Push-words, Part II: The power of Push

Part II — The Power of Push

From long years of observation, I’ve concluded that most people are not aware of the persuasive power of push-words – or of how blithely and frequently we call upon them. Most people believe that that their (portrayals of the) facts are THE facts.

But serious observers of the language know that when it comes to the matchup of words with reality, there’s very little in the external world, other than the totally mundane, that we can agree on. And many people experience a subjective reality – e.g., religion — that is completely inaccessible to others.

Our ability to use the different words for the same thing is a two-edged sword. It certainly increases our ability to express ourselves. But all too often in a disagreement about labels – about how a thing or event (including a subjective or mental event should be “correctly” or “accurately” named or otherwise characterized in words.

Such disagreement can be very disruptive. It’s one of the roots of most political, religious, ethnic, or ideological conflict.

When Nixon said, “your President is not a crook,” my immediate reaction was, “Oh, but he really is.” When Bill Clinton, wagging the Finger of Sincerity, denied having “sexual relations with that woman,” we knew just what kind of carnal act the phrase conventionally described, and within the limits of that interpretation, Slick Willie was right.

What frightens so many people about the current President is that his rhetoric is too often totally unhinged from time and reality. Reality is what Trump says it is – today. This would be OK in the day room of a psychiatric facility, but not in the Oval Office. (Memo to The Donald: There will be no wall, wasting billions at a time when immigration by land is in fact negative)

There is a special case of words semi-hinged to reality, appearing to mean something but meaning nothing: bullshit. That’s a separate post.

And as the tide of BS rises (wish George Carlin were still around to deconstruct Trump), I practice three strategies, which I recommend to you:

(1) Perception: I try to be aware of how often push-words words come at me and of how often I use them.

(2) Skepticism: while many statements with push-words can easily be accepted at face value, others might cause us to ask, “Now how the hell does he/she know that? How do I know that?” Spend a half hour on the Net educating yourself about epistemology and how we know things.

I think appropriately-simplified versions of these principles (including the “many words for same thing” principle) should be taught early on, so that maybe people couldn’t be manipulated so easily. What is the purpose of education anyway?

(3) Self-awareness. Check your knowledge and certainty. At least sometimes, when I use a push-word, I check my knowledge-source and go back to (2). Don’t believe things just because they reinforce your confirmation bias. We all do that, unfortunately.

An appropriate conclusion: after all these years, this is still my favorite quote on persuasion, from Paul Josef Goebbels, the maliciously literate voice of the Third Reich, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister: “The truth is that which most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.”

Be aware of when people, whether intentionally or not, are using push-words (and other means) to play with your reality, to bullshit you. Really.

May, 2017