Wag the dog… on thought and language

 

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

 

It seems pretty obvious that the way we think influences our language. What is less obvious is that our language also influences the way we think.

 

I remember having an argument once with my mother over whether it is possible to think without using words. She said it wasn’t, and I thought it was. Looking back, I think the real basis of our disagreement may have been a difference in what we each meant by the word “think.” To my mother, it just wasn’t really thinking if it didn’t involve words. It was something else, something more nebulous, like feeling, perhaps, or something more primitive, like reacting. On the other hand, I’m darn sure I can think without words. I’m reminded of the fact every time I get stuck because I can’t think of the right word for whatever I’m trying to say. I know I’m looking for a word that means just exactly… well, that… and it seems that there must be one, or at least there ought to be one…

 

Does that ever happen to you?  (Let’s see a show of hands…)

 

I’m getting off the subject, but the point is that our language and our thought processes are very intimately connected.  So much so that we often make the mistake of thinking that a thing must exist simply because we have a word for it – or that a thing must be possible just because we can say that it is. We fall into the error of believing that words or phrases define the world, rather than merely being imperfect tools used to describe it.

Examples:

Safe.”  I once read an entire book on the subject of “acceptable risk,” the whole point of which was that nothing is absolutely safe – totally without risk of any kind. Yet people who ask, “is it safe?” routinely expect to be given a yes or no answer. When the doctor, scientist, or government official comes back with, “the levels are too low to pose a significant health hazard,” people aren’t satisfied. The think that’s weasel-wording, or government-speak for, “we want you to think it’s safe, even though it really isn’t.” In fact, the poor guy is just doing his best not to lie to you.

Other words like “clean” and “pure” – or any word that implies some absolute condition – have similar limitations. Did you know there is a maximum number of insect parts allowed per standard volume of ketchup? Yuck! Why doesn’t the government insist that there not be any insect parts in there? Because there is no possible way in any real universe for the manufacturer to insure that there won’t be any. The best you can do is to establish a level that is as low as possible while still being reasonably achievable.

Freedom.” Increasingly cavalier use of this word as a thing that is always desirable and good is saddling it with so much emotional baggage that it’s in danger of becoming an empty shibboleth – a catch-word thrown about to make you feel good, hook your emotions, or convince people that someone is on the “right” side. We’re starting to believe that freedom is always good, and so anything that limits anyone’s freedom must automatically be bad.  In fact “freedom” really just means the absence of coercion or constraint in any choice or action. In short, it means being able to do what you want. This is fine as long as it’s you getting to do what you want, but what if it’s someone else and what he wants to do is to hurt you? It’s perfectly legitimate linguistically to talk about freedom to rob, freedom to rape, freedom to kill, etc. We’ve begun to think that “freedom” is a treasured value of our democracy when in fact it is specific freedoms, such as freedom of speech, that are our treasured values.

There are two questions you always should ask when you hear the word “freedom” being bandied about: Whose freedom are we talking about? And, freedom to do what, exactly?

I heard a sound bite in which a member of the U. S. Congress said something like, “government should protect our freedom, not tell us what to do.”  I’m sorry; a government that doesn’t tell us what to do creates a society with no rules. And who is likely to benefit in the absence of rules? The strong, the rich, and the clever will benefit for starters – also the irresponsible, the unprincipled, and the ruthless. Government can’t protect any freedoms for the weak, the poor, and the well-meaning but perhaps a bit naive nice guys, except by curtailing some of the freedoms of those who would otherwise take advantage of people less able to defend their own freedoms.

Making money.” Let’s face it, the only people, apart from counter-fitters, who actually make money are the people who work in a mint. The rest of us don’t make money, we acquire it from other people – hopefully in exchange for having done an appropriate amount of useful work, or having provided the other person with a product of appropriate value. Why make this point? Because the word “make” implies something is being produced or created, and it’s hard to see any possible moral issue with that kind of activity. Once you realize that all the money you’ve accumulated came ultimately from other people – directly or indirectly – it puts things in a different light.

We can all be rich.” While it’s possible to say this, it isn’t actually true, because the word “rich,” in monetary terms, is defined as one end of a scale. “Rich” has no meaning in the absence of “poor.”  Simply put, “rich” implies having significantly more money than a significant number of other people. We could potentially all be prosperous, since “prosperous” implies having enough to meet one’s needs, with some to spare. I think we could all achieve that, especially if we helped each other. Yet I heard that half of the 2012 college graduates in a recent poll expressed a desire to become rich. I don’t blame them; I blame us older folks who are giving them the wrong message. We use “rich” in a non-monetary sense to mean all kinds of good things, from “a rich cream sauce,” to “a rich cultural heritage.” We’ve lost track of the negative moral implications of becoming rich monetarily. (There was something about camels fitting through narrow openings…)

With that, I think I’ve probably gotten myself into quite enough trouble.

 

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11 Comments

  1. I was just using the camel and needle analogy the other day with my husband. Words are powerful and dangerous. They can be twisted and manipulated to suit one’s thoughts and motives. And when no one listens to words of caution and restraint, preferring empty promises and platitudes, the results can be devastating. I could never be a politician.

    Reply
  2. Indeed, words can be powerful, especially when misused. The recent bizarre use of the words “legitimate rape” serves as a perfect example.

    As always, thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    Reply
    • It wasn’t so much what he said as what he meant that worries me – on the “legitimate rape” thing. Looking at the context, it’s pretty clear he didn’t mean to say that rape could ever be “legitimate” in the sense of “proper” or “allowed”. What he apparently meant was that if it really was a rape, the woman wouldn’t get pregnant. (Which is a misconception – no pun intended.) The implication is that if she got pregnant, she must be making a false accusation of rape. Now that’s scary – that there are people out there who are so ignorant and who could actually get into a position to be making decisions that affect women’s lives.

      Reply
      • Agreed. The word “legitimate” was just the tip of the iceberg of the misinformation he released. The fact that others harbor the same misguided beliefs is scary.

  3. ginabar

     /  September 7, 2012

    Thank you for the opportunity to ponder. Very good post.

    Reply
  4. Your mother and mine must have gone to the same school of mid-20th-century scientific-minded literalism 🙂 (To be fair, my mother WAS a scientist.) Now I know it is indeed possible to think without words… otherwise, why would I have a perfectly formed story in my mind that turns to trash when I try to write it down?

    Thanks for thoughtful and nuanced post.

    Reply
  5. Perhaps, some trouble. However, what you have done here is take a very tired Scott and make him think…quite an accomplishment at 4:30am.
    Scott

    Reply

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