“words are loaded pistol” Jean-Paul Sartre
Words, they say, are free, but it is how we use them that may cost us. Generally, words play a prominent role in the conduct of human life. They can make or mar. They can start a war or end it. They can prime your mind to happiness or prime it to sadness. Words can light fires in the minds of men, says Patrick Rothfuss, and they also can wring tears from the hardest hearts.
When you decide to use your words to build and uplift, you find that you are also uplifted and this also works in the converse. Words are powerful legal instruments too. In his book, The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker discusses a case about the definition of ‘event’ in a legal tussle over the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11. He calls it the world most expensive debate in semantics for it involves about a $3.5b insurance settlement to Larry Silverstein, the lease-holder of the World Trade Center. The debate relates to whether the destruction of the two towers is a single event or a double. Silverstein had got insurance policies that stipulated a maximum reimbursement for each destructive “event”. If 9/11 comprised a single event, he stood to receive 3.5b, but if it comprised two events he would receive 7.5b. The lawyers of Silverstein defined ‘event’ then in physical terms (two collapses) and the lawyers of the insurance company, in mental terms (one plot). “An event”, Pinker argues, “is a stretch of time, and time, according to physicist, is a continuous variable—an inexorable cosmic flow, in Newton’s world or a fourth dimension in a seamless hyperspace, in Einstein’s.” He continues “but the human mind carves this fabric into discrete swathes we call events. Where does this mind place the incisions?”
And this issue of definition and placing incisions on reality brings us to the complex realm of naming and lexicalizing the objects of our perceptions, thoughts and opinions. Languages generally inventorize terminologies and pack them into documents called dictionaries. These are already pre-constructed labels a particular culture has mapped out and endorsed. Dictionaries are not ideologically free documents. They are documents with a particular worldview. Words have stories and ideologies, and that is probably why definition of words exceeds semantics and veers into ideology. Take for example words like incest, bigamy, adult and the like and how they are defined. A Muslim cannot be said to commit ‘incest’ when he marries his cousin nor can marrying more than one wife be interpreted as ‘bigamy’. The use of labels generally as such does not only necessitate the understanding of a word, but of using the word in a context that is most appropriate.
There are ostensible terms; terms that come with a measure of tangibility that you can see label and identify due to their boundedness, but there are also “emotionally-charged” or “loaded” words. This is where the need for caution in interpersonal dealings crops up, and this is where we should deploy not only linguistically appropriate but emotionally and psychologically appropriate words. And now going back to the issue of incision and weighing, how do we for example clearly incise and weigh a “stupid act” from a “wise one” without using our subjectivities, values, emotions and context? How many liters of ‘stupidity’ would you need to be fully stupid! While there may be a universal terminology or picture of what constitutes a particular ostensible item, say, an apple, there can hardly be a universal standard of what constitutes ‘terrorism’ or ‘freedom fighting’ or ‘stupidity’ or even ‘poverty’. Nature is fixed, but how we approach and label it is subjective. Newspaper reports show this example; one act but multiple headlines, each viewing the act from their ideological vantage point. Laclau and Mauffe, for instance, maintain in an argument attacking objective signification that an earthquake or the falling of a brick is an event that certainly exists, in the sense that it occurs here and now, independently of our will. But whether their specificity as objects is constructed in terms of ‘natural phenomena’ or ‘expressions of the wrath of God’, depends upon the structuring of a discursive field. What is denied is not that such objects exist externally to thought, but the rather different assertion that they could constitute themselves as objects outside any discursive conditions of emergence. However, once we define issues or name them, we tend to substantiate them in the minds of our listeners.
The human mind sometimes remains neutral and accepts issues as they occur without having to judge them, but when the judging is done for it, it then holds onto that tenaciously or, at worst, simply registers it in memory. Fiske and Taylor (1984) in their cognitive miser theory believe that the human mind is considered to be a cognitive miser due to the tendency of humans to think and solve problems in simpler and effortless ways rather than in more cognitively sophisticated circumstances. Just as a miser seeks to avoid spending money, the human mind often seeks to avoid spending computational or cognitive effort, and simply adopt effortless heuristics available, like judgement done by others, without having to check the facts. It is like framing or highlighting or zooming in on an object which ultimately creates an optical bias and (in this case) a perception/mental bias. If any Muslim is said to be a terrorist, for example, so be it and that is it. What is purely assumptive, arbitrary and subjective becomes concretized in the mind.
That is why our beloved prophet, Muhammad (SAW), in a hadith says “anyone who believes in Allah and the Last Day should say what is good or keep quiet.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari). There is infinite, divine logic in this exhortation as proven in psychology. In an article written by Farouk Ridwan (a psychologist) entitled Why Gossip is Bad the writer talks about how the human database is influenced by external language especially malicious gossip. He says that if, for instance, a friend tells you that “John Doe is mean”, as soon as you meet John Doe, your mind will try to match John Doe’s behavior with that description tucked away in its internal database and so the result will be interpreting any mistake that John Doe makes as a sign of being mean. Even if John Doe does anything good, your mind will discard it because it doesn’t match its own database. Unless John Doe does a considerable amount of effort to prove otherwise, your friend will find hundreds of clues that support the fact that John Doe is “mean”. This is because a particular line of thought has been ingrained in the mind. This will also be the same if John Doe is said to be a good person. Your database would work out any acts that he does in terms of being good even if the case were not so.
However, tarring John Doe with a negative brush doesn’t only affect him but you also. Words you habitually use on self or others gradually shape your life experience. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, maintain that words can literally change your brain. A single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress. They believe that by holding a positive and optimistic word in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action and activities. Their research has also shown that the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain. Functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself and the people you interact with.
So why not start being positive with your words today! Use positive words to describe your feelings and experience. Use same too to uplift others. They cost nothing yet give a lot of good feelings and happiness.
Bello is a doctoral research candidate in English (Linguistics) and writes this from JICJubail, Saudi Arabia.