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 flyhe 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.