Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Perils of Sloppy Language Use

The news has not been a good source for blog material in recent weeks so I Googled my own blog to see if I could find some some reactions to it that were of interest and found one that was very troubled by my blog on the language of the abortion controversy. The reply concerns my claim that language does not determine thought, as the novelist Orwell or the linguists Whorf and Sapir would have it, but at most influences thought.

The argument in Words, You, and a Pink Elephant is intended by its author to show that language does determine thought. His first demonstration consists of the opening passage:
If I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, have I determined your thoughts? It seems undeniable that I have.
In fact, in saying this to others one can cause them to think about pink elephants but not what to think about them and the latter is what is of interest. So, if the author were to say
Pink Elephants can fly
he would not in so doing cause me to do any more than think about this proposition. He could not make me believe that it is true. That is, simply asserting something does not guarantee that people will believe it. Ask George Bush how that way of doing intellectual business is working for him.

The author then goes on to say
In fact, it appears self-evident that words not only influence thought; they determine it.
Questions that are of any intellectual interest do not have self-evident answers. At least, I haven't found one. .

The blogger goes on to say
If I step onto a commercial airline, seize control of the cockpit mid-flight and say over the PA-system, "We have some bombs!", do you think I mean to affect behavior?
Notice that he has moved off the term "determine" to "affect" but these are anything but interchangeable in meaning. My blog did say that use of language can influence thought but not determine it. The terrorist could cause people to do things but not what they will actually do, as one group of terrorists learned on 9/11.

My causing someone to believe some proposition through what I say depends on what sorts of beliefs the person already has, the ability of this person to think critically, and what sort of faith this person has in my credibility concerning that issue. If someone comes into a linguistic class knowing nothing about language, I can influence the hell out of him or her. I did it over and over during the years I taught. However, when I went in front of a body of trained linguists and delivered a paper, my ability to "affect" their beliefs was conditioned only in part by what I said. What they already believed would play no less a role.

What the blogger does in his blog is use terms like "determine," "affect," and "influence" as if they meant the same thing. He also fails to observe the mightily important distinction between thinking about something and thinking something about that thing. The blogger says
What if I walk up to a bank teller and hand him a note which says, "Give me all the cash in your cash drawer or I will shoot you in the head"– am I not predetermining an outcome?
I am not sure where the "pre" comes from in the blogger's thinking but if the robber were to do this he would certainly cause something to happen. But unless he has cased the bank and become familiar with all of its security features, his ability to determine a specific outcome would be quite limited. For instance, it could be that there is a button on the floor that the teller can press that causes a bullet proof screen to pop up between the customers and all the tellers making the passing of money over impossible. Suppose further that as the screen goes up, a very loud siren goes off which alerts the security guard as well as the local police. Suppose the guard draws a gun and orders the robber to drop his gun. Our robber certainly didn't predetermine this outcome, one he couldn't have known simply from casing the bank unless he got to watch another person trying to rob the bank. He caused there to be a reaction of some sort. That's all.

Words like "determine," "predetermine," "affect," and "influence" are not interchangeable and the distinction between thinking about something and thinking something about that thing are very different. Yes, our blogger could get me to think about pink elephants but he couldn't make me think one could fly simply by saying
Pink elephants can fly.
What we have is some very sloppy uses of language that reflect, I fear, a very sloppy way of thinking. So I might agree to the thesis that sloppy uses of language can determine sloppy ways of thinking.

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Blogger Joe said...

I just Googled "sloppy" and discovered that Orwell used the word in an essay on Charles Dickens.

That's pretty neat! :-)

8:36 PM

Blogger L>T said...

only with sloppy people.

Thinking about the elephant, it's not the color but the size of the wings that matter.

12:00 AM

Blogger L>T said...

to continue: I keep finding myself agonizing over small words like 'in' as opposed to 'up' Is it 'in' your orifice or 'up' your orifice? It all depends on the context.
Context is so important. More important then the words.

3:57 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

No, context is not more important than the words. No context other than a highly contrived one can cause "I love you" to mean "George Bush is a nitwit." Context and what is said are both important. It is impossible to quantify their relative importance since it varies from example to example.

8:34 AM

Blogger Bill Gnade said...

Dear Mr. Language Guy,

I am sorry that the fodder of the recent news cycles has been so scant that you should have to turn to an essay of mine for, well, nourishment and inspiration. Not that my essay offers much of either; your rebuttal here apparently has led you to conclude that I am, somehow, toiling in slovenliness.

May I make a few observations?

First, it is worth noting that my language determined exactly what I wanted from you: a response. Without telling you about my essay, without advertising here at all, you nonetheless found it, and my words determined a certain behavior: you replied.

Is that not the very reason we communicate anyway, to illicit, even determine, certain behaviors? Why post speed limit and STOP signs on highways; why issue warnings or draft laws or write resolutions or create propaganda or say "I love you" or "I am rich" if writers and speakers do not believe they actually do, in fact, determine behavior? Of course, I never said that I could predict the totality of the behavior that would follow any statement I may make; I merely implied that language can surely illicit a determinable set of actions from those who hear or read certain statements.

If I say, "Do not think of a pink elephant that flies," I have determined a certain behavior: you will THINK. Thinking, after all, is an action; it is an act of the human person. While volition's role in the act of thinking is entirely open to debate, it appears "self-evident" that words do in fact affect behavior. And if I propose that a particular pink elephant is a flier, you will at least THINK about that, irespective of whether you reject the predicate.

Imagine that you are walking with a friend in Manhattan, and that you begin to jaywalk across a very busy street. Imagine also that for mere fun you shout "Watch Out!"; do you not agree that you will determine behavior? Will not your companion start to attention; will he not lurch to a halt and look for the alleged threat? Will he not do this even if you are jesting? And does it matter whether he reacts voluntarily or involuntarily?

Second, your own website is rife with evidence that you mean to determine certain behaviors with language. For example, in your profile you list your rather impressive credentials. The posting of your credentials is meant to cause at least two behaviors in your guests, one of deference -- you are an expert -- and one of confidence -- you know what you are talking about. This profile, of course, is not at all what you write about: you write about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with your profile. But the profile is posted not so we all might laugh at your credentials; your degrees are presented to give us proper pause, and to reassure us.

Third, in your rebuttal of my essay (most of which -- the essence? -- you largely ignore), do you not mean to determine MY behavior? Do you not wish that I defer to you, or admit my sloppiness, or to embrace humility? Or do you intend not to affect anything about me at all? I would contend that most readers would agree that had I replied like this,

"Dear Language Guy. You are a totally wrong, and you are a stupid, pompous man. Go take your pomposity and stick it into your pinched little resumé."

you would have replied by pointing out that I had committed an ad hominem fallacy and that I had failed to show how you were wrong. The interesting thing is that I actually considered responding that way to prove that you would in fact answer according to plan; you would have replied the way I expected you to. And if I had added obscenities to my reply, perhaps I would have had the privilege of making you delete my comments -- which would have been my intent.

When I say just one word to my Border Collie, my dog responds exactly the way I predict -- every time. When I tell my child to "Stop!" before an action, I can pretty much predict how my child will respond. But adults are, of course, much more sophisticated than dogs or children; that is why propaganda in politics and advertising is so much more sophisticated: such propaganda intends to affect behaviors, and it succeeds rather well. If it didn't, propaganda would cease.

Lastly, I must comment on two things you suggest. Self-evident truths, contrary to your assertion, are indeed very interesting, and are essential to epistemology and ontology. Second, your last statement --"I might agree to the thesis that sloppy uses of language can determine sloppy ways of thinking" -- suggests that you agree with me: if sloppy language use determines sloppy thinking (and thinking is a behavior), then precise language determines precise thinking. But you, of all writers, should be careful here; if you'd like me to peruse your blog for all equivocations and post them here, I will do so with alacrity. While I may slide into equivocation when I use pre-determine, determine, influence and affect interchangeably, you miss two things: first, that I may do so for the sole purpose of pointing out the elusiveness of what we are discussing; second, I may do so solely to prompt the exact behavior I wanted of you: I wanted you to point out my sloppiness.

Peace, and I hope this is as fun for you as it is for me,

Bill Gnade

PS. In your original essay on abortion, you'll recall that I argued that your use of "a small bundle of cellular matter" (or some such equivalent) as a synonym for a zygote or fetus, was used by you to determine readers' cognitive behavior: you wanted them to stop anthropomorphizing mere tissue so that they may more clearly understand what is at stake in the act of abortion.

2:43 PM

Blogger Michael Covarrubias said...

Mr Gnade

In your comment above you do a remarkable job committing to the word "determine." You even go so far as to say that you can predict the behaviour and thoughts that come in response to your words.

You offer as you first observation the following claim: "my language determined exactly what I wanted from you." And by your own report all you wanted was a response. Such a conservative expectation is prudent, given that you have little influence over what sort of a response you will get.

I would expect that the response could be characterized by amusement, anger, boredom, frustration, interest, embarrassment, confusion...who knows the specific type of response you would get?

I don't see a strong argument in your post or comment for anything more than a claim that language can elicit a response and vehement language can elicit an immediate emotion that may affect an expression, an exclamation and perhaps a heartbeat.

You rely heavily on the claim that there are some things that you can predict about the response to your words. There are also things that I can predict about a plate I throw against a wall. It will shatter. It will eventually fall to the ground. But I don't know in how many pieces and how widely the smallest shards will scatter.

Perhaps the analogy falls apart too easily. But it does have some merit. Words do influence thought and its responsive behaviors. But they don't control it. They don't determine it.

At a few other points in your comment you claim that your language has controlled others. You control your dog, your child, TLG, and perhaps you have controlled me by posting a comment that elicited discussion. That's exactly what you wanted isn't it? And perhaps you were specific enough in your skill and influence to elicit a response that contends with your comment.

It is more telling however that you have not caused me to think anything that I did not already think. I take that back. I now think "His name is Bill Gnade and he wrote 'those things' I just read." Beyond that my perception is not significantly altered or affected by you. I've revisited ideas that have been in my mind and that have been spoken and written by me many times before.

I believe this is the pith of TLG's post in which he takes issue with your claim of language as determiner. (I hope he lets me know if I'm wrong about that.)

To claim that a rhetorical prestidigitator can determine what perception is available to an audience is foolish. It overstates the power of language to affect thought.

If TLG has granted that language affects, influences, and often manipulates thought, why do you take issue with his claim that language does not control or determine thought.

Do you believe that when you say "stop" you have taken away your child's ability to keep walking? When you yell "watch out!" on the street corner do you believe that all pedestrians that hear and understand you, lose the power to disregard your cry? I don't think it is so--and that is why I don't believe language determines behavior.

1:53 AM

Blogger L>T said...

I take context to mean manipulating words. Since context is "the talk of the word" right?
In my not so great example, in & up can mean basically the same thing, but they don't.

In captioning the elephant picture on my latest blog. I chose to say it appears to have something in it's ass as opposed to up it's ass, which was my first choice, but after consideration, I thought that might offend the Republican commenters; which I have few of anymore. (you seem to have the same problem, BTW :)

On the other hand, you being the Linguist with all the credentials is influencing my thinking. Because you are right, that is just one example. You do make me think, you know.

2:05 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

I will let my post itself and Michael Covarrubias' comment stand as my reply to Bill Gnade.

L>T, by context one might mean background knowledge shared by speaker and listener (though you could also separate it off from the rest of the list to follow) and the immediate physical and linguistic context. So, our belief in the law of gravity would play a role in how we interpret "He jumped off the building" (implies he fell to the ground), a belief that forms part of our background knowledge. What has been said is a very important part of the context of course. And what can be sensed -- smelled, seen, heard, etc. -- would be as well.

Thank you for your comments. Nothing inspires my poor blogger self more.

8:25 AM

Blogger SusieQ said...

According to an article in the Economist, advocates of assisted suicide object to using the word 'suicide' as it implies ending a life that would otherwise continue. A terminal patient who desires to end his life is simply wishing to accelerate death that is going to be happening soon anyway.

According to the article, advocates of the Oregon act dealing with assisted suicide are encouraging journalists and the like to dispense with the term 'suicide' when writing or speaking about it and rely more on phrases such as "control at the end of life" and the term 'choice.' The reason is that according to a Gallup poll 69% of Americans would support assisted death, but the percent goes down when the term 'suicide' is used.

Is this about dispensing with sloppy language for the purpose of clarity? Or is this about using language to alter thinking in order to gain support for and acceptance of the act of assisted suicide?

10:14 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Very interesting SusieQ. The argument for the use of "assisted death" is rather poor, for even assisted deaths end lives that would otherwise continue. That's the point of the suicide -- to end a life that would otherwise continue. I see no harm though in using "assisted death" since it does not put a pretty face on the death. Rather it carves out an important subset of all suicides. "Suicide" is used in a much wider range of circumstances including the killing of oneself by very young depressed people. So, I see no harm in using "assisted death."

11:10 AM

Blogger L>T said...

I was one that voted for that & I wonder, if it would have initally been worded any differently, would it have mattered, anyway?

so what if there had been a larger majority of voters that passed it? The same people would have opposed it, with the same consquences i think.

11:31 AM

Blogger L>T said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:37 AM

Blogger L>T said...

BTW, it is called "Death With Dignity Act" that's a little different wording...

11:40 AM

Blogger Bill Gnade said...

Dear Michael Covarrubius,

Since you have so kindly replied to me, and since the Language Guy has deferred to you and opted out of this dialogue, I will only address you here.

I must begin elsewhere, however, since this is not where this discussion began. This discussion began in the essay, Language and the Abortion Controversy, penned by the Language Guy in September 2005. Since you do not refer to that essay, or my comments therein, I must assume that you have not fully comprehended or understood the context of my remarks here. But first, a couple of things.

A. The Language Guy has not at all addressed the very core of my argument in THIS essay; he has only addressed the introductory remarks made therein. Moreover, he has not confronted the essence of my criticism in his abortion essay as posted in the comments thread in September 2005.

B. The Language Guy has NOT addressed the studies to which I refer in my essay, nor does he address the fact of lying: If lying is language -- it is -- and it determines thought -- it does -- then his argument is fallacious and, more accurately, false.

Now, when the Language Guy begins his abortion essay with the following sentences, there is only one thing one can conclude from them: He means to determine thought in his readers. He begins

Language plays a very important role in the abortion controversy with the key battle being how the tiny cellular mass inside a pregnant woman is to be described. Pro-Life advocates (who typically are Pro-Death when it comes to the Death Penalty and often when it comes to doctors who perform abortions) want this tiny cellular mass to be called a "living human being."

Beside the utter absurdity of his claim -- unsubstantiated and arbitrary -- that Pro-lifers are somehow pro-death, particularly against abortion-providing doctors (absurd and obscene!), there is the utter absurdity of his own self-contradiction: The Language Guy uses "tiny cellular mass" to determine thought: he wants me to see a zygote/fetus for what it TRULY IS; and when I do, I will begin to think about abortion differently. And his slam of Pro-lifers, empty and glib, is meant to determine my thoughts as well: Pro-lifers are virulent and self-contradictory kooks.

Then, he says this:

"When you ask people in an abortion-neutral way..."

Apparently dissatisfied to commit only one contradiction, he commits another: for in advocating for an inquiry that is abortion-neutral he also advocates for its converse. In other words, if an abortion-neutral question determines a DIFFERENT outcome than one would get asking an abortion-biased question, then we can only conclude that The Language Guy believes language can determine thought.

But let's go even further into The Language Guy's argument. Having told us that language does NOT determine thought -- and by implication, behavior, since thought is a behavior -- he tells us what will happen if Americans were to change language, i.e., if we were to change the language of Roe v. Wade by overturning it, making abortion illegal:

In my opinion, overturning Roe v. Wade will cause a vastly greater disruption of American society than did making it a part of American Law. Calling a foetus a "baby" or "living human being" is not going to cause persons determined to abort their foetuses to cease having abortions because language does not determine thought.

Odd, don't you think, that a philosopher-linguist who does not believe that language can determine thought is quick nonetheless to predict that if the language of abortion were changed, there would be a great "disruption" in American society? Curiously, for a philosopher who tells us that he doesn't "pretend to know what exactly will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned", he still seems to know a lot, for he predicts that

A. Roe v. Wade's reversal "will not be pretty"
B. Women will die of "botched abortions"
C. People will be "pissed off"
D. People will travel afar for abortions
E. People will vote for Democrats
F. The poor will suffer
G. There will be an underground market for abortion pills
H. The "Christian Mullahs" [nice!] will be "happy"
I. (Perhaps) The Republicans will keep Roe v. Wade, because they need their voters to be happy

Amazingly, all this "disruption" will follow in the change of language: thought will in fact be determined by a mere rejection of Roe v. Wade; and yet all this "disruption" cannot happen, since, according to The Language Guy, language does not determine thought/behavior.

But he does not believe that at all.

Lastly, you challenge me with this question:

"Do you believe that when you say 'stop' you have taken away your child's ability to keep walking?"

My answer to this is simple: Yes, I do. Psychiatrists and psychologists, pedagogues and social workers, all of these have an abundance of evidence that language damages the human psyche: it can indeed inhibit a person's sense of identity, purpose, meaning, value, and self-confidence. Countless psychotics and neurotics are where they are in large part because of the sort of language they endured as children: they were told to "Stop!" loving, believing, dreaming, or simply being children. Tell a kid every day that he is an idiot and you will determine thought: he will believe he is an idiot, and he will very much act like one. That countless parents and teachers weigh their words cautiously proves that countless people know what the Language Guy claims is an impossibility. But the psychologists' couches cry out against him: here are people whose behaviors and thoughts are systematically categorized by doctors, who then tag certain labels onto their patients, labels which refer to now well-known disorders. And many mentally-ill men and women are often in fact disordered not merely because of the way they were spoken to but, MOST importantly, HOW THEY SPOKE TO THEMSELVES, as they developed and matured. (And let us not forget that not only does self-hate speech determine thought, but real hate-speech does to, or there'd be little worry about hate-speech if it didn't).

As something of a pedagogue myself, I must share two anecdotes.

For a week I once substituted for a high-performance teacher in a high-achieving 5th grade classroom. On my second day of substituting, April 1, I walked into the class at the beginning of the day to discover that someone had hidden the very important planning book left for me by the absent teacher. I asked the class to immediately return the book, but to no avail. I then held aloft a dollar bill and said, "The first person to return the notebook will get this dollar bill." One can predict the thoughts and behaviors: EVERY student rushed toward a distant spot in the room to retrieve the book. When it was put into my hand, one eager voice asked for the dollar. My reply was terse, "April Fools'." In uttering just two sentences I could predict two things: my language would determine thoughts and behaviors that would ultimately put both my planning book and my class in my control.

Another incident occurred when I filled in for an absent ski instructor who weekly worked with a particular after-school group of junior high skiers (I used to work as a full-time ski pro and trainer). This group, placed in the highest skill group (a placement which actually harmed them), was thoroughly resistant to my directions even before we got on the chairlift. They were defiant and cocky, even belligerently so. "We don't need lessons!" they scoffed. "Paul (their normal teacher) just lets us ski down Plunge, Tremor and Edge (expert trails)!" With this bit of conceit in mind, I gave them a quick rubric when we got to the top of Plunge: "Let's warm up. Do what I do. Follow me!" Instantly I skied at MY level, breaking the cardinal rule of never skiing too far above one's students. I shredded Plunge as an expert (I am a REAL expert), knowing exactly what was happening behind me. Near the bottom, I stopped and waited (and waited). Finally, when my new students pulled up, I said in a very apologetic tone: "Geez, guys. I'm sorry I skied so fast. Forgive me, but I thought this was the expert class. I'll slow down a bit." Needless to say, I had the result I predicted: my students became utterly compliant, eager to learn what they NEEDED to learn to ski like a real expert. And I would not have SAID what I did if I did not know that my words would determine thought.

All I have done in my comments here and in one other Language Guy post is to point out that the Language Guy ignores an awful lot, including his own contradictions. He can have it both ways if he wants, but in so doing, he determines my thoughts, ones which lead me to point to his own inconsistencies.


Bill Gnade

11:27 AM

Blogger L>T said...

I know this isn't my argument here, but I am interested in this whole idea of the context of words & language influencing thoughts or determining behavior.

Something about the last commentors sea of words made me think "but it's not just words" that determine our behavior.

Bowling people over with a bunch of words or even trying to bully people with a bunch of words(which the last commentor makes reference to children being told over & over they are idiots) is only going to get you so far, even with children. Why? Because we humans are thinking beings. It's individual thought that will ultimately determine our behavior. not words. For instance, LG or Michael Covarrubias can say the same thing I'm saying but it doesn't mean anything to me unless I can see it, myself.

Mr.Gnade, I think you should give human beings more credit.

5:48 PM

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3:01 PM

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3:08 PM

Blogger Ben said...

Let's all just go read some Steven Pinker and be done with this nonsense.

Linguistic determinism is already dead. Let's stop kicking the corpse.

4:00 PM


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