Goethe once commented, “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible speak a few reasonable words.”
From radio and television hosts to church consultants and pastoral conference presenters, we hear a lot of religious talk — not all of which is particularly reasonable. In his book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, Neil Postman discusses the semantic environment in which we find ourselves. The paragraphs which follow are a brief excerpt from that work (Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk by Neil Postman, New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1976, pp 3-5).
Stupidity is words. It is not something people “possess,” like their kidneys. Stupidity is something we speak, sentences that do not “make sense” or are self-defeating. We may speak such sentences to others or only to ourselves. But the point is that stupidity is something we do with our larynx.
What our larynx does is controlled by the way we manage our minds. No one knows, of course, what “mind” is and there are even those who think it wise to avoid discussing it altogether. But this much we can say: The main stuff of the mind is sentences. “Minding” and “languaging” are, for all practical purposes, one and the same. When we are thinking, we are mostly arranging sentences in our heads. When we are thinking stupid, we are arranging stupid sentences.
I will go so far as to say that the entire subject matter of stupidity is encompassed by the study of our ways of talking. Even when we do a nonverbal stupid thing, like smoking a cigarette (one of my own cherished stupidities), we have preceded the act by talking to ourselves in such a way as to make it appear reasonable. One might say that stupid talk is the generative act from which all the Higher Stupidities flow. The word, in a word, brings for the act.
Moreover, stupidity is something of a linguistic achievement. It does not, I believe, come naturally to us We must learn how to do it, and practice how to do it. Naturally, once having learned and practiced it, we find it difficult, possibly painful, to forget how to do it. Speaking, after all, is a habit, and habits, by definition, are hard to break.
Craziness is much the same thing. Crazy behavior is produced by our generating certain kinds of sentences which we have nurtured and crown to love. When, for example, Lynnette Fromme was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford, she said, “I want [Charles] Manson out. I want a world of peace.” Considering the hideous circumstances by which Manson came to be imprisoned, and considering what most people mean by “peace,” you might say that Ms. Fromme exhibited an almost wondrous creativity in putting those two sentences together. We can fairly assume that she sees a connection between them. There are, no doubt, several unspoken sentences by which she has formed a bridge between Manson and peace. Even further, there must be still more sentences by which she connects Manson and peace to the assassination of Ford.
Crazy acts are not illogical to those who do them. But the point is that in order to do them, you must first build a verbal empire of intricate dimension. A great deal of crazy talk must be processed before assassination will appear as a reasonable thing to do.