How We Are Being Fooled By Words (2 min read)

Words have been a primal force of humanity for thousands of years. Take the famous line from the bible  “In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”  (Gospel of John, 1:1).This clearly emphasises the immense power of words.

This is echoed in another tradition, Islam, where God is said to have “taught Adam all the names” and with that knowledge the angels were told to “prostrate themselves before Adam.”(Quran 2:31). Here the emphasis is on distinguishing between those who can name and those that cannot.

In essence, words create a reality of their own; they set the context to which all will act within. Think about how freedom-fighter (eg Mandela) sounds compared to terrorist (eg Mandela), or how entrepreneur sounds  compared to wheeler-dealer. Who decides which of the pair is used sets the tone of any subsequent discussion.

Even the same word may mean different things to different people. In Europe, liberal is often associated with individual rights, while in the US it is often associated with state intervention. Alfred Kouzybski, the father of general semantics, argued that “a word is not the thing it stands for. Words mean what you make them mean”.  It coined the phrase “the map is not the territory”. He went on to argue that some words simply too general to have any meaning, words like fascist, moralist or humanist.

It’s easy then to lazily make assumptions about words, which preclude active thought. So for some, seeing the words Trump, nationalist or white next to an idea  is an easy way to dismiss the idea, rather than actively engage with it. For others, the same can happen by seeing the words Obama, cosmopolitan or PC (political correctness). Therefore it is very important to understand the power of words, its impact on us and the impact of words on others.

Returning to older traditions, the sixth century Zen master Seng-Ts’an described an alternative mode of thinking  in his poem “The Mind of Absolute Trust”:

If you want to realize the truth, don’t be for or against.

The struggle between good and evil is the primal disease of the mind.

Not grasping the deeper meaning, you just trouble your minds serenity.

As vast as infinite space, it is perfect and lacks nothing.

But because you select and reject, you can’t perceive its true nature.

Hope these words help!


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