More from Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy…and George Carlin:
The link between language and empathy was explored by the comedian and social critic George Carlin in his classic mini-history of the various ways we have named the postwar condition of some soldiers:
There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either…snapped or is about to snap.
In World War I, Carlin goes on, “that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.” By World War II, the name had morphed into “battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much.” Then came the Korean War, and the condition became operational exhaustion. “The humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase,” Carlin comments. “Sounds like something that might happen to your car.”
Then came Vietnam, and we all know what shell shock has been called ever since: post-traumatic stress disorder. Says Carlin,
Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon…. I’ll bet you if we’d still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.
Carlin missed one precursor to shell shock, an important one in the context of this book. During the Civil War, traumatized combatants developed a condition that they called “soldier’s heart.” The violence that results in soldier’s heart shatters a person’s sense of self and community, and war is not the only setting in which violence is done.
Post-traumatic stress disorder.
And before it all, soldier’s heart.
War is most certainly not the only setting in which such violence is done.