This will, I expect, be the first of many posts on, or related to, this topic; so here I’m not really going to do more than sketch out some ideas.I’m not a big believer in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least not as I think it’s commonly understood — not in its reductive, absolutist formulation — but on the other hand it seems plain that the way we talk about things and the way we think about things are closely connected, and the one can influence the other.I think that in general, people in the United States (I can’t speak for anywhere else, and indeed I can’t really very reasonably speak for all of the United States, only the parts I’m familiar with; but for brevity, let’s assume that when I say “Americans” or “the US” or “we” that’s what I mean) have a great deal of difficulty dealing with nuances in language and thought. I certainly don’t think we’re incapable, but most of us don’t end up very good at it, nonetheless, which I’m inclined to attribute (probably among other things, as very little in any society is so simple as to have only one cause) to education, in a rather broad sense, and overall culture. We have a hard time expressing complicated or subtle ideas; and we have perhaps an even harder time recognizing, understanding and thinking carefully and critically about subtleties and complexities in what we hear or read.
These things feed into each other.
The cruder our (verbal) tools are, the worse we get at describing difficult ideas, and the more we have to rely on oversimplifications, faulty analogies, leaky abstractions and awkward circumlocutions. The cruder or more opaque the verbal renderings of ideas we encounter are, the worse our understanding will be.
And the worse our understanding is, the more we resort to the crude tools of generalization, catchphrase, cliché, false dichotomy, etc., etc., etc.
This is the process — a process which is often, I think, passively if not deliberately abetted by politicians, commentators, corporate-owned news media, and the rest of the usual rogue’s gallery — by which words and phrases which might once have meant something, or indeed might have meant nothing at all, turn into totems, monolithic objects that stand in for, displace, and obscure the real concepts at issue. These terms become familiar and comforting, and we use them, typically, without recognizing it.
“9/11”. “Terrorist” (or worse, “evildoer”). “They hate us for our freedom”. “Liberal”. “Conservative”. “Family values” or “traditional values” or just “values”. “Pro-life”. “Surge”. “Al Qaeda”. “States’ rights”. “Defense of marriage”. “Affirmative action”. “Racism”. “Sexism”. “Illegal immigration”. “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”. “Islamofascism”. “Shoe-bomber”. “Appeasement”. “Fascism”. “Man” and “woman”. “Gay” and “straight”. “Patriotism”. “Tolerance”. “Melting pot”. “American”.
We get so used to the terms that we lose track of what they originally signified, indeed that they even signified anything at all, and we act as though the terms themselves matter. These terms are tossed around as though they were arguments in themselves. And we think we know what they mean, but we never think about what we think they mean, why we think they mean that, how they came to mean that, or what other meanings they might bring with them, regardless of our intent in using them.
In further posts in this series I’m going to pick particular areas where I think this lack of nuance and awareness in our use of language is particularly detrimental, and try to tease apart some of the issues involved.