The Frog Meditations: Wetsuits 1: Party Down

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wetsuits 1: Party Down

Giving a pool party? A word of advice: don't invite a hagfish. It is the ultimate bottom feeder.

The hagfish is an eel-like scavenger that makes its home on the ocean floor. Its  current notoriety does not come from its dashing good looks. Its claim to fame is the mucus it uses to choke predator and prey: its slime contains thin, sturdy, and flexible fibers, which is more than you usually hope for from slime.  

It is these microfilaments that have bright minds on high alert. Scientists at the University of Guelph have been able to spin from hagfish effluvium a material that could compete with the ever popular spandex. Used in a wide range of pursuits, fabrics like spandex do more than simply cover our bodies. They contain us without constraining us—like a wetsuit, they make us sleek, keep us warm, and help us at least feel buoyant.

While it lacks the buoyant personality that would make it a hit at pool parties, the hagfish might feel at home in party politics. How many politicians garb themselves in words and worldviews spun from slime? So ideologically intransigent and so intent on winning are some that meaningful debate is choked by a viscous jet of doublespeak. Once elected, once ensconced and expensed, these same   politicians spin words into a wetsuit that contains and minimizes, makes them slippery-sleek.

To defend an agenda, some euphemize (It's just downsizing). To advance an agenda, some terrorize (Do y'want Nana facing a death panel?). Not too long ago, the beleaguered mayor of Toronto exploited the present tense to squelch speculation he had partied with drug dealers and smoked crack cocaine. Pressed to address his past, he finally asserted,  with a worldweary smile and apparently effortless bravado, "I do not use crack cocaine." Far from addressing the issue, he simply sidestepped it. To deflect blame or defy the truth, some politicians twist language into knots. It is interesting to note that the hagfish, spineless, jawless, scaleless, and virtually sightless, ties itself in knots to shed its slime so it won't choke. For the hagfish, less is obviously more.

One of my husband's favorite T-shirts is emblazoned with a statement by Voltaire: Language is a very difficult thing to put into words. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that words are rarely neutral. There is a point of view embedded in pretty much every one we use--denotation is simply the most popular connotation. But when we hear weasel words and inflated language all around us, when jargon is intended to confuse and dubious euphemisms to soothe and sedate, there is the danger that we will simply stop listening, and stop caring.

Given that all language is metaphor and given that metaphors create and maintain worlds and worldviews, language can take us to the depths and heights of human experience. It is baldly cynical (not to mention counterproductive) to debase one of the key things that makes us human. When we devalue language, when we use it to conceal rather than reveal, we risk everything. Of course, we could simply give up and give in and resort to shrugs and grunts as our knuckles scrape the ground. Or we could just get drunk and dance in our own graves—but who wants to be a party to that?