Once upon a time, sociologists wondered how people would cope over time with the anonymity and uprootedness of urban life. Today, we have an answer: Social networking. Twitter, Facebook and the others have enabled millions to make connections and to some extent overcome loneliness.
Of course, it’s far from a perfect solution. Digital friendships cannot replace actual human relationships. More than that, some disdain it as a new kind of narcissism, Me Generation II. One commentator called it “the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance [like what they’re having for dinner] is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.” (Clive Thompson, New York Times Magazine editorial, September 2008)
But others argue that microblogging has a cumulative effect greater than its trivial parts. “Each little update is insignificant on its own…But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting…” (Clive Thompson, “I’m So Digitally Close To You,” New York Times Magazine, August 22, 2009)
In any event, there is no arguing with the popularity of social networking. By mid-2011, for example, Twitter was up to 200 million tweets a day.
But even social networking does not really show how great that need is. Perhaps the most striking evidence comes from individuals who have been deprived of verbal interaction for prolonged periods. “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered. (Atul Gawande, “Hellhole,” The New Yorker, March 30, 2009)
In his essay on the mental and emotional tortures of solitary confinement, Atul Gawande argues that it fits the U.S. Constitution’s definition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” and insofar as possible should be abolished.
But that is symptomology. On a deeper level, speech may be understood to be a constituent part of the human being, as the sages saw it, expressive of his identity from the very beginning:
The way human beings learn or acquire language has been a major subject of study for decades. Noam Chomsky, the most influential figure in the field of linguistics, argued that language is so complex the ability to learn it must be innate:
“…Virtually all human beings, regardless of their intelligence, accomplish something so extraordinarily complicated and difficult as mastering the use of a language, even when they are not deliberately taught it, and do so at such an extraordinarily young age, and in such an extraordinarily short space of time. He [Chomsky] argued that in order for this to happen, we must be genetically preprogrammed to do it.” (Bryan Magee, Men of Ideas, P. 174) *
Many contemporary philosophers have also come to the conclusion that language is an essential part of our being. “It has come to be widely believed that it is more than anything else the power of abstract thinking made possible to us by language that enables us to conceptualize and cope with all those aspects of reality which are not present to us, and thus to relate ourselves to the world in the way we do. Many believe that it is this more than anything else that differentiates us from the animals. For these reasons many believe that it is through the acquisition of language that we become selves.” (Bryan Magee, Men of Ideas, P. 154)
All of the above is meant to illustrate the concept in Jewish tradition of man as a talking creature. According to Jewish tradition he is that above all else. The Jewish sages employed the Hebrew word medaber, literally speaker, to describe him. In the Torah’s creation narrative, it says that God blew life into the first man. Onkelos, the Aramaic translation, renders this as “a speaking spirit.” Thus, in his very creation man is imbued with the ability—and the need—to talk. (Onkelos to Genesis 2: 7)
Breathing into someone else’s nostrils implies that something of one’s own essence enters into the other. I don’t mean to say here that the Supreme Being is a yenta. Rather, that there is something divine in speech. The creation is described in the Torah in the form of utterances (And God said there shall be light…); in the rabbinical literature it is referred to as the ten sayings with which the world was created.
The Talmud tells of a creature—known as a golem in Hebrew—created by the sage Rava. It had the appearance and capability of physical movement and action, and could follow commands, like a robot. But what distinguished the golem from a human being was the incapacity for speech. (Talmud Sanhedrin 38b)
The word golem actually means something crude, unfinished. Without speech we are incomplete, something less than human; only with speech can we reach our fulfillment. Rava could not impart to the golem the capacity for speech because that only comes with the breath of the Creator.
* “To say that language is not innate is to say that there is no difference between my granddaughter, a rock and a rabbit. In other words, if you take a rock, a rabbit and my granddaughter and put them in a community where people are talking English, they’ll all learn English. If people believe that, then they believe that language is not innate.
If they believe that there is a difference between my granddaughter, a rabbit and a rock, then they believe that language is innate. So people who are proposing that there is something debatable about the assumption that language is innate are just confused. So deeply confused that there is no way of answering their arguments. There is no doubt that language is an innate faculty.” Noam Chomsky, The ‘Chomskyan Era’ chomsky.info/books/architecture01.htm