The Magic Power of Words

In the field of semantics, there are two propositions or understandings of how words work. What is particularly interesting and infuriating is that while both of the understandings are true, they contradict each other.

The first proposition is that the word is not the thing. It is characterised by the phrase “a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”. My name is Julian, but even if my name was Bob or Derek, I would still be me.

The second proposition is that the word is the thing. For example, if I went to a restaurant and asked for a burger and they brought me a salad that was called “burger”, it simply would not be the same as what I asked for.

One cannot understate the implications of the first proposition in our everyday lives. After all, that the word is not the thing is a primary tool in being able to navigate the realm of advertising and propaganda. It is an important conceptual tool for critical thinking. Think of how the invasion of Iraq was called “Operation Freedom”. Think of how the proliferation of weapons of death is called “defence”. Think of how the denial of human rights and curtailing of freedom is called “protecting democracy”.

The emphasis put on the first proposition has often come at the expense of the second. While it is important to understand a word is not the thing, we often act as if it is. So, why not harness this magical quality in words for our benefit?

This is what Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson did in their study, Pygmalion in the Classroom. They told teachers that their students were “smart”. Believing this, the teachers began to act as if they had ‘smart’ rather than ‘dumb’ students. The students began thinking of themselves as smart and as a result, they performed better on various tests than the students who were given no label at all. The students ‘became’ smart because someone said they were. Word magic.

One could eliminate most crime by simply redefining, relabeling, and renaming what are presently called “crimes”. Tasmania got their crime rate down a couple percentage points in the 1990’s by no longer labelling homosexuality as a crime. Homosexuality became legal, not by changing homosexuality, but simply by changing the way it was described. The thing itself did not change, only the label, but another thing did change; how people treated homosexuals and all the unsavoury behaviours that came with it.

Prostitution, drug addiction and other crimes could be treated in the same way. Although changing the words can change attitudes and beliefs, this can only come after we decide whether the change is desirable or not. For example, we could change how we define murder so it is no longer a crime, but I doubt that would be a good move. We must also find out whether changing the words even works. For example, surveys have named Melbourne as the most liveable city in the world for many years. But this surely must come as a surprise for the homeless who live out in the cold on city streets. Merely saying something is the case will not always yield the result of it being believed.

This would be trying to use language as a substitute for reality. That would be an unhealthy and illusory life. However, language can be used to provide a novel perspective on a pre-existing reality. The avenue I wish to explore is the dichotomy of problems and solutions. This avenue involves accepting the second proposition, that the word is the thing. It involves renaming what we have called a “problem”, a “solution”.

For centuries, doctors believed that the way to heal sickness was to engage in bloodletting. However, they could never solve the “problem” of why some people died from the bloodletting and other people healed without it. Excusing the flattening of history, but some wise people came along and declared this ‘problem’ as the ‘answer’. The body simply healed itself, and the process of healing was not helped along by the letting of blood.

The Heliocentric conception of the universe held that the sun rotated around the Earth. This was the running theory for quite a long time. Over that time, astronomers kept running into ‘problems’. Namely, they kept finding evidence to the contrary. While trying to preserve their theory, they kept running into problems that refuted that theory. They kept trying to exclude, diminish, refute and ignore these problems, but they kept popping up. But then people like Copernicus came along and redefined things. To Copernicus, the ‘problems’ of the astronomers were actually the answer. By seeing these ‘problems’ in a different light, they became the solutions to a new way of defining the relationship of the Earth to the sun.

This strategy has a range of applications for modern times. There are students who become incredibly bored, disinterested and distracted in class because they are not engaged by the work. We say this is a problem. We could, however, look at this as an answer that not all students work in the same way. The answer would be to implement learning which is student focused and centred on building their creative capacities. Distracted and uninterested students are the answer to a question we never bothered to ask.

Another problem: some children just don’t want to attend school. They find it boring and oppressive. According to these children, what one learns in school has no relevance to their life outside of school. These children want to be out in the real world, where life happens. The children who ditch class are a ‘problem’. However, we could promote teaching outside of the classroom. Students could learn politics by speaking to local leaders and urban theory by investigating how their suburbs are structured. All of a sudden the ‘problem’ disappears by providing a context that legitimises it.

Another problem: students cheating. The solution: cooperation is a virtue, not a vice. If we change our assumptions and decide that that children should work together rather than as isolated individuals, then ‘cheating’ turns into a magical exercise of team building and cooperation. Think of the corporations, think tanks and universities who spend massive sums of money on interaction with other establishments; and whose press releases constantly highlight the need for integration, synergy, and collaboration. Cheating by any other name smells far sweeter.

Another problem: some people have trouble falling asleep. Every night, they twist and turn and stay awake to the early hours of the morning. Expectedly, they say they have a sleeping ‘problem’. But it can just as rightly be called an ‘answer’. Insomnia is the ‘answer’ to what happens to our body when we live the way we do. Framing things in this way may prompt someone to change how they live throughout the day instead or begin thinking about how eating habits, recreational activities and exercise play into things. By framing insomnia as an answer, rather than as a problem, one can open up avenues for analysis that may have previously been unavailable. While one has only changed how a certain phenomenon is labelled, changes in thought and behaviour can occur as a result.

Now, language should not be a substitute for reality. Any homeless person living in Melbourne who saw a flyer telling them ‘Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city’ would agree. However, rather than substituting reality, language can help provide a novel perspective. By renaming problems as answers, we can change how we think about the world around us and open up new possibilities . This is the magic power of words.

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