Swans Commentary » swans.com December 3, 2007  



Language Shapes Reality


by Gerard Donnelly Smith





(Swans - December 3, 2007)   We are symbol makers because we can conceptualize. A symbol is an empty sound until we associate a meaning with that sound, until we fill the symbol with an idea, a notion, a concept. We look at nature and we name things, categorize items, classify types, and define the properties of objects. The symbols become numinous, take on lives of themselves, then spread like viruses from person to person, from generation to generation, from age to age.

Without symbols, humans would never have left the caves, would never have learned to speak, to write, to create abstract mathematical formulae for the creation of engineering and architecture; without symbols, humans would never have created music or art or poetry, or publish progressive magazines.

But words also have the power to destroy, to hurt, to spread hatred because preconceived notions are passed from person to person, from generation to generation, from age to age. What you can imagine about a place, an object, or a person depends upon the knowledge you were given by your parents, by your prophets, by your teachers, and your peers.

A black man walks through a white neighborhood; a white man walks through a black neighborhood.

Your reaction to those images equals your public imagination, and that imagination is limited by your knowledge, and shaped by the meanings you give to the symbols "white" and "black." What you ignored when you reacted to the dichotomy of black and white were the similarities indicated by the words "man" and "neighbor" and that both blacks and whites live in "the hood."

Do the meanings that you give to symbols divide you or separate you from others who are just like you? Are the meanings for the symbols in your head accurate definitions or do you react to the connotations (the emotional content) associated with those symbols by past experience or cultural conditioning?

When you see a Confederate flag painted on the front of a semi-truck do you think "red-neck cracker" or do you think "rebel," "racist," or "bigot"? When you see the American flag are you filled with pride, or anger? Your reaction depends upon your personal or cultural experience with that flag. A veteran certainly would view the flag differently than a draft-dodger. An African-American might view that flag differently than a Native American.

When I say the words "Native American" what images immediately come to mind? Were they accurate images or stereotypical images that you learned from your teachers, your parents, or from the mass media? Did you see red-skinned people in feathered headdresses standing before teepees in buck skins? Perhaps you saw them circling the wagon trains on their horses, shooting arrows at the settlers?

Those images, unfortunately, are the stereotypical images of the Plains Indians who make up only a handful of the 500 Nations that were here when Columbus arrived. The reality is that the Plains Indians wore feathered head dresses and lived nomadic lives following the buffalo. The Woodland Indians of the East Coast lived in plank or log houses in permanent villages and were agricultural, planting and harvesting maize, potatoes, and nuts, and hunting in their national territories. The indigenous peoples of the Southwest lived in adobe houses that were often three or five stories high. The First Nations of the Pacific Northwest lived in cedar plank houses that were highly decorative. Each nation had trade relations with other nations; objects from the coasts (abalone cells and obsidian) have been found in Ohio. These were not "savages" but were "civilized" peoples with distinct languages, distinct cultures, and rich heritages.

What other false notions do you have about Native Americans? The history of the Native American is a history of conquest, no less than Black History is the story of this nation's darker past. Both the African and the Native American were given the choice to assimilate or die. Is this the story you were told in your high school history book? How was your reality shaped?

An "Indian" walks through the neighborhood; she is a teacher, a policeman, a firefighter, a poet; he is a father, a lover, a friend: most importantly these first Americans survive despite the "romantic" or "savage" symbols the dominate culture has made of them. Is this what shapes your reality?

Pavlov's Dog

Most Americans don't think about how symbols are formed or manipulated to control meaning. The average American doesn't think about how their opinions are engineered by slick political advertisements, and how their palates are controlled by well-designed commercials.

They go on buying "Happy Meals" for their children without thinking about how those fatty foods are making their children obese, and thus subject to ridicule and life-long health issues. The images and jingles are like the bell that Pavlov rang to make a dog salivate even when no food was present. Do you get hungry when you see images of food, thirsty when you watch a beer commercial, horny when you look at a porn magazine? Do you feel inadequate or ugly when you see a beautiful woman on the cover of a fashion magazine? Are you Pavlov's dog?

You are Pavlov's dog if you have purchased an item impulsively, if you have a Goodwill or eBay addiction. Do you get a rush of endorphins when you win the auction? Do you feel good when you save money by spending money? Do you feel pleasure because you believe you got the "stuff" cheap? Then the symbols have shaped your reality, first by making you want the "stuff" that you probably didn't need, and then by making you "feel good" by purchasing that stuff, most of which will end up in your garage, or back at Goodwill someday.

Worse yet are the political advertisements that blatantly lie to persuade the voter, that use emotional images to sway opinions. Do you conform to a political agenda simply because you associate yourself with "Republicans" or "Democrats" or "Greens"? These entities shape your political reality, but what do they symbolize? Why pledge your allegiance to an elephant or a donkey? Should you let words like "liberal" or "conservative" inspire fear and loathing?

Are you Pavlov's dog, or can you decipher the manipulation of political language? Does the following argument make sense to you?

Idiots don't use language very well. George Bush doesn't use language very well. Since idiots don't use language very well, then the president is an idiot.

If you agree with the conclusion above, then you have fallen victim to a logical fallacy called a non sequitur, specifically "affirming" the antecedent. No evidence has been presented that the president is an idiot, only an opinion has been offered. The premises sound like facts, but they are simply assumptions.

According to the National Center of Education Statistics only 15% of Americans are proficient readers, while on average 45% of Americans read at an intermediate level. Forty percent of Americans read at or below the "basic" level, meaning that these readers might not be able to correctly interpret the above statement as illogical. Possibly some or even most of those at the intermediate level would succumb to the fallacy also.

A significant percentage of Americans read at or below the 8th grade level

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) defines the "basic" level for an 8th grader as able to "demonstrate a literal understanding of what they read and be able to make some interpretations. When reading text appropriate to eighth grade, they should be able to identify specific aspects of the text that reflect overall meaning, extend the ideas in the text by making simple inferences, recognize and relate interpretations and connections among ideas in the text to personal experience, and draw conclusions based on the text."

If one must read above the 8th grade level, though most newspapers are written at or below the 8th grade level, the individual might have a difficult time interpreting, identifying, and recognizing the manipulative techniques used by those who write political arguments, advertisements, and history textbooks. Let's not even discuss philosophy, science, economics, and so forth.

Indeed, my own college students, who supposedly read at the 12th grade level and most of whom do have intermediate skills, find it difficult to identify and analyze basic logical fallacies. What hope then do we have that the average or even below average readers can construct their own opinions, can separate the facts from the rhetorical manipulation, can resist the "engineering of consent" to shape their own reality?

Language shapes reality because we create symbols that represent objects and abstract concepts. In our minds the symbol becomes the thing. Language users manipulate those symbols in order to shape reality to fit their own agendas. These manipulators of language know our needs, our values, and our desires. These manipulators understand how we emotionally react to symbols, and most importantly understand that most of their audience either can't decipher the argument or they are too complacent to bother.

Mostly, when we watch the evening news, we accept the selected and slanted stories as "reality" without critically thinking.

Should you, dear reader, accept what I have said as fact? Should you allow this language to shape your reality? Or should you be skeptical, and thus verify my conclusion with your own research, or tests these opinions against your own experience?

Ask yourself, are you or have you ever been Pavlov's dog?


[ed. This text is faithfully based on a speech the author gave on November 14, 2007 at Clark College for the Student of Color Luncheon, celebrating Native American History Month.]


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Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

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About the Author

Gerard Donnelly Smith on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 3, 2007