As a writer and a skeptic, I’m often most distressed at the often blatant manipulation of language when communicating an idea. You can rest assured that the more controversial a topic, the less likely it is that you can trust what is being said about it. All forms of communication are inherently flawed, imperfect, subjective and makes a poor medium for sowing truth; but alas, it’s all we’ve got.
Language itself is a lot like me when I try to play baseball with people who are actually good at baseball. I even played a little baseball in school, I was on the team and everything. I swear! If we played 20 games that season, I rode the pine for 17 of them, but goddammit I was on the team! Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what it was actually even worth. I didn’t get any girls because of it, I didn’t become cool(er), I wasn’t a jock, I wasn’t a nerd. If anything, it only underscored the fact that I had no real group, no perfect fit, no easily applied label. I’m quite proud of this now, but at the time it was confusing and I spent of lot of high school trying not to seem insecure and no doubt failing miserably. So, if I was good enough to make the team, why didn’t I play?
It’s pretty simple: I fucking suck at baseball. I understand the game well enough, I know what to do with the ball, I know the rules and I can actually bat pretty well given the chance, but I just don’t have the focus required of an athlete. I get bored extremely quick. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m currently reading six books at once, in the sense that I haven’t yet finished any of them. I haven’t even started nearly 50% of the books that I’ve purchased. It’s not that I don’t want to, I just lose interest in reading for weeks at a time. My mind is active like a pinball machine, its focus shifting rapidly from one thing to the next. So imagine planting that mind out in left field, facing the often sluggish pace of baseball itself and the fact that there are so many things to look at when you’re outside: from the crowd, to the players, so many thoughts, the uniforms, the last names, the crowd, the bugs, the grass…what was I saying? Oh! Baseball, right! In addition to being so easily distracted, I can’t throw the ball for shit, do not love the game anywhere near enough to sacrifice my body for anything, and thanks to an incident in little league, am deathly afraid of taking a grounder to the shin…. So what does this unfocused analogy have to do with Language? Plenty.
- “So when you said ‘close enough’…”
Much like me, Language is a laughably imperfect tool for the job it is assigned: communication. Language has rules, it can be quite eloquent given the right orator, but it doesn’t have the objectivity required for the perfect transfer of ideas and it can most certainly be made into whatever the speaker wants it to be at the time. Language is not a science, it is note reliable, but unless cave painting catch on again, we’re sort of stuck with it.
Let me give you an example: regardless of your opinion on the morality of the situation, Roman Polanski has an outstanding warrant for his arrest in the United States for statutory rape. Now, very few of us would disagree that rape is horrific and not at all a grey area, but the problem is that the word rape hascontradictory definitions. Most people think of rape in the normal way:
– the unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse.
but no one has accused Roman Polanski of forcing himself on the girl in question, not even her, which is arguably the only opinion that matters. Polanski is accused of statutory rape, which is defined as:
– sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of consent, which age varies in different states.
According to the language of the law, it has nothing to do with physical force or duress In fact, the only requirement is that one of the participants be below a certain age, which varies from state to state. I’m not saying rape is bad and statutory rape is just swell, but I am saying that they different and even contradict each other. One requires the absence of consent, the other is still a crime regardless of its presence. I’m not defending or attacking Polanski, I’m attacking the deliberate use of inflammatory language. Rape, in 4 out of its 5 definitions is about taking something forcefully, whether raping a person, or plundering their land, it’s all pretty unpleasantly aggressive by nature, but even if a 17 year old and 20 year old are deeply in love, the 20 year old will go to jail with “rapist” tattooed on his reputation because the language of the law fails to effectively differentiate one crime from a technical crime. Polanski didn’t rape the girl, he had sex with a girl who was not legally allowed to say yes. Rape conjures up a different image of what actually happened, the word is an imperfect adjective and communicates an easily misinterpreted idea. Now, that’s not to say that people aren’t coerced into sex when they’re too young to know better, but it would naive to think that this is always the case. Words, however, are indifferent to intent.
Pictured above: Rape. (No, really)
Politics, Religion, Science, Pseudoscience, Conspiracy Theories, Skepticism…. It all suffers from the same affliction, imperfect language. Everywhere you turn, you have someone trying to sell you something, convince you of something, relate something to you, discourage you from doing something and everyone uses the same imperfect and easily manipulated tools called “words”. I’m doing it right now, in fact. I know that using analogies makes my somewhat abstract point easier to understand. I made a decision about which words to use and omit behind the scenes and you only see the final product. Politicians create attack ads where they omit facts, attach scary adjectives to innocent actions and more often then we’d like, flat out lie. Language is so imperfect that without extra knowledge, we can’t even identify a lie from the truth just from the words, and the communication of ideas thrives on this. Certain words carry more weight than others, sometimes just one word can alter the (intended) meaning of a sentence.
As a result, everyone lies, everyone manipulates, everyone bends the truth or masks it to appear better than it is. I would go so far as to say that this is so inherent without humans that it ought to be accepted, not changed. Humans will always be selfish, and this is one way that no one can stop us. An embittered ex-girlfriend can use only words, sometimes only tone of voice, to irreparably ruin her ex’s reputation. A couch can fire up a discourage team with an inspiring speech. Protesters can change the course of a discussion, and ultimately history, with the wording of their signs. History itself is written by the victors and contains an inevitable bias. The media frequently distorts a headline in an effort to increase the likelihood that the article will be read. Conspiracy theorists cherry pick data and quotations to make their case more compelling. You get the idea. You can probably think of two dozen examples of language being applied with ulterior motives, positive or negative.
It’s worth noting at this point that not all manipulation is malicious. Sometimes it happens on accident based on our mood. The way we describe ourselves is incredibly dependent on the very moment that we choose the words. A Monday might offer a more pessimistic response, where the opposite may be true on a Friday. People rarely, if ever, say exactly what they mean. Language must be interpreted by the listener, which means that not only is the speaker not saying what they mean, but the listener may not even be understanding in the way it was intended. I might even have a typo that I missed which affects your ability to understand what I’m saying.
It’s chaos. Like trying to sail a kite from a tugboat in a hurricane, it may not be impossible, but you’ll be damned lucky to have any success at all.
So what’s my point, other than fatalism? If we can’t really trust what anyone says, how can we know what to believe? Whether it’s about science, god, our families or that bridge salesman, how can ever know anything at all?
Well the short version is that you can’t. Not 100% anyway. You simply have to play the probability game, which is more precise than it sounds. You have to weigh all available knowledge against what is being claimed, or believed and you must test it against itself. If someone tells you that gravity isn’t real, then kindly drop something on their foot as many times as it takes to prove your point. If someone presents a convincing argument for why the Twin Towers were destroyed by controlled demolition, kindly present them with the footage of actual demolished buildings and point out the differences. If someone asserts knowledge of a deity, kindly remind them of the fallibility of language and ask for evidence that wasn’t passed down in a two thousand year old game of telephone.
"Then after three days, his rose was dead. I know, I didn't get it either."
Language itself can never be enough to prove anything. Words are too easily manipulated, heartstrings are too easily tugged. If something makes sense when you hear it spoken, then continue investigating before you draw a conclusion. Real truth can be corroborated by independent sources. Relying on one source is dumb, relying on an unreliable source is grounds for dismissal. Be smart and challenge what you’re told and what you read. Remember that no human on the planet is immune to misrepresenting themselves or others in the way that the speak, and assumptions should never be made based on words alone, language is far too corruptible to be any kind of foundation.
I just realized the irony of blogging this.