Hello merry readers, guest blogger Onyx back with a small piece I’ve been meaning to write for a while on the subject of semantics.
Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while knows that Semantics is something that Scarlet often brings up, both through her Semantic Sunday posts, as well as her many posts about labels and identity and the difficulty she often faces trying to explain herself and her ideas to others.
In a couple recent posts Scarlet has done an excellent job discussing labels, their use, their limitations and why she’s a fan of them. I’m going to expand on this and offer some reasons why I feel that labels so often are misused or downright abused and some ways I feel we can remediate this.
I do not claim to be the originator of the ideas and concepts I will discuss. They were thought up by greater minds than mine and all I can hope to do is to communicate them in a clear and understandable manner. My main influence comes from the school of General Semantics, originally espoused by Count Alfred Korzybski and elaborated upon by writers I respect greatly such as Robert Anton Wilson, as well as ones I hold in much lower regard such as L. Ron Hubbard.
To go into depth about all aspects of General Semantics would require a book, or perhaps a number of books. Briefly speaking it can be said to be a discipline dedicated to increasing awareness of how our use of language informs our thoughts and ideas, especially what one might call “common sense assumptions.” Korzybski taught that words always seem to fail to fully describe any situation, object or action and sought to help us avoid the linguistic traps and manipulations we’re all too often subjected to.
Perhaps this can best be described by one of General Semantics’ key phrases “The map is not the territory. The word is not the thing defined.” Our language is unable to ever describe anything in a comprehensive way; instead we describe various aspects of something, small bits and pieces of the whole.
One of the most dangerous aspects of language Korzybski warned is any variation of the verb to be, to say that anything is anything makes us to grossly oversimplify reality and leads us into dangerous thinking. To illustrate let’s look at stereotypes and prejudices that most of us will have observed at one point or another.
“Black people are criminals”
“The Irish are hard drinkers”
“Queers are immoral perverts.”
Feel free to exchange these for your favorite stereotypes if you wish. The point is that these stereotypes gain their power from the verb to be. Statements such as these assign labels to groups in an absolute manner that grossly oversimplifies reality. Sure we can find partial truths in such statements; we can’t deny that some black people commit Illegal acts, or that some queers violate SOME people’s standards of morality, but the oversimplification forced upon us by the verb to begets in the way of a more detailed and accurate understanding
Any description of an object will vary based on circumstance and time, and if we can train ourselves to recognize this we can avoid the largely emotional responses often triggered by this particular linguistic trap. If we can translate the phrase “Blacks are criminals” into the more abstracted phrase “A portion of blacks have at some point in their lives committed an act considered illegal at that point at that point in time and space” we will almost certainly have a far less emotional response and have a better understanding of the nebulous group known as “blacks”.
Of course, these concepts do not only apply to groups, but to anything we choose to describe. Any time we use any form of to beto describe something we run the risk of oversimplifying our thought process and make potentially very flawed assumptions. (Hopefully I haven’t lost you at this point with my simplistic explanation of General semantics, I do have a point, and I’m getting to it, I promise!)
This brings me back to labels. Most people I know seem to have an aversion to labels and will say they avoid them or don’t want labels applied to them. In my experience this seem a result of the how people fall into the to be trap. We often feel that if we accept a label we have to be whatever we think that label describes, and that we can’t be anything else.
If one adopts the label of “submissive” by saying “I am submissive” we oversimplify and limit our ability to fully express ourselves. If instead we adopt the label by saying “I feel submissive” or even “At this point in time I choose to explore and express myself in a submissive manner” we are no longer bound by the label although we can still use it as a means to communicate and express ourselves. Thus the label itself is not the problem, but rather the verb we use to tie the label to ourselves and our identities.
The mental discipline Korzybski sought to instill can be hard to attain in full. Most languages that I’m aware of, English among them make heavy use of to bein various permutations. Likewise our culture seems very devoted to these oversimplifications, perhaps because it seems easier, more convenient. It takes less effort and mental agility to think of things in fairly rigid absolutes. One might ask whether our cultural attitudes were shaped by our language or if our language was shaped by cultural attitudes. Korzybski believed that language at the very least reinforces these unhealthy thought patterns and that they key to overcoming them was to change the way we use language.
Some students of General Semantics such as D. David Bourland have sought to do this by creating a brand new form of English known as English Prime or more commonly E-prime which seeks to do away with the verb to beentirely. Others have argued that we do not need to eliminate to beentirely, but rather simply become more aware of how we use the verb and more careful with its application.
An interesting experiment I propose you try is to go for a day or even longer trying to avoid using to bein any of its forms or at least marking down every time you do it, and then give some thought as to how it oversimplified or even misrepresented the thing you were seeking to describe. I have found it to bea fun and useful exercise that helps me view the world in new and fascinating ways.