporate totalitarianism, one in which the old vocabulary of human rights and democracy is empty and where any form of defiance means you are an enemy of the state. This totalitarianism is being formed incrementally. It begins by silencing the demonized. It ends by silencing everyone.

                                                 —Chris Hedges, “Building the Iron Wall”***


We are being robbed of our common language.

Our shared language is far and away the most important thing we all have in common.  Unless we share a language in common, there can be no true commons at all. Without sharing a language with one another, we cannot even name anything else we share—and in the very naming, share it as well. Indeed, our common language is the very fount and foundations of “we, the people” in the first place. It is what first lets there be any “us,” and thus first makes it possible for us to share anything at all “between” or “among” us.

Our common language, fount and foundation of all we have in common, is the property of everyone, and therefore of no one in particular—to share with Nietzsche a common phrase he used when he subtitled Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “A Book for Everyone and No-one.” Those words are all there, free and open for our common usage.

However, our very usage in common of the words of our shared language, our usage of them in all of our everyday exchanges for all of our everyday purposes, tends gradually to wear our words themselves down, as common coins get worn down through long circulation. Then we need poets, creators of language, to draw our words out of common circulation and return them to their original sources, to resound again in their strangeness, renewing them so they can retain their power to name for us what is. That, too, belongs to the common cultivation of our common language, which as a whole—inclusive of all our diverse contributions, bur especially those of our poets—is that sort of usage that cultivates and further enriches what is uses, rather than exploiting and impoverishing it.

Yet just as the common lands can be taken from us, the people, and closed off for private usage, so too can our common language be stolen from us and enclosed within artificial limits.  By being closed off from common usage, it is turned over to exclusive usage for the private profit by those who exploit it, to help them guarantee their coercive power over all the rest of us.  Enclosing our common language within the limits coercive power itself imposes, that same power lays claim to language as its own private property, to be put to selfish use.

That process strips words of their power to name what is, and reduces them to no more than their function within a system of ideology. In such a system, those who profit from the relentless enclosure and exploitation of the commons are enabled to do so without ever even having to acknowledge their own elitist privilege, and most especially without having ever to acknowledge any responsibility for the very robbery and exploitation that makes their profits themselves possible in the first place.  

In his classic work Ideology and Utopia, written in German and first published in Germany in 1929, the important and influential sociologist Karl Mannheim captured the concept of “ideology” this way:

The concept “ideology” reflects [. . .] that ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see  certain facts which would undermine their sense of domination. There is implicit in the word “ideology” the insight that in certain situations the collective unconscious of certain groups obscures the real condition of society both to itself and to others and thereby stabilizes it.

More than thirty-five years after Mannheim first published Ideology and Utopia, American political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff cites that passage in his essay “Beyond Tolerance,” which itself concerns how the very notion of “tolerance” has been stripped of the sense of its original use and co-opted for ideological ab-use. After citing Mannheim’s remarks, Wolff further explicates the notion of “ideology” as follows:

Ideology is thus systematically self-serving thought in two senses. First, and simply, it is the refusal to recognize unpleasant facts which might require a less flattering evaluation of a policy or institution or which might undermine one’s claim to a right of domination. For example, salve-owners in the ante-bellum South refused to acknowledge that the slaves themselves were unhappy. The implication was that if they were, then slavery would be harder to justify. Secondly, ideological thinking is a denial or unsettling of revolutionary factors in society on the principle of the self-fulfilling prophecy that the more stable everyone believes the situation to be, the more stable it actually becomes.****

Co-opting for sheer ideological usage the words and phrases of our common language robs us, in fact, of very possibility of saying and thus seeing who and how we really are, and what chains we have been made to bear. Such words and phrases as “tolerance,” “apathy,” “democracy,” “treason,” “anti-Semitism,” “racism,” “bigotry,” “freedom of speech,” “political correctness,” “supporting our troops,” “honoring our veterans,” “exercising civic responsibility,” or even “ideology” itself—as well as the very word “common”!—are progressively depleted of all genuine meaning. Through enclosure within pure ideology, they are stripped of any power they once had—their non-coercive power to name. Word and phrases that once was there to help us identify what imprisoned us all, and then to unite to break our prison’s bars, are made to serve as no more, at best, than means for maintaining and strengthening those bars.

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Let us unite to take back our common language and reclaim our very power to speak!

We have nothing to lose but our chains.


* In Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996), page 149, concerning verse 36 in the 7th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict


*** Truthdig, March 18, 2018 @

**** Robert Paul Wolff, “Beyond Tolerance,” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), consisting of Wolff’s essay, then “Tolerance and the Scientific Outlook,” by American sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr., and finally Repressive Tolerance,” a fine essay by Herbert Marcuse. The citation from Mannheim, and Wolff’s commentary on it, are on pages 39-40.