Words, maps, territories, and the political abuse of language


From mind to thought (and from there to the speech and auditory organs)

The truth is what most people believe.  And they believe that which is repeated most often.

Paul Josef Goebbels

Here is the text of a letter I sent to the Manchester NH Union-Leader (published 6/21/19):

March 19, 2019

Dear Editor,

Let me add my voice to the chorus of people outraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s  comparison of immigrant confinement to concentration camps.  This is worse than obscene and ignorant.  It is an utterly irresponsible use of language.  As a linguist, I am appalled by the deceptive reducing of two vastly different entities to a single point of comparison — confinement.

This is an argumentation technique that races to the bottom (usually Nazis) with specious reasoning: you have this in common with the worst; therefore, you have everything in common.   It’s inflammatory language founded on the part-to-whole fallacy.

Of course, this demented woman-child will not back down, much less admit the reckless irrationality of her pronouncements.   I hope she will be inundated with pictures of the real Holocaust.  She should visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel.   Maybe talk with survivors.  Then apologize and shut up.

In addition…

Map and territory

(1) This is, in the terminology of general semantics, a map/territory issue.

The central maxim of this field is that the word is the map; the reality, the territory.  We give certain words — alternate maps for the same territory — the power to arose and incite us.

In a later comment, the speaker avers that “if the terminology makes you uncomfortable, fix the camps” – a blatant attempt to avoid the consequences of linguistic irresponsibility.  No, you fix the terminology, Congresswoman – that’s the problem.

If we’re to communicate at all, we need to use the same words for the same things, which is possible in science, irregular in everyday life, and impossible in politics. Quite the opposite: word choice is usually politically motivated.  In this case, it’s meant to influence the audience — to arouse, incite, and reinforce their preexisting agreement with the inciter.

Language abuses

(2) There are many other language abuses in our public discourse —

— dishonest/misleading euphemisms, hyperbole, and false comparisons (the first one to mention Hitler or the Nazis, as somebody eventually does, loses the argument), among others — which people should be aware of by the 5th grade.

But it’s good for the elites that most people don’t know this sort of thing, that their BS detectors are atrophied.   They accept a politician’s label /map as the correct one — but only if they already agree politically.  Context is everything.

Definition of “gaffe”

(3) People who speak without a filter give us a priceless advantage:

a straight-shot insight into their deepest, darkest impulses, the kind of thing most of us, especially politicians, know how to hide or soft-pedal.  “Gaffe” has been (ironically) re-defined as a politician’s slipping up and saying what he/she really means.

When the Congresswoman in question stated that it’s better to be “morally correct” than “factually” or “grammatically” correct, we understand fully what she means.  The perpetrators of the Inquisition also thought themselves morally correct (see, I didn’t mention Nazis)..

Language experts

(4) Other qualified experts speak out on political issues to which their field is relevant —

— climate science, nuclear power, certainly economics and psychology, and many others.  Why not linguists?

Linguists can bring their expert opinion to bear on language abuses and take a political stand if they so choose.

But academic linguists don’t choose.

The silence is deafening.

Part of the reason must be that they’re nestled in the bosom of academia, which, as it happens,  is the epicenter of leftist rhetoric, including

— vilification of the Founding Fathers and Western culture in general,

— white oppression/white privilege narratives,

— politically correct speech,

— hate speech,

— affinity for socialism (without definition),

— multilingualism,

— dozens of genders (and gender pronouns),

–safe spaces,

–trigger words…

…these are language issues!

Politicians can continue to blather about concentration camps, but at least they’d be publicly called out by responsible, credentialed experts.

And finally…

People, please throttle back on the wholesale use of words as weapons.    Whoever practices, encourages, or by silence condones such abuses is dividing us with labels, pitting us against each other, and (further) dividing the country.

Language is our crowning achievement as a species.  It was probably first used to facilitate social cohesion and common endeavor.

Can we go back to that?