Words can open up our minds or close them down
Ever since Ferdinand de Saussure began prodding the concept of language with an intellectual stick towards the end of the nineteenth century, there’s been a debate over the interplay between thought and word.
Anyone who’s ever meditated deeply becomes aware of the fact that our brains seem to form concepts and moments later these are transmuted into words. But the interaction doesn’t seem to be entirely one way. Not only can words express a concept but they can refine it. As Francis Bacon opined, writing (maketh) an exact man.
By using precisely the necessary word, a honed phrase can convey far more than a basket full of vagueness. This is why poetry enchants us.
People with large active vocabularies can express themselves more adequately, which leads to reduced ambiguity. Conversely, people whose vocabulary is constrained must employ work-arounds like phrasal verbs or vague generalizations, which provide all sorts of opportunities for misunderstanding.
Furthermore, it seems that the lexical richness of a language can also permit thoughts that otherwise would be more difficult to form. That’s why languages borrow words from other languages in order to express concepts like schadenfreude and chic, amok and zeitgeist. Most European languages have a single word blue (bleue, blau, azul, blå) but Russian has a word for dark blue (синий) and light blue (голубой). This seems to mean that Russian-speakers have a slightly different set of mental pathways with regards to the way their brains process information about this part of the visible spectrum.
Of course, we’re not trapped in a condition of muteness if our native language lacks a concise way to express a concept. That’s why we have parts of speech that modify verbs and nouns. We can say light blue and dark blue, pleasure-at-someone-else’s-misfortune, fashionable clothing, running-around-totally-out-of-control and generalized-social-mood. But it’s pretty clear that having a specific word for a concept makes it more accessible and thereby influences to some degree the way in which we think about the world around us.
Propagandists and agitators have instinctively known this for a long time. Although a single person may have very little power even when occupying a position of authority, words can spread throughout society and influence the way everyone else thinks. That gives words tremendous power and it’s why in 1839 Bulwer-Lytton famously opined that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Today most people are blithely unaware that the concept of nation is extremely recent. For most of human history we’ve identified with tribe, town, city, or at most a region. Classical Greeks would have been astonished if a time-traveler went back and indicated that she thought of them as all belonging within the same category. Although the Greeks did distinguish themselves from others (the word barbarian comes from the dismissive Greek term for anyone speaking a language other than Greek, which to Greek ears sounded like the bah-bah of sheep) they thought of themselves in terms far narrower. They were Athenians or Spartans or Corinthian or citizens of Thebes, and so on.
For most of its history Europe was a patchwork of allegiances and identities on a small scale. Garibaldi famously united Italy only in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first German unification happened officially in 1871. Even today, regional identities remain strong as the Catalonians, Scots, and Bavarians would attest (among many others). But now that we have the concept of nation, it can be brought to bear to influence people’s thinking.
Would Brexit have been possible without some nostalgic concept of Britishness?
Would Hitler have succeeded so easily without the concept of the Teutonic nation?
Would Putin be having such an easy ride without the old concept of Mother Russia?
Words encapsulate concepts and concepts shape our thinking, even when those words are vague or utterly spurious.
Today, thanks to the Internet, new words/concepts can spread rapidly and be embraced by those in need of easy-to-remember sound-bites. Trump will never worry about facts disturbing the solidity of his supporter base; the phrase fake news instantly dispels any threat that reality could gain purchase among his howling fans. It relieves them of any need to understand anything. They can continue to chant and drool, content in the belief that their Smart & Stable Genius Orange Leader is Making Everything Great Again.
Republican voters can simply shout Libtard! at anyone who tries to explain why their erroneous beliefs are deeply harmful to everyone in the USA.
And that highlights the problem with words: they can constrain our thinking just as much as they can enlarge it. With the Internet spreading transiently fashionable memes around the globe in seconds, the preponderant tendency is firmly in the direction of constraint.
Slightly over a year ago, while sitting in a well-known coffee shop, I overheard a couple talking. She was agitated. She’d read in her horoscope that something bad would happen to her that week and she was very afraid. Her boyfriend clearly wanted to help so he began to explain why horoscopes aren’t real, that they have zero basis in anything except self-indulgent wish-fulfillment. They work in the same way as fortune-telling, preying on the desire of people to believe the entire universe magically revolves around them and thus makes them special. After less than thirty seconds she shut him down, saying in a withering tone, “You’re just mansplaining. Shut the fuck up.”
By invoking a Politically Correct meme, she was able to avoid an encounter with reality. She could remain happily ensconced in her self-generated fear and total lack of comprehension about the way she’d been so easily tricked by a cheap magazine column regurgitating age-old nonsense.
But was that actually a good thing?
The other day here on Medium I read an article by a woman who regards receiving dick-pics not as an irritation or as an indicator of how utterly clueless many men happen to be, but as something far worse: ocular rape.
In one way, it’s quite charming to understand she lives in such a comfortable and safe world (relative to humanity’s entire history up to this point) that she has to invent new problems for herself. In another way it’s deeply depressing, not least because actual rape is a horrific crime and making it petty by appropriating the word for something far less serious does no one any favors.
It’s easy enough to argue that it doesn’t really matter if words lead us into mental dead-ends and acts of folly. After all, homo sapiens almost certainly won’t be around for much longer, our history is pretty much one continual sleep-walk through existence, and we’ve always been rather thick.
But I want to believe that most people are capable of something better.
There is a significant difference between an educated Western European and an educated US citizen: the former is almost certainly far better informed about real-world events, far less superstitious, and far less gullible. The only major difference (aside from good tea and excellent pastries) is that for the most part it’s possible to secure an adequate primary and secondary education in most Western European countries whereas it’s exceedingly difficult to do so in the USA.
Two brief examples may serve as general indicators: when my son was ten years old he was reprimanded by his teacher for using a bad word in his essay. Apparently she was ignorant of the difference between masticate and masturbate. During the same year, my eight-year-old daughter proudly showed me the photocopied Mercator projection upon which her teacher had written the names of major countries so that her pupils would know where they were. I reproduce it below:
Lest anyone assume we were stuck in one of the obvious Backward States, this was in a highly affluent County just north of San Francisco, in a well-funded school strongly supported by well-meaning parents.
This means that on average US citizens are likely more vulnerable to being manipulated by words because their baseline of real-world knowledge is less robust. Perhaps that’s why we see the soundbite / meme paradigm more advanced in the USA than (yet) elsewhere.
There’s a distressing tendency now for people to reach for the nearest convenient word and use it as a way to avoid any form of actual thinking. We have The Patriarchy, as vague and as disempowering as The Man (a phrase beloved of so-called counter-culture youth back in the 1960s flower-power days). Both encapsulate either everything or nothing. Neither aids comprehension of real-world phenomena nor do they point toward potential solutions to current problems.
So I want to end with a plea: let’s stop using trite memes and sound-bites. Let’s stop for a moment to consider what we may really mean. Let’s make an attempt to grapple with complex reality instead of running away and hiding under the intellectual bed of vacuous generalizations.
Because we’re all human. We all have frailties, weaknesses, blind spots, and absurd foibles. But we’re also, with a few notable exceptions, capable of kindness and compassion and (I hope) personal growth.
But only if we make the effort.