Ariane David Does Language Shape Thinking

In Defense of the Political Correctness

Is All Language Acceptable?

Not long ago I was involved in a discussion about the use of epithets, especially the most common racial epithet for African Americans.

One person, whom I respect greatly, spoke of an ideal way of being, in which all language is acceptable because people are able to move beyond the sometimes hideous stereotypes language conjures, and see the humanity of the people targeted by them.

By using those terms freely and in a non-pejorative way, he believed, we could come to disarm the term and take away its power to hurt. It would become just another word, like desk or tortoise or ball-bearing.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if we were actually evolved enough to use forbidden terms as a way of breaking down barriers, consciously, methodically, compassionately, so that those terms could never cause damage again. But we’re not there yet (“yet” is highly optimistic).

If we were, Trump’s hateful speeches would have unleashed a tsunami of mutual understanding, rather than a shit storm of epithets used as a call to arms against some groups. No, we’re not there yet.

Thoughts and Experience Shape Language

We know that thought and experience shape language. Anthropologist Franz Boaz in his years living with Native peoples of North America noted a multitude of distinct words for snow, including snow that sticks to sled runners and snow that crusts on the top but is soft underneath.

From this, he determined that how people think about a thing, in this case, snow, shapes the language they create and use.

Language Also Shapes How We Think

However, the converse is also true. As the research of Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University showed, the language we use also shapes how we think. Language used over and over again not only constantly reinforces the meaning but makes the thought itself increasingly more acceptable.

Bias and Discriminatory Ideas are Soon Normalized

Biased and discriminatory ideas repeated over and over become commonplace, and the concepts behind them, no matter how odious, are soon normalized. Speak long enough about how loathsome or scary some people are, and pretty soon, that is all we know about them.

By saying it’s not ok to use that language, we’re saying it’s not ok to think that way. We don’t stand a chance of getting rid of the thoughts without getting rid of the language. The only way this can happen is by being conscious of the language we use and its potential to do good or to harm.

Language is a powerful political force that shapes how we think and act as a nation. Because of this, it is the responsibility of people in the political limelight to measure the impact of their words: “will my words make the world more just, peaceful, and safe, or more corrupt, violent, and treacherous?”

John F. Kennedy Entreated Us to Be Our Best Selves

John F. Kennedy entreated us to be our best selves, to think of the good of the country first.

Donald J. Trump Has Shown Our Us Worst Selves, Vulgar, Selfish, and Cruel

Donald Trump so far has shown us that it’s ok to be our worst selves, vulgar, selfish, and cruel. He’s shown us that none of the wisdom of a civil society is necessary as long as one speaks one’s mind.

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