Last night I my husband and I were talking about North Korea’s recent threats to attack the United States and South Korea, and I mentioned that I had read that a North Korean official had threatened to turn the U.S. into a “lake of fire.” I was a little off – the actual quote from The New York Times by Kang Pyo-yong, the vice defense minister of North Korea, is this: “If we push the button [to activate the nuclear weapons], they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil, and its followers, into a sea of fire.” As we spoke, my husband laughed and absently wondered why authoritarian regimes like North Korea always resort to the kind of inflated rhetoric that sounds ridiculous to the outside world. While I quite relish the idea of living in a nest of evil (It sounds so fun! Porn! Drugs! Fattening foods!), I began thinking about the question of language and authoritarianism more seriously.
Manipulation of language for political purposes is not restricted to the realm of totalitarianism, of course, but it is of central importance to the maintenance of any authoritarian regime or regime of terror. It seems to serve two primary purposes: dehumanization through the devaluation of linguistic meaning, and the establishment of an impenetrable, closed social and cultural space controlled solely by the regime. George Orwell touched on these ideas in his 1941 speech-turned-essay “Literature and Totalitarianism,” in which he noted the potential for control offered by language and culture. Of the totalitarian regime, he wrote, “It not only forbids you to express — even to think — certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison.”
Primo Levi, in his Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, made this connection between the manipulation and devaluation of language, dehumanization, and demarcation of a new, impenetrable boundary between the world of the regime (in his case, also a literal boundary, marked by barbed wire and electric fencing, between the death camp and freedom) and the outside world. Upon his initiation into the camp, Levi writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” When a particular human condition is so extreme as to be outside language, language must be bent and twisted to accommodate or describe it.
Perhaps nothing is as clear an example of this abuse of language than the inscription on the gate through which Levi and his fellow prisoners walk each day to work: Arbeit Macht Frei, work makes you free. This sign has two effects: first, it mocks the prisoners in their utter powerlessness, making a joke of the killing labor they are forced to do; second, and more insidiously, this inside-out claim about work and freedom hollows out meaning, depriving language of its signifying power, further dehumanizing its victims by refusing to acknowledge the reality of slavery and murder to which it mockingly refers. And if language is, ultimately, the means by which we construct our own identities, express our thoughts and feelings to others, and understand our very selves, its devaluation necessarily contributes to a loss of humanity, not just for those whom the regime enslaves and imprisons, but for everyone.
Rendering language meaningless, the backwards rhetoric of authoritarianism also creates a clear boundary between the world of the regime and everything outside of it. Levi describes this process through a small detail, noting that after his arm has been tattooed with his number, which is to replace his name, “for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, a number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin.” The wristwatch, representative of the order of the civilized world outside the camp, has given way to his number, which itself has replaced his name, literally erasing language and compromising its power to signify meaning.
The rules and mores of the camp are likewise differentiated from those of the civilized world of the wristwatch, as Levi discovers when, thirsty after traveling in a cattle car for more than a day with no water, he tries to break off an icicle outside the window of his new barracks. A guard snatches it from him. “‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.” That is the lesson of totalitarianism: there is no why here. Language has no meaning, so explanation is useless. The rhetoric of authoritarianism may sound funny, but it’s not a joke. To reduce a country, its people, and perhaps the entire world to a “nest of evil” not only makes it easier to press that button, but it corrupts our understanding of what evil really is.
Even worse, this corruption of language has its parallels in other realms of our culture, far more quotidian and pervasive than the occasional pronouncements of a North Korean dictator. The other day Rand Paul implied a comparison between Hitler’s rise to power and President Obama’s. How many times a day do you see an advertisement for something “new” or “must-have”? To threaten a “sea of fire” may be obvious hyperbole, but how often do we encounter this very kind of hyperbolic language every day? And to what extent does this corruption of language interfere with our ability to understand and represent our very selves, to, in a sense, remain human?