Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Words Matter

I was commenting to Heather on our way into work this morning that it sometimes seems like the truth in advertising laws no longer apply, but I think it may be more accurate to say that people no longer apply precise meaning to the words they use. Perhaps that’s never been normal. Maybe it’s just me, but I question how we can properly communicate with each other if even people who speak the same language may not be speaking the same language. It’s difficult enough to communicate across language barriers. I don’t understand why it sometimes seems like we go out of our way to make it worse.

Some of it, of course, is simple dishonesty. People who are trying to sell a product want you to buy their product, and are often not terribly concerned about accuracy. I’m sure many of them are good, upstanding people who do not mean to lie, exactly, but aren’t opposed to a little misdirection if it sells a product and no one gets hurt. They do usually want you to get a product that you want to have; they just have to convince you that you want it first. Or, in the becoming all too common case of misleading headlines, they honestly believe that it doesn’t cost you anything to read the article, so all is fair if it gets your attention.

“10 things you definitely missed in …”

“The first 20 callers will receive …”

“You’ve been doing this wrong and you won’t believe why.”

These are just a few examples, slightly paraphrased, that I have actually seen or heard in just the last couple days. The trouble is, none of them mean what they say. You can’t possibly know - and certainly not definitely know - what I did or did not miss in the latest movie. You’ve been promising this reward to the first 20 callers for six months now, so either no one is calling, you got your first 20 a long time ago and the offer no longer applies, or there never was an actual reward offer in the first place. That third one is almost always used for something that you’ve actually been using exactly as defined or instructed all along, but they have decided that you should be doing it some other way instead. No real reason, but you clicked on the link, didn’t you?

We’re not communicating to communicate anymore. We’re communicating to obscure communication so that we can indirectly communicate something else entirely. I’m not even certain that sentence made sense, which makes it perfectly appropriate for modern communication. Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, once said, “The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning and inhibit clarity.” It should go without saying that he was speaking very tongue-in-cheek, but it seems more and more like he was right, and it isn’t just confined to writing. We seem to be racing toward a point where the objective of communication is actually to prevent communication.

I have no doubt that you can think of plenty of examples on your own. If you spend any time online, watching TV, or listening to the radio, you are likely bombarded with examples. They usually don’t seem very important and, taken on their own, most of them aren’t very important. Most of these examples, if they were isolated incidents, could be dismissed as lazy thinking, mistakes, or just plain irrelevant. The problem, though, is that they are not isolated incidents. They are a running joke that has long since stopped being funny.

Words matter because, without words, we are left with far less pleasant methods of getting our point across. If we can’t communicate, we can’t live together. It’s that simple. According to most estimates, the global population passed 7 billion people back in 2011, and it’s only going up. There is no end in sight, and, as of yet, there is no other release valve. I do not and never have subscribed to the Malthusian population theories (Malthus failed to properly consider advances in social and technological sciences, which alter the equations almost daily), but it is an unavoidable fact that more people equals more crowding, and more crowding has never improved people’s ability to get along.

Popular culture, and the consumer elements that go along with it, has never been a perfect mirror of society, but it does reflect society in its own Fun House Mirror kind of way. It’s an exaggerated form, but it is still exaggerating something that is really there. You may look at that clickbait headline and say, “Nobody really believes that,” but the truth of the matter is, they wouldn’t keep using those headlines if they didn’t work. Pop culture communication wouldn’t be getting so imprecise if there weren’t a corresponding lack of precision in social communication as a whole. They don’t necessarily move at the same speed, but they do both move in the same direction.

If we are going to make a better world, we are going to have to talk about it. We are going to have to compare ideas and come to agreements over how to implement those ideas, and we can’t do that if we can’t properly communicate with each other. Words have meaning. They can have more than one meaning, and those meanings certainly evolve through generations and culture, but we have to agree on the meanings when we’re using them or we’re wasting our time. Time is a finite resource, and I, for one, can think of much better - not to mention more enjoyable - ways to waste it. Think about what you say and why you’re saying it, and let’s see if we can get back to communicating for the purpose of communication.

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