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The 7 worst things you can say

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

This would appear to be a powerful statement of personal empowerment and forward-thinking vision.  In fact, it is precisely the opposite.

The truth is this:  if we don’t master our language, we can’t be masters of ourselves.  Because we think in words, sloppy speaking will inevitably produce sloppy thinking.  And if we aren’t thinking clearly, then we don’t know who we are, what we believe in, or what we stand for.

What are some of the worst offenders?

  • Clichés
  • Sound-bites
  • Redundancies
  • Political correctness

These are all our enemies.  The reflexive recitation of words bereft of authentic meaning constitutes much of talk radio, and it may offer a convenient refuge from having to defend our opinions with hard facts and sound reasoning.  But we don’t open up lines of communication and cooperation by hiding from clarity and logic.

Verbal interchanges have become so glib, so vapid, and so superficial, that anything short of a complete overhaul of our language will not do.  But some popular expressions are worse than others, and here is my short list of the worst offenders, phrases that should be punishable by law.

“I’m just saying.”  No you’re not.  You’re just blathering.  What is this even supposed to mean?  I know you don’t want to hear this but I’m saying it anyway?  I know you don’t care about my opinion but I have the right to express myself?  If something is not worth saying, don’t say it.  If your advice or opinion won’t be heeded, don’t bother.  But if something needs to be said, don’t deflate your message by giving the listener permission to disregard it.

“That makes no sense.”  Well, how would you know, since you obviously haven’t invested enough time thinking about it to evaluate its potential for veracity?  The universe is full of weird and wonderful phenomena that, superficially, appear to make no sense.  The computer screen you’re looking at right now is composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of tiny particles orbiting other tiny particles at near-light speed, but which are composed mostly of empty space.  Does that make sense?  The ideas we dismiss because they challenge our preconceptions may turn out to make plenty of sense once we make the effort to understand them.

“It’s a thing.”  I don’t know when this insipid verbal blob crept into common usage.  It has become so pervasive that I can’t even remember what we used to say.  Probably “it’s a guy thing” or “it’s a work thing.”  Now even that modicum of clarity is too much trouble.  But almost any linguistic alternative would be preferable to this meaningless arrangement of syllables.  In his prophetic novel 1984, George Orwell described how a totalitarian government controlled the minds of the populace by eliminating all insurgent vocabulary.  The goal was to reduce the language of Newspeak to a mere 200 words, rendering people incapable of formulating complex thoughts that could lead to organized rebellion.  What Orwell never imagined is that people would willingly lobotomize themselves the same way.

“I’m entitled to my opinion.”  Of course, you are.  But remember what the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said:  You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.  In this brave new world of virtual reality, opinions and feelings carry more weight than data and logic; similarly, pseudo-information is indistinguishable from real information because we don’t invest the time to determine what’s true and what is not.  After all, it’s somebody’s opinion, so it must be valid… right?

“I had no choice.”  Of course, you did.  Unless you had a gun to your head or were under hypnotic control, a choice is precisely what you made.  That you managed to convince yourself that the options were so out of proportion as to be equivalent to a choice between life and death is likely a function of your own unwillingness to face up to responsibility.  In a world that increasingly indulges the notion that free will is an illusion, that each of us is nothing more than a conglomeration of our genetics and our environment, it keeps getting easier for us to deny all guilt and claim that we are not accountable for anything we do.

“I can do what I want.”  Of course, you can.  So can lemmings.  But your ability to do what you want has no relevance to whether it’s a good idea, or to the effect it may have on others or on yourself.  Just as there are physical laws that make it impossible for us to flap our arms and fly, just as there are societal laws that prohibit us from causing physical harm to others, so too are there moral axioms that allow society to function in a way that makes all our lives better.  Valuing only what I can do reduces all human society to an irrelevant footnote and widens the gap between ourselves and others.

“Future consequences.”  In contrast to what?  Past consequences?  This is only one example of how people tack on adjectives in an effort to sound smart and only succeed in making themselves sound stupid.  Some of the more egregious offenders are:  end results, advance warning, very unique, past history, and unintended mistake.  Adjectives are the junk food of writing; they are also the hobgoblins of speech, clouding our thinking and obfuscating communication.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  These misdirected phrases are not the source of our problems; they are symptoms of a culture that has grown more careless in its conduct, more slovenly in its thinking, and more indifferent to the standards that once defined and informed the behavior of responsible citizens.  In short, we have grown lazy, no matter how hard we seem to be working.

Discipline is the key to success.  Whether in school, in our careers, in the gym, or in our relationships, if we want to succeed in our communication we can’t afford not to be disciplined in our speech as well.  Success in almost every other area is sure to follow.

And if we do make the effort, we will quickly notice that our professional relationships become more rewarding and that our personal relationships become more satisfying.  What’s more, with the ripples we send out into our communities, we can all do our part to creating a culture of greater warmth, stronger cooperation, and deeper respect among all those who share our world.

Originally published in Learning-Mind.com

The Humpty Dumpty Deception

hump“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

This would appear to be a powerful statement of personal empowerment and forward-thinking vision.  In fact, it is precisely the opposite.

The truth is this:  if we don’t master our language, we can’t be masters of ourselves.  Because we think in words, sloppy speaking will inevitably produce sloppy thinking.  And if we aren’t thinking clearly, then we don’t know who we are, what we believe in, or what we stand for.

Clichés, sound-bites, political correctness — these are all our enemies.  The reflexive recitation of words bereft of authentic meaning constitutes much of talk radio, and it may offer a convenient refuge from having to defend our opinions with hard facts and sound reasoning.  But we don’t open up lines of communication and cooperation by hiding from clarity and logic.

Verbal interchanges have become so glib, so vapid, and so superficial, that anything short of a complete overhaul of our language will not do.  But some popular expressions are worse than others, and here is my short list of the worst offenders, phrases that should be punishable by law.

Click here to read the whole article.

The Greatest Moment in the History of the Universe

trumpWell, no.  It wasn’t.

But to hear Ann Coulter tell it, it was awfully close.

Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with politics.  Hardly anyone thinks that Donald Trump’s immigration plan is viable, no matter how much it may appeal to hardliners.  It probably would require a constitutional amendment, it would certainly take half a century and over 100 billion dollars to implement, and it would effectively make Mr. Trump unelectable — if he isn’t already.

But none of that is the point.

What is absolutely clear, beyond any doubt or debate is this:  Donald Trump’s plan is not the greatest political document since the Magna Carta.

No matter what Ms. Coulter says.

This is the same kind of irresponsible hyperbole that turns every ideological opponent into a Nazi, a terrorist, a rapist, or a child molester.  It shows the same kind of disregard for history that led Ms. Coulter to attempt to resurrect Joseph McCarthy as a fallen hero in place of the paranoid pit-viper that he was.  And it’s the same kind of disregard for language and reality that allowed Al Sharpton to laud Bill Clinton as “the first black president,” that enabled Bill Clinton to redefine the word “is,”  and that lies at the heart of the political correctness that Ms. Coulter herself (correctly) abhors.

To brand every antagonist a Nazi is to devalue the horror of the Holocaust and to insult its millions of victims.  To call newspaper columnists and television hosts terrorists shows a vile lack of empathy for the victims of 9/11 and Oklahoma City.  And to suggest any comparison between the Magna Carta and a political platform that is 90% grandstanding and 10% policy is to muddy the waters of logic and reason whey both are clouded enough already.

What an insult to the Summa Theologica, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  What a mockery of political history.

“Words, words, words,” wrote William Shakespeare.  When we don’t respect them, when we twist them to gain cheap rhetoric advantage without regard for accuracy or authenticity, we become complicit in accelerating the Orwellian doublethink that is already eating away at the civil discourse that is the foundation of a functioning democracy.

The Language of Confusion

2015-005-La-tirannide-non-tirannicaPolitical Correctness has reached a new high — or low — at the University of New Hampshire, where administrators have issued a Bias-Free Language Guide.  Forbidden words include the following: “mothering, fathering, healthy, homosexual, rich, poor, senior citizen, and American.”  

Perhaps we should find it comforting that a taxpayer-funded school is prepared to go so far to protect its students from hurt feelings.  Presumably, educators believe that this measure will improve student’s self-esteem and thereby lead to greater success in the workplace.

Once again, life imitates art, as I discussed in this essay from 2009, written to honor the 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s 1984.

If only they would teach it in New Hampshire.

It never takes more than a day or two into the new school year before I hear the chant of my students’ favorite refrain: That makes no sense!

“What you mean,” I answer the first student who utters that unutterable phrase, “is that you don’t understand.”

“That’s what I said,” the student responds, predictably. “It makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense,” I insist, “as you will see once you understand it.”

The student doesn’t give up without a fight. “You know what I mean,” he says. “What difference does it make how I say it?”

It makes no sense implies that, if the material we are learning does not conform to your way of thinking, then it must be wrong. I don’t understand acknowledges the possibility that the flaw in reasoning may reside in you, rather than in the material.”

He stares back at me, trying to digest this new idea. Over the course of the year, through constant repetition, most of my students will learn never to saythat makes no sense. At least not in my class.

I’ve been challenged on this many times. Is it really my job to belabor this point, to demand that my students express ideas concisely, even when the intent is clear? After all, I’m not a speech or language instructor. Why not just teach the material I’m being paid to teach?

WE THINK WHAT WE SPEAK

In his essay “The Principles of Newspeak,” the appendix to his classic novel, 1984 (published 60 years ago this month), George Orwell describes how the leaders of his totalitarian future have contrived to assure their hold on power by replacing English with Newspeak, a language containing no vocabulary for concepts contrary to the platform of the state-run Party. By controlling language, the Party controls its people’s very thoughts.

quotes-1984-george-orwell-HD-WallpapersIntuition suggests that language is a product of thought: if we think clearly, automatically we will speak clearly. Orwell demonstrates the opposite, that thought is a product of language. Because we formulate our thoughts in words and sentences, incompetent use of language guarantees muddled thinking. If there are no words for rebellion, uprising, or discontent people will find it difficult to formulate and articulate the concept of overthrowing even the most corrupt and oppressive government.

Students of Orwell will shudder when applying this simple axiom to the corruption of modern language. Advertisers and politicians have known for years that the best way to manipulate public perception is by arranging words in unconventional combinations. Car dealers know that potential customers will feel better buying cars that are “pre-owned” rather than “used.” A certain former president knew that the American people would not respond to the gravity of his presidential peccadilloes if distracted by pondering what the meaning of “is” is.

But linguistic confusion became institutionalized with the rise of political correctness. By dodging frantically out of the rain of potentially offensive terms, we soak ourselves in a torrent of euphemisms for simple words the thought-police deem pejorative. When illegal aliens become “undocumented workers,” we lose all sense of the danger posed by the porous condition of our borders. When terrorists become “insurgents,” we more readily accommodate the moral equivalence that blurs the line between aggressors and defenders. When abortion becomes “reproductive freedom,” the horror over the indiscriminate murder of innocents vanishes altogether.

Similarly, when marriage is bereft by judicial fiat of the definition that has served for thousands of years, the foundations of the family structure erode like sand castles before the approaching tide. And as it becomes taboo to make any direct reference to race, class, ability or performance without fear of hurting one group’s collective feelings or another group’s collective self-esteem, the words that form our thoughts and understanding end up so fully shorn of their dictionary definitions that they cease to mean much of anything at all. In short, nothing makes sense.

CONFUSION BY DESIGN

In truth, for advertisers, politicians, special interest groups, and the politically correct, the real purpose of language is no longer to convey meaning – it is to obscure meaning, to appeal to emotions while bypassing the intellect. Their motive is obvious: it is far easier to evoke a strong emotional response than it is to present a logically developed argument. But by allowing meaning to be drained from our language and our words, we have not only denuded them of their clarity, but also of their depth.

Even worse, we are no longer allowing confusion to reign free but legislating it into the public square. Earlier this year, London decided to remove apostrophes from its street signs. King’s Heath will now become Kings Heath. What’s the reason? Apostrophes are too confusing.

According to Councilor Martin Mullaney, who heads the city’s transport scrutiny committee, “Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed,” he said. “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”

Linguistic laziness in both syntax and vocabulary has worn smooth the sharpness of our minds. When I say that I love my wife, and I love my car, and I love ice cream, am I not indulging a subtle self-hypnosis that affirms an equation between all three, that suggests that my feelings for my wife is no more profound than my taste for Baskin Robbins and BMW? By impoverishing our words, we impoverish our thoughts as well.

6a00d8341bfb1653ef01b7c6f82d6e970b-400wiWhat is love? And what is honor? and loyalty? and commitment? As we strip our language of both its clarity and its nobility, these concepts become caricatures of what they once were, defined by the mass media who, like the Orwellian Party, have as their only concern the selling of their own values and their own agenda. And as much as we the people are willing to buy, they will continue to sell.

“Teachers, be careful with your words,” warns the Talmud, “lest the disciples who follow you will drink of evil waters and die.” When the waters of wisdom become polluted with confusion and contradiction, it is society’s youth who will pay the price through the erosion of moral clarity and moral principles.

Back in the classroom, my student continues to stare at me, contemplating my rebuke for a few more seconds before he responds. “What I meant to say,” he finally answers, “is that it makes no sense to me.”

I shake my head. “Don’t make it sound like what you want it to mean,” I tell him. “Just say it the way it is.”

Originally published by Jewish World Review

Dining on Bound Grief

The other day a Fox News anchor reported on the political crisises facing the world.

Crisises?  From a national anchorman?

imagesReminds me of the time a middle school vice-principal asked an auditorium full of students to hold their applauses until the end of the presentation.

Finally, an answer to the age-old question:  What is the sound of one hand clapping?

One applause vs. two applauses.

A very unique answer, don’t you think?  Extremely unique.  Singularly unique.  (Then again, how one of a kind can something be?)

Or maybe, to borrow from George W. Bush, I’m just misunderestimating.

This isn’t quibbling or gotcha.  If we can’t speak properly, we can’t think properly.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to be able to communicate so that others can understand us.  And we have to be able to understand ourselves.

More on this topic:

The Language of Confusion — 60 years later, George Orwell’s dystopian vision is more relevant than ever.

Just who are “we”?

Tonto:  What is wrong, Kimosabe?
Lone Ranger:  We’re surrounded by bloodthirsty indians, Tonto.  What are we going to do?
Tonto:  What you mean, “we,” white man?

SOTU We 2Thanks to Jay Livingston for this post on behalf of the Montclair State Sociology Department.  He paints a compelling picture of how the collective language of “we” has been increasingly conscripted by modern politicians to create — or fabricate — an impression of common purpose and common allegiance.

With politics dividing us more deeply than ever, it might seem beneficial to employ rhetoric designed to bridge the ideology gap.  In practice, however, disingenuous expressions of harmony and unified vision can do a lot more harm than good.

For one, when a demonstrably divisive leader — a U. S. president, for example — claims that he is the leading advocate of unity and cooperation, he makes himself a lightning rod for accusations of hypocrisy and manipulation that breed cynicism in place of optimism.  For another, by claiming the high ground, he implicitly vilifies all who oppose him, even if they do so from positions of principle.  Either way, the ideological rift grows wider, not narrower.

Perhaps worst of all, the collective “we” diffuses responsibility from the individual onto the collective:  since all of us are responsible, none of us is responsible.  This produces the effective equivalent of such politicalisms as “Mistakes were made.”  Somewhere, someone did something wrong.  There’s plenty of blame to go around, but nowhere for it to stick.

In short, fake unity achieves the opposite of unification.

But when there really is cohesion, whether within a team, a business, a community, or a society, the collective “we” becomes a priceless asset, including the lowly with the high, the rank and file with the leaders, the grunts with the visionaries.  Like it or not, we’re all in it together.  And the more we try to shoulder our collective burdens with one mind and one heart, the more we will succeed.