The Weight of Your Words

How language is manipulating our thoughts and why it is drastically important to teach.

The trouble with words is that, regardless of their size, whether they are salient or subtle, they matter. In their weightless form, they can move mountains and manipulate realities. They can inspire genocide and create peace. America’s national parks are built on their formless back. The Nazi Party was founded on their circulation (e.g., all race other than what Hitler deemed Arian were described as parasitic “bastard races” in schools). The anger, or hatred, or disdain you may feel toward our current political situation in the United States could be based on the graceful words from our president’s mouth, or his Twitter.

How do you feel when you can quote your own nation’s president saying, in seriousness, “Grab them by the pussy.”? What is your heart’s reaction when a recalcitrant threat of nuclear war left his very fingertips? Does it drop to the pit of your stomach? Do you carry a sense of pride? Remorse? Objectification?

Words are not necessarily louder than action. But at times, they are actions. And, at all times, they evoke a reaction.

The trouble with words is that in all their mattering, we forget that they matter because we are inundated with them. We have the luxury of common literacy. We skim them and hear them daily. They enter our minds, unvetted, regardless of their credibility or truths, until we are swayed to a point of no return: a curse of knowledge, if you will. A mere sound or syllable dripping…. an IV into our bloodstreams. Small subtle influences that slowly build into cultural movements or human connections. You may think yourself confident, to the point that validation from others is superfluous, but then your significant other compliments you and your dopamine rises and your self-confidence becomes unquestionable. Because they matter. Because their words, therefore, matter. Conversely, if a friend inadvertently says something less auspicious, your cortisol levels rise–giving way to insecurity and questioning. Words can, in this sense, literally change the chemical composition of your body. Our sensitivities and emotions bend to the semantics of things.

In a broader sense, words can manipulate the reality of your thought toward something — and this is where rhetoric and language become one. Take the “pink slime” controversy which, back in 2012, became a moniker (name) coined for ground-up scraps of beef. The Chicago Tribune called this name change a “coup for descriptive language,” because that simple name change led to the banning of the product from schools and stores. In a severe domino effect, the ban led to the termination of three meat production factories and roughly 650 jobs. Conversely, the coining of “pink slime” gave rise to a level of media sensationalism in an otherwise quiet time for the news, creating panic and, thus, drawing in viewers. Whatever the lean beef product was, it was designated safe to consume. It was not actual slime, which is, by definition, the byproduct of bacteria. Both by blatant definition and onomatopoeia… slime is not something one wants to associate with food. In this case, the media’s coining is the equivalence of fallacious bias because the term slime is not applicable outside of the appearance of the product. But the etymological damage is done. Science may come back and deem the beef product safe to eat, but if you’re trying to feed your family, it’s easy to say anything labeled “pink slime” will not be on your plate this evening. The issue, therein, lies in the manipulation of language within the food industry, something so closely tied to our bodies and emotions (see also labels for “natural” or “cage-free”).

In October of 2010, the government signed into place the Plain Writing Act, which carried with it an understanding of George Orwell’s “Politics of the English Language.” The goal of the act is “to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that government documents issued to the public must be written clearly…” by using plain writing, or “writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience” (Plain Writing Act, 2010). This act, put in place under the Obama administration, seems like a stark contrast to the current reports of the banning of certain words that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) can use in their financial budget documents. While the actual banning of words has been denied by the CDC, there is still cause for speculation. Was it perhaps suggested that words like fetus or evidence-based were not used in the discussion of budgets? Why? Regardless of validity, these reports again display the importance of words: if your language is angled too right or left, you risk loss of funding from annoyed bureaucrats on the other side. Fetus, in its lack of human-declaration, could damn a swaying conservative. Clarity is then damned if money involves persuasion.

Orwell predicted all of this. In “Politics of the English Language” he states that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It is used to “defend the indefensible.” It is vague to the point of eradicating understanding. In stating this, he illuminates some chilling examples: the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not described with clarity. The government did not state that the United States attacked a helpless people by dropping radioactive bombs, destroying thousands of homes and lives. Instead, they “pacified” a nation. When Russia began to purge their countryside for resources, the Russian Government was not robbing their own people of their farms and livelihoods — they were “transferring the population.” In these cases, names are put in place to avoid describing the truth behind a situation or to use a word that may carry emotional weight. Not a massacre. A pacification. This is something we see today. It’s not an abortion. It’s murder. It’s not a mass shooting. It’s terrorism.

Outside of word use, we can see the effects of rhetorical discourse in speech patterns. At a rally in Dallas, Trump urged his listeners with the following:

“I made a beautiful speech. I thought it was wonderful. Everything was fine. A week and a half later, they attacked me. In other words they went through — and then they lied. They made it up. I’m talking about illegal immigration … We have to stop illegal immigration. We have to do it. [Cheers and applause] We have to do it. Have to do it. [Audience: USA! USA! USA! USA!] And when I hear some of the people that I’m running against, including the Democrats, we have to build a wall, folks. We have to build a wall. All you have to do is go to Israel and say, ‘How is your wall working?’ Walls work.”

While there seems to be little to no coherency in this language, Trump is using a rhetorical device called parataxis: a combination of super short sentences and clauses that build into a point (notice the notes on the crowd). These statements eschew the complexity of detail to add emphasis to simple concepts that his supporters can fall into. His speeches are not eloquent; they lack rhetorical ingenuity. But, to supporters, it appears that Trump is saying what he means in the clearest way possible, and in doing so is mocking the convoluted and betraying language of the rest of Washington. He’s portraying an easily relatable identity as everyman’s man through the simplicity of his words. Orwell’s point was that this manipulation of language will continue to worsen as our level of language lowers, meaning that the more commonplace clouded language becomes, the more we dig ourselves into something we cannot escape; the more we use ambiguous terminology, the less weight (in clarity) words will carry, and the easier we will be to manipulate. Trump’s speech is a key example of that.

In modern day, we are inundated with clouded language. Social media. Unvetted articles. Bias claimed as fact. Speeches that give no information. The news, inspired by sensationalism and clicks, inherently removes the inspiration for freedom of press. Trump uses the guise of clear language to create fear-mongering. Politicians avoid objective terms least they offend potential buyers or voters. Celebrity gossip draws the attention of teens and adults away from matters that affect them. When I asked my students last month about “fake news,” a large number of them had never heard the term. Yet they are on their phones, or the internet, where all this content lay before them, all day. Teaching rhetorical analysis and language is now more important than ever. Looking at ethos (credibility) and fallacious reasoning in modern pieces, instead of just focusing on reading the classics. Becoming aware of the weight of words. Of the power of language to change reality. In studying these aspects of rhetoric closely, we not only gain an awareness of how to shift through sources and information, but also on how we use the power of words ourselves — both in our personal and professional lives. And that is something we could use because language is something we all engage in. We all carry the ability to navigate its use. We all bear the weight of its effect… the burden of using it properly and morally between friends and lovers and public spaces. If we can become conscious of that, then the power of language does not lie in the words themselves, but within us. And there is so much hope in that, because we can use it as a tool to make change.

PS: I plan to continue this thought process in other articles on language, especially in looking at the language of the Trump campaign. Much of this was inspired by Orwell, recent actions in politics, and Steven Pinker’s book the Stuff of Thought: Language and as a Window to Human Nature. I cannot recommend that book enough, especially if you are interested in the intersection of language and psychology. In short, I’ve realized now that this blog can become an extension of my graduate school research and interests. 😊


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