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Words always matter

The run-up to the recent mid-term elections saw commentators across the political spectrum claiming that “words matter.” Much of this was in response to violent acts – in particular the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre and the pipe bombs sent to Democrats – that some argued was a consequence of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Words always matter of course. But due to the timing and the stakes – in this instance, an upcoming mid-term election of considerable consequence – it turned into a literal war of words. Language was weaponized to an extent not seen before.

But how do words matter? The White House claims President Trump bears no responsibility for the violent actions of the Pittsburgh shooter or the Florida pipe-bomber, even though both appear to have been followers of the president. It is true that Trump has never directly issued a command, or even a request, for his followers to perform a violent act, although he has sometimes come close, such as when he told a crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that they should knock the crap out of anyone planning to throw tomatoes and that he’d pay their legal fees. But as advertisers, attorneys and other professional persuaders are aware, language can be used to influence the actions of others in more subtle ways. The relationship between language and reality is multi-faceted. For example, people can use their words to alter reality by explicitly directing the actions of others (e.g., “Send pipe bombs to my critics”). In speech act theory these expressions are referred to as directives, and the speaker is on-record for having made such a command or request. But the relationship between language and reality is more complex than this. Sometimes, for example, words by their very nature can alter reality, such as when a minister pronounces a couple man and wife, or when an umpire declares a pitch to have been a strike. In speech act theory these expressions are termed declaratives and their use is tightly governed (e.g., not everyone can perform a marriage).

Language can be used to influence the actions of others in more subtle ways.

At an even more subtle level, words can help create the social reality within which we live. Our experience of the world is largely mediated through language, as we read about, think about, and talk about our world as it unfolds. The words we use to describe our experiences, to our self and to others, can influence those very experiences. For example, if someone describes a caravan of migrants as an invasion, and if many people, especially those with power and reach, use this terminology, then it becomes a shared reality, one that can be drawn upon for understanding our world and how we should react to it. If it’s an invasion, then we better send troops to the border. And the sending of troops to the border simply reinforces that reality; it really is an invasion.

At an even more subtle level, words have important consequences beyond their simple meaning. The use of certain words can activate categories and semantic associates that are not part of the meaning of the word, but which can still color our perceptions and thoughts, and much of this happens without awareness. The descriptors “thrifty” and “stingy” are synonyms but differ greatly in the emotional reaction they elicit. Similarly, a word’s level of abstractness can have a substantial effect on our perceptions. To describe someone as a hateful person implies a consistent and enduring level of hate that is absent if that person is simply described as hating someone or something. And finally, there is the possibility of intentionally using words that might carry extra-coded meanings, often referred to as dog whistles. For example, the recent and frequent mention of George Soros has been described by some as anti-Semitic code for Jewish globalist. Although empirical research on the use and consequences of these terms is sparse, the frequency with which speakers (on both the right and the left) are called out for using them indicates their political effectiveness.

All of these instances involve using words in ways that provide the speaker with complete deniability. In other words, their effects are off-record and the speaker can deny any one interpretation or consequence in favor of another. A speaker who calls a migrant caravan an invasion being funded and organized by George Soros is not commanding people to act or think or feel a particular way. But there is no doubt that the choice of these words will clearly influence how people think, act, and feel. Words always matter. But they matter more when they come from the most powerful person in the world. Presidential language can take on a life of its own, due to its reach and significance. Language is a tool, a means of creating a shared social reality. Donald Trump did not command anyone to send pipe bombs to his critics. But he didn’t have to; his language created the social reality in which it simply made sense to do so.

Image credit: “Neon light, neon, neon sign and minimal HD” by Alexandra. CC0 via Unsplash.

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