Things are not words

We will probably never fully understand just why Jared Loughner decided to do what he did1 on that day in Tucson. This should actually make us feel better about ourselves, when you think about it. I'd far rather be baffled by a spate of irrational killings than have a clue as to the reasoning behind them.2

This hasn't stopped an immediate and intense response from quite a lot of people, in quite a few corners, each apparently trying to simultaneously absolve themselves of guilt while assigning it to others. Ironically, the argument about incendiary language in political discourse has itself become quite incendiary. So it goes.

Rather than seek to attach blame to one "side" or another,3 I'd like to discuss the language we use regularly in discussion of any kind, which is frequently over-the-top and improper for our purposes. By "improper" I do not necessarily mean insulting, offensive, and so on; instead, I simply mean the wrong set of words.

For example, many years ago, Hostess advertised their Twinkies and other baked candies as being "wholesome". I believe I know what wholesome means, and it is not a word that I would apply to something made almost entirely of sugar and so pumped with preservatives that, assuming its packaging remains undamaged, it has an essentially infinite shelf life. Usage of the word wholesome is, here, improper. We might call Twinkies flavorful; we might call them convenient; we might call them tasty. We would be hard-pressed to defend calling them wholesome.

This is a good example of deceptive labeling. It could be argued that, since Twinkies do not contain cyanide, they are technically wholesome; however, wholesome is not a synonym for nonlethal. Using a word that is conventionally associated with healthy cheapens the value of that word, and robs it of effective meaning - particularly if that word is being used to describe something that, eaten in anything but extreme moderation, is in no way healthy at all.

And lest you think I'm picking on Hostess, Slim-Fast used to describe their diet shakes as "delicious". McDonald's used to describe their breakfast hotcakes and sausages as "yummy". Many health foods call themselves "delicious" as well. Miller Light described its taste as "great". More than a few subpar comedies have been called "hilarious". Kronik calls itself an "unrelenting energy supplement". (I don't think it's any of those things.) The list goes on. It's not much of a surprise that younger generations are cynical toward the claims of advertising. We all should be.

This cheapening of language for the sake of advertising is of special interest to me, since I work in advertising, was an English major, and fancy myself an acceptable writer. Of course, it's not limited to advertising. The frequent and generally improper use of the word "awesome" sets my teeth on edge. Wow, have you tasted this coffee? It's awesome. Really? A mass-marketed and -manufactured product, available everywhere in any supermarket, fills you with a sense of awe? Heavens, get a life. Or at the very least, a thesaurus.

Why should we care, though? Isn't this just nitpicking? I don't believe so. For most of us, language is the primary means we use to communicate with others, to take in information from them, and to describe our experiences. Sloppy grammar is obnoxious to some, but that's just mechanics. The real intent of our words is not in the structure; it's in the words we use, particularly the adjectives.

Incendiary language is used to stimulate, to draw attention, to emphasize a point. Sometimes it's used to demonize someone, and other times it's used to cast an entire school of thought in doubt. The same is true of fear-inspiring language. How many television news "magazines" tell us that we should be alarmed by this, worried by that, concerned with the other thing? If it's an afternoon show, I'd wager it's all of them. To listen to their lead-ins, you'd think the world was a terrifying, horrible place, a veritable deathtrap.

This kind of language is used because it grabs attention; however, it appeals to emotion. It does not constitute rational argument, and is not based in reason. Where we get into trouble is when we fail to parse that language, when we forget to look for the underlying rationale, responding instead to the physical tension inspired by those words. When anyone begins using an emotionally-based approach to an argument, it's certain that he's got an agenda. At least part of that agenda is served by making us turn off our rational judgment and work solely from the somatic response, that sense of tension, be it anger or fear.

This superficiality is an ancient means of stirring the masses. It's been used to manipulate entire populations to war, whether just or unjust. It's used to control thinking, to persuade with the heart rather than the mind, to effectively hypnotize intelligence. Sometimes we can be moved to heroic deeds, though more often such language appeals to our baser selves.

One of the more popular American collegiate competitions, in decades past, was debate. Teams would be given one "side" or another on an arbitrary topic, then have to develop arguments to defend that side - whether it was agreeable to them or not. Topics might have included Resolved: Communism is a potentially destructive force in the world, or Resolved: Usage of alcohol is a harmless pastime, or Resolved: The American Revolution was a destabilizing force. However the team members might have felt on these issues, they had to argue for or against the resolution.

The key was that they had to do it rationally. They had to use persuasion, facts, and evidence in support of those views. Falling back on an emotional argument was countered as such, and didn't factor into the discussion.4

We've lost the talent for that. The ability to form rational opinions is no longer taught to students; at best, they may be shown how a given set of facts was arrived at, but there isn't any sense of how those facts were established. This reduces education to a decanting of received truth, rather than an exposé of the means used to find those truths.

Partly, I think this is because we've got an education system that isn't about teaching, so much as it's about producing a uniform product. In recent years this has become so thoroughly emphasized that most schools are limited to teaching students what's required to pass a nationally mandated test, rather than find meaning behind the teachings.

For example, history is reduced to a dry recitation of dates, places, and events, with little or no meaningful discussion of how those events came to pass. That the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 is a fact - but does anyone know why it was fought? Not among most high school students, I believe.5 This is not a good trend; history provides us with two things: a sense of context, and a way to analyze (and ideally avoid) making the same mistake twice. However, there isn't a particularly good way to judge how well a student has absorbed that context simply by filling in a bubble form, so the quantifiable facts - place, date, event - are all we've got left to measure.

That is not education. It's playing back a tape recording.

Added to the effective gutting of meaning in education is an apparent growing mistrust of education itself. Those who prefer polysyllabic phraseology are mocked as "elitists", and of course it's routine in American schools to bully the "nerds", most of whom are considerably brighter than their peers. Intelligence is, in this milieu, a deficit.6

This trend seems out of place in a nation that prides itself on industry, technology, and achievement. The transistor was invented by an American; transistors are what your computer uses to process all the information you give them. The helical structure of DNA was co-discovered by an Englishman and an American; DNA is the key to all known life.

These developments engendered revolutions in science, medicine, biology, and engineering; yet the education required to make them is something that most American students today don't have - and those who do are vilified. Where once we emphasized the sciences in order to outdo the Soviets, now we often regard signs of learning with open hostility.

As for philosophy - good luck finding that one even mentioned.

Maybe we could reexamine, yet again, what our goals actually are in teaching. Do we want our children to be happier, healthier, and generally better off than we are ourselves? What are we doing to make that happen? And what are we doing to prevent it?

This isn't to say that life fifty years ago was better than it is today, or that there weren't bizarre and horrible acts of violence being perpetrated when schools still sought to educate rather than embed. A constant reality in our world seems to be strife, but so much of it is, in the end, unnecessary.

In Buddhism, we have the eightfold path, a plan of action that, while not necessarily a direct route to enlightenment, can at least reduce the strife in one's own life. I don't have anywhere near the space required to discuss all eight elements, but right now a discussion of the third part, Proper Speech, seems justified.

As I said above, language is usually how we interact with the world. As such, it reflects our thoughts, and it can influence the thoughts of others, just as their language influences us. Language is a direct means to know what's happening in our heads, but what we might not see is that it also limits us. If we don't have a word for an idea, we probably don't have the idea either.

A number of years back, I came to a surprising realization. There aren't any nouns. No, I haven't gone off the deep end. I mean the concept of a noun, as applied to language, does not match our actual experience. Grossly, a noun is anything that exists and can be pointed to. People are nouns. Trees are nouns. Cars and cities are nouns. Right?


The word tree is assuredly a noun, but the tree itself is not a fixed thing. Trees are part of a process. They take in carbon dioxide from everything that breathes, and we breathe the oxygen they make. They take in rain, which comes from clouds that formed over lakes and oceans, and they take in nutrients from the ground that used to be other living things. They use sunlight to grow, and the earth we all live on was made around that sun. Anything that everything is made out of came from other stars that blew up. And when a tree dies its water goes back into a river, and that goes into the ocean, and the wood turns into dirt and then more trees. The whole world is in a tree. The whole universe. Just like us. All of us.

Thus, while trees definitely exist, they represent both the tree itself and the concept of a tree. Deeper down, we see just how fundamentally interrelated trees are to everything else.

We get into trouble when we confuse the word tree (the word is a noun) with the tree itself, which has no independent existence. Our language forces us to refer to trees as permanent, fixed things, when in reality they are not.

We do this all the time, and that misunderstanding leads us down a lot of sad, terrible paths. We become so wrapped up in what we've convinced ourselves to be permanent that we end up missing the larger context, the one that binds us all, deeply and inextricably, to one another. I think it would be a mistake to blame all of our problems on speech, but as a great teacher once said, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." I would add, as a man speaketh, so he thinketh.

It's my wish for all of us that we can ponder what this might mean, and come to some conclusions of our own about the words we use, how we use them, and what we think about them. Maybe we can even do it while pondering under a tree.


1. The journalistic convention is to use alleged and accused when writing news stories about purported criminals; however, I am not a journalist. This is an opinion piece. Furthermore, to argue that Loughner did not, in fact, shoot a number of people (which is what "allegedly" means) is to argue against all observable reality, and sanity. I trust that if this is a problem, this entry will be edited appropriately by the good folks at the Miner. ^

2. And there was a reason, without a doubt, but that does not mean that the reason made any sense to anyone but Loughner. Generally, people do things that make sense to them at the time. One of the pitfalls of thinking is that we're trapped inside it; we have no way to step beyond ourselves for an objective look at our thoughts. The best we can do is compare our own motivations to the behavior of others, and see if we're more or less on the same plane as they are. ^

3. Describing it in terms of "sides" is divisive, and doesn't further the discussion. We'd do well to try to see past arbitrarily-imposed polarization. ^

4. Ideally. ^

5. It had to do with accession to the English throne. One claimant for succession believed he had the right by birth; the other believed he had it by dint of extensive prior experience. ^

6. I know. I went over the top with the language in that graf on purpose. ^