Friday, May 25, 2012

Statist Language

Another choice most of us are aware of when we stop to think about it (but rarely do we stop and think) is our choice of words.  The language we use, the choice of words, sets up our expectations and other people’s reactions to us.  Duh! You say.  I know that.  Yes.  But we don’t, won’t or can’t be constantly aware of our language.  However, we can be more aware though, if we want to and work at it a little.  The pay-offs make the extra effort worthwhile.

Take what Brian Martin calls “Statist Language” in his eponymous article in the October, 2009,  ETC: A Review of General Semantics.  “It is a long-standing convention that the name of a country refers to its government or some action by sections of that government.  For example, ‘Iraq invades Kuwait’ means that Iraqi military forces—under the control of the government of Iraq, in particular Saddam Hussein—invaded the territory known as Kuwait.

“The trouble with this formulation is that ‘Iraq’ suggests that the entire country is a unified whole—in particular, that the government and the people are united.  Such statement can be seriously misleading.  The linguistic shorthand of ‘Iraq invaded Kuwait’ hides political differences within Iraq, especially omitting the existence of opposition to the government.”  Apply this to the US.  “Americans to stay in Afghanistan for Ten More Years.”  Really?  That’s not what I want, nor what you want.  So the use of the statist language “Americans” is seriously misleading.

“The use of country names for government actions can be called ‘statist language’: it linguistically attributes the actions of the state—the government and, especially, the leading figures in the government—to the people, to an entire society.  It makes it awkward to talk about internal tensions or dissent.”  “Awkward” Martin says.  That’s polite.  It makes it almost impossible not only to talk about internal tensions and dissent, but to even think about them. 

The effect of “statist” language/thinking applies to everything, not just states.  Use the term: “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Unions” or “Gays”.  What happens?  All Republicans, Democrats, Unions and Gays are lumped together; no shades of grey nor ranges of opinion, nor space for people to be different.  Everyone lumped together and not a very effective nor efficient way to think and talk about human beings.

The way to deal with this ineffective and inefficient phenomena of “statist language” and “lumping” is to be aware we’re doing it, chose not to do it, and use alternatives.  Once again, this takes self awareness and a desire to change but the pay-off in terms of less blaming, polarization and stress, and more community, consensus and actual problem solving, makes the effort worthwhile.  Instead of saying “Republicans,” and lumping all so-called Republicans into the same heap, try saying things like: “TParty Republicans,” or “the RNC,” or “wealthy Republicans,” or “older, Jewish Republicans.” 

Adjectives help avoid the lumping, clarify our thinking and make communication and action more effective and efficient, reducing polarization, blaming and stress.  Try it.  Not only will you feel better about the Republicans, but you’ll be doing God’s work.  After all, that’s why God invented adjectives, to help us think more clearly and work together better.  God loves adjectives.  She’s not happy with “statist language” and “lumping.”

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