Empty Words & Unfortunate Consequences

Why we need to understand how vagueness in language often leads to awful outcomes.

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Image credit: AdinaZed on flickr

Language is the primary means by which we humans communicate with each other. Unfortunately much of our language is vague, imprecise, subject to many different interpretations, misleading, and ultimately harmful.

Over the years I’ve learned to be very wary of language and the power it has over us. Our primate brains aren’t tremendously sophisticated so we are often unaware of how vague and imprecise our thoughts are, due to these thoughts being couched in language.

Let me give an example. If we said to several million young men, “We, a small group of privileged old males, want you to fight a pointless war in horrific conditions during which many of you will lose your lives to no real purpose whatsoever and those who survive will be scarred physically and emotionally for the rest of your lives,” it is not probable that the response would be overwhelmingly positive.

Conversely, however, if we stood up and said something like, “Your country needs you! We need heroes and patriots to defend our nation! We want men of courage, men who know what it means to be true men!” then the response will be far more positive. World War One was a very clear demonstration of this simple fact.

Rupert Brooke’s foolish poem The Soldier is merely one example of the naive response so typical of his doomed generation. It took exposure to the real horror of war before poets like Wilfred Owen would write more realistic appraisals as contained in his Anthem For Doomed Youth.

What did empty abstractions such as “heroism” and “honor” mean for millions of young men who suffered and perished in trenches and the No Man’s Land of the world’s first mechanized war? Could anyone, in fact, even adequately define such vague notions as heroism and honor? Where’s the “honor” in being eaten by rats while sleeping? Where’s the “honor” in being shot during a pointless attempt to cross No Man’s Land against a hail of machine-gun rounds?

Samuel Johnson, the man responsible for the first true dictionary, said in 1775 “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Johnson was in fact wrong, as it is very often not the last but in fact the first refuge.

Cynical demagogues and blusterers have always known that the easiest way to rouse the naive is by appealing to “patriotism.” Patriotism is of course conflated with nationalism, for how can we be patriotic in the abstract? “My country right or wrong” is the sort of sentiment that tyrants and sleazy politicians adore, because all they need to do is to associate themselves and their cause with the vague idea of patriotism/nationalism and hey presto: an army of dupes will reliably line up and await instructions.

Patriotism is such a vague concept that it is, like so many other empty concepts, infinitely malleable. If the formal definition is “love for one’s homeland” then we haven’t come any closer to understanding. Is such love a willingness to criticize the failings of one’s nation in the hope of making improvements? Or is such love a willingness to ignore its failings and pretend that nothing needs to be improved? Is such love a desire to see one’s homeland cooperate with other nations in order to meet global challenges, or is such a love the belief that other nations can go f*ck themselves and global challenges are nothing more than fake news?

By every empirical measure both the USA and the UK are worse off today than they were before Trump and Brexit, yet both Trump and Brexit supporters believe they are being “patriotic.” It’s pretty clear that once again, empty words have the power to influence the fate of hundreds of millions of people.

Which means we really ought to pay far more attention to the power of language.

The problem is, we’re not used to thinking in concrete terms. Success with mathematics requires coherence and precision but when it comes to language very often the road to success lies in avoiding coherence and precision. Whether we’re trying to get elected or trying to seduce a potential mate, coherence and precision may not at all be our best approach. Indeed, a great many people react adversely to coherence and precision because it’s so alien to the usual way we use language and thus can sound cold and clinical. Conversely, when we use a meaningless word like “patriotism” we can appeal to a wide range of people, each of whom will have some vague personal notion of what the word means but be totally unaware of the fact that everyone else around them holds a slightly different meaning.

Some time ago I overheard in particular location of a well-known coffee shop chain two women talking about their relationship.

“I want us to have more connection,” the blond woman said, wistfully.

“Me too,” the other replied.
“But I mean a real connection,” the blond continued.

“Me too,” the redhead replied.

“I feel like we aren’t connecting,” the blond said.

“I know. I want to connect more too,” the redhead agreed.

“I mean, I really want us to feel connected,” the blond went on.

“I want us to connect,” the redhead concurred.

This basic exchange continued for the fifteen minutes I was nearby and doubtless continued after I left.

As we can see, this isn’t a conversation that’s likely to have any practical outcome. Both participants are expressing a yearning, yet because they are both relying on an abstraction (“connection”) that is totally undefined for either of them, neither is able to know what is meant. And therefore neither can propose meaningful steps to promote the desired outcome. Perhaps just talking at length about their mutual desire may have resulted in a temporary feeling of closeness but it is far more likely ultimately to have resulted in ongoing frustration and disappointment as no tangible actions were proposed and therefore no tangible difference in the tenor of their life together will occur. While verbal grooming is important, grooming alone is insufficient to maintain close primate bonds.

This is not to imply we need to be coherent and precise at all times. After all, what does it matter if a father asks his children, “Are we all having fun?” during a day out at the water park? Fun is a vague, imprecise notion but in this instance it would be risible to be more specific because it is simply unnecessary. Even so, every parent learns soon enough that one child’s idea of fun may be rather different from that of its siblings.

It would be a good idea, however, if we were more aware of the inherent ambiguity and imprecision in much of our language and therefore in much of our mental world. Our constructs are to a large degree determined by the language we speak and when that language is vague, our thinking is likewise vague. When words are easily suborned, our thoughts and actions are therefore easily suborned.

In short: we can be persuaded to do really stupid things by anyone uttering the right combination of empty words. And that is a huge problem.

So the next time we hear someone trying to persuade us about something, we should pause a moment and consider how they are doing it. How many empty undefined vague abstractions are they using to trick us? Because if the answer is more than “none” then chances are, we’re being taken for patsies.

And that’s not smart at all.

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