The Danger of Idle Talk

Martin Heidegger is one of my favorite philosophers. Had he not been a Nazi, he would probably be my favorite philosopher. I’m currently working through Being and Time, which is a remarkable book, albeit one that’s extremely hard to read. Heidegger coins new terms left and right, because he’s trying to free philosophy from ancient metaphysical assumptions, the content of which we don’t bother to articulate, because we take them to be self-evident.

One of the terms he uses in Being and Time is “idle talk.” For Heidegger, idle talk is the discourse in which we engage in our “everydayness.” In our “everydayness,” our being is the being of “das Man” (usually translated “the They,” but “Man” in German literally means “one,” as in “one does not simply walk into Mordor.”). When our being is that of das Man, our being is undifferentiated from the conglomerate being of all those who are around us. None of us are truly ourselves; our being is inauthentic.

Idle talk, then, is a kind of inauthentic discourse. What does inauthentic discourse look like? According to Heidegger, in idle talk, “[w]e do not so much understand the entities which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said-in-the-talk as such. What is said-in-the-talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially.” For Heidegger, discourse articulates an understanding of being. Idle talk articulates the understanding of being held by the impersonal cultural totality, i.e. das Man. This understanding is already available to all members of a cultural community, so as long as people engage only in idle talk, the community’s understanding will only continue to reinforce and reproduce itself. As this process continues, those engaging in idle talk distance themselves further and further existentially from that which the discourse is about. They no longer discuss that which is; instead, they discuss das Man‘s interpretation of what is.

Idle talk, then, creates conditions that are ideal for cultural stagnation. If we content ourselves with such talk instead of interacting meaningfully with the world in ways hitherto unknown to us, then our understanding of the world will quickly go out-of-date—if it’s not out-of-date from the start. In Heidegger’s words, “Das Man prescribes one’s state-of-mind, and determines what and how one ‘sees’.”

There are two kinds of idle talk that I find particularly troubling, and seek at all times to avoid. The first is Christianese. The second is SJW-ese.

Christianese is a way of speaking practiced by many evangelical Christians. We use ready-made phrases like “ask Jesus into your heart,” “set our hearts on fire,” and “I feel called to do [X, Y, and Z].” The meaning of these phrases is rarely questioned. They are taken as self-evident, without need for clarification, even though we have no idea what we’re saying. We assume that our evangelical culture is identical with what the Bible prescribes, freeing us from the difficult task of figuring out what the Bible means. In so doing, we insulate ourselves from meaningful encounter with the world and with Scripture. Needless to say, this is bad.

I often hear evangelicals say that we should avoid using Christianese because outsiders will not understand us. In response, I say that insiders are just as oblivious to what we are actually saying when we use Christianese, if not more so, because we have grown accustomed to the strangeness of the meaningless phrases we throw around. We don’t think to ask, “what does that mean?” because we think we already know.

Likewise, SJW-ese consists of a handful of ready-made phrases used mostly by angry college students who think they’re oppressed. Some examples: “stop invalidating my experience,” “hegemonic system of oppression,” “trans rights are human rights,” “my pronouns aren’t up for debate,” etc. Each of these phrases has a little kernel of meaning in the middle, but the purpose of the phrases is not to express those kernels of meaning so much as to weaponize them against infidels. In the SJW worldview, there is no point in seeking truth beyond the central tenet of the worldview: “everything bad that happens is because of oppression.” The above phrases, as part of the SJW linguistic totality, do no more than restate this proposition and drive away any knowledge that might threaten the integrity of the SJW worldview.

I have discussed two communities whose versions of idle talk I am familiar with. There are certainly countless more, as idle talk is the rule for human discourse, not the exception. So I’ll describe what I think are some features of idle talk wherever it occurs.

Predictability

You can easily tell idle talk from genuine discourse by idle talk’s predictability. You only need to read one angry letter from SJWs to their university administration to know how to write one. They all say the same thing and use the same empty phrases. Likewise, I’m pretty sure you could jump into an evangelical Christian community and pick up Christianese without too much effort. After all, you don’t need to understand the words; you just need to use them.

Dogmatism

If you question the content of the ready-made phrases used in idle talk, then you’ll usually be met with fierce resistance from true believers. For instance, if you question the use of words like “cisgender” or the multitude of artificial gender-neutral pronouns, you will quickly be denounced as a hateful bigot by SJWs, even if you’re basically on their side.

Uncharacteristic Verbal Fluency

Most people can’t speak well. But they can fake it if they have a large enough body of ready-made phrases to draw from whenever they run out of thoughts or words. When people who usually have trouble expressing their thoughts suddenly start speaking fluently, they’ve probably stopped thinking and started throwing out idle talk. If you challenge such a person’s use of his favorite phrases and ask him to clarify, he won’t be able to do so. Thinking is hard, and most people suck at it. Always test people who give the impression of being careful thinkers, because they might just be a really good faker.

 

Of course, you need to pay just as close attention to yourself as you do to other people. When you’re engaged in idle talk, you often don’t know it. Our inauthenticity is opaque to us when our being is inauthentic. But if you do your best to critically evaluate the assumptions that underlie your thoughts and favorite phrases, you can get a better idea of the extent to which you’re a mere mouthpiece of das Man instead of a thinker and speaker of original thoughts.

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1 thought on “The Danger of Idle Talk”

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful post, Davis! My wife Rebecca (Au) forwarded me your wordpress because she thought I might be interested. I appreciate your examples of Idle Talk! I read Being and Time in one of my philosophy classes in college and I remember also recognizing the connection between idle talk and Christianese! The Connection to Social Justice Warriors (had to google that acronym) is another excellent one! The superficial understanding that such language expresses undermines the power of genuine claims social justice minded people may want to make.

    Question I’m chewing on: Heidegger seems to connect inauthenticity fairly explicitly to communal understanding. He implies that authentic being-uncovering comes down to extracting your own understanding from the understanding of The They. What possibilities do you think we could find for a communally more authentic mode of speaking together? Or is there something about being with others that always draws us toward “fallenness”, as he calls it?

    Have you found any helpful reading companions to Heidegger? I’d love to hear if you had any recommendations of writers who are helpful in understanding him!

    All the best,
    Michael

    Like

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