Saying It How It Is, and the Pitfalls of Language

Words are powerful things. Even the simplest words contain multitudes, sneaking in volumes of social thought and intellectual history as they slip in and out of our minds. Every word is a shorthand – and strung together into thoughts and sentences, those shorthands help shape how we see the world.

All serious reasoning (and a lot of unserious reasoning as well) is done by way of such shorthand. To name something is to gain power over it; give something a name and you make it portable, you can pick it up from where you found it and use it somewhere else. It took decades for Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution through selective pressure, but now we can talk with ease about the ‘evolution’ of pop music, hem lines, or biscuits. That’s one way language helps us make sense of the world: it collapses long chains of reasoning into shorter ones.

The other great trick language has for helping us navigate a complicated universe is the proliferation of metaphors. Some of these are easy to see. When we refer to someone as a ‘momma bear’ or talk about love as a ‘journey’, we’re obviously speaking in metaphor. But we’re also speaking in metaphor when we write about ‘navigating’ a topic. The imagery of navigation is useful here because it conjures up a readymade theory of the case, with its accessible allusions to uncertainty and difficulty.

Metaphors and shorthand give us tremendous leverage over the world, but they also introduce the possibility of slippage. When new jargon is first introduced, people tend to use it in fairly specific ways. Over time, however, the range of meaning expands; sometimes it expands so much that it includes things wildly at odds with each other.

For example, word ‘literally’ originally meant that something was associated with writing – it shares the same root as the word literature. Because the written word has a reputation for reliability and precision, the word came to mean that something was exactly and strictly the case. The word retains that meaning to this day, but can also be used to denote the exact opposite: that a statement is only true allegorically.

The curious case of how literally came to mean both one thing and its opposite is a good reminder that language doesn’t always respect the tight relationship between word and meaning that we’ve come to expect of it.

That’s one trap that language lays for us: it pretends to refer to something specific when, in truth, it’s only hinting vaguely in a direction. We might call that the trap of non-specificity. Another one is the trap of non-uniqueness: every phenomenon can  give rise to countless linguistic descriptions. 

Imagine a scene. A dark-skinned man lays prone on the floor with his hands behind his back while another man, dressed in blue and wearing a badge, places handcuffs on him. Almost no one who sees that scene would actually describe it that way. Instead, they might say that a police officer is arresting a suspect. Or they might say that a police officer is oppressing a black man. Both descriptions might be correct, but not in the same way. Because there is no unique description of what happened, which shorthands and metaphors come readily to mind are critical in determining what we conclude is the actual fact of the matter.

The games we’re forced to play with language resemble the process of taking a photograph. People usually privilege visual evidence like pictures or video as reliable and ‘objective’ – but anyone who has ever worked on the other side of the camera knows that that isn’t the whole story. Take the same scene and shoot it with different lenses, different focal lengths, different filters, film, angles, etc. and you’ll produce radically different images; different records of the same event. Which of those records is more objective? Which image tells the real story?

One tempting answer is that the objective record is the one that most closely resembles what you’d see with the naked eye, but our eyes are themselves lenses. (And many naked eyes are rather bad lenses at that.) A dog, which doesn’t see color, would see something different than we would, and with the right equipment we can actually mimic what he sees. For that matter, some birds can see in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, which is invisible to humans. What might look drab to us can be tremendously colorful for a mockingbird.

This image shows features visible through UV light (left) not visible in the spectrum humans perceive (center). (c) Dave Kennard

This image shows features visible through UV light (left) not visible in the spectrum humans perceive (center). (c) Dave Kennard

In this sense, the ‘objectivity’ of the image isn’t really the right question to ask; instead, you’d want to know: what do I want to do with this image and which image helps me do that? Language is always like that. People know this intuitively and when speakers use obvious metaphors – comparing the national budget to household expenses or speaking of wartime refugees as if they were an infection – we rightly ask whether the speaker has chosen the right metaphor.

Too often, however, we forget to do that when they’re using less obvious shorthand. 

Here is my central point: the langauge we use, even when we think it is at its most obvious and unadorned, is theory-laden. In other words, whenever we speak, even when we speak in short declarative sentences, we are sneaking in volumes of preconceptions. This is where rhetoric gets its power. In the hands of the right speaker, the right words can convince an audience that one particular set of shorthands and metaphors are simply the fact of the matter. Rhetoric bypasses argumentation, gets you to ignore the lens and camera, and asks you to pay attention only to the finished picture.

(Another word for this, appropriately enough, is framing and there is no clearer example in modern politics than the debate over abortion: pro-life and pro-choice are not descriptors, they are conclusions.)

I can no more come out against metaphor and shorthands in public discourse, or private conversation for that matter, than I can come out against using our eyes to see because they depend on lenses. Shorthand is simply how humans think. Our ability to think that way is what sets human cognition entirely apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. But I am arguing that it’s a double-edged sword and that it’s more dangerous the less we think about it.

The simple trick of politics is to convince people that you are not trying to convince them of anything at all. We all want to hear it how it is, to have someone cut through all the noise and lay the truth bare before us. In this political season, who isn’t looking for clarity? All politicians are doing is calling balls and strikes, drawing our attention to how the world really is. As if there were such a thing. As if the values we hold don’t shape the judgements we make. As if we could look at a social and economic landscape and judge whether or not it’s working without first having a profound conversation about what we value, or even about who the word ‘we’ refers to.

Don’t fall for it. The moment politicians start talking, we should start questioning and doubting. The simpler their story, the more intuitively appealing their narrative, the more it seems to rhyme with our worldview – with our schemas – the more we should worry that we’re being had. The politicians are conning us and, what’s more, we’re helping them!

Does that sound plausible to you? If that plausibility inclines you to agree with me, then I’m afraid you haven’t been paying attention.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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