Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Importance of the Right Word

In a post a few weeks ago (sorry, I don't remember which one), I talked about the difficulty of having a rational discussion on the subject of Second Amendment issues when even the vocabulary of guns permeates our culture - we shoot from the hip when talking without forethought and look for silver bullet solutions to tough problems, for example. And Superman just wouldn't be quite the same if he was faster than something other than a speeding bullet.

Linguists and philosophers have always known that the words we use to describe things have power, and frame our discussions for better or worse. The knowledge of a person or thing's true name, or the ability to give it a name, grants power over that person or thing, and is a central idea of many cultural or magical beliefs.

If you doubt the power of words, just mention gun control to a strong advocate of Second Amendment rights and watch her spin hysterically into an orbit of righteous indignation. If, on the other hand, we want to discuss ways of reducing gun violence, the chances of a rational discussion are greatly enhanced ... for who, on either side of the argument, could argue against such a worthy goal?

Words matter. By being first to choose the words we use to frame an argument, we gain early ascendency and force our opponents to react to our positions, rather than engage in a careful and reasonable discussion. Consider pro-life versus pro-choice, and liberal versus progressive. Conservatives opposed to the estate tax had more luck in building opposition when they described it instead as a death tax.

So ...

As we sit and watch the asinine gridlock that has paralyzed our government and threatens to crash the economy yet again, listen to the loaded terms (another gun-based idiom!) being used by both sides to force the discussion into irreconcilably opposed channels. Start cutting through the passionate - and often unnecessarily incendiary - language and we can start getting to the heart of issues that require rational thought rather than visceral reactions.

Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word was like the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. So how about a bit less lightning and thunder and a bit more calm, eh?

Have a good day. Choose your words carefully, because you may have to eat them.

More thoughts coming on Cartoon Saturday.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

It is truly amazing how many gun-related idioms are around in English. The choice of expressions is deliberate: the goal of the user is to win, not to assist in coming up with a mutually happy solution. The fact that people see the world in terms of winners and losers sets things at an impasse.

I remember 'death panels' in the health care debates. In fact, medical resources is not in unlimited ssupply, and sometimes we can't squander these resources for potential results that are extremely transient.

allenwoodhaven said...

Given the idiosyncratic way we all understand the words we use, it's a wonder that we can communicate at all.

In my work in the mental health field, I always "translate" what someone is saying to figure out what they actually mean. The actual words used sometimes don't clearly indicate what they are trying to say.

This works in the rest of life too. I think politicians would benefit greatly from the practice. Unfortunately though they talk much much more than they listen...

Looking forward to Cartoon Saturday!

Mike said...

So if you can find a positive spin for death panels you can beat them to death with it.