The Modern Survival Guide #1
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. And this is the first article! Huzzah! And with that said… I know, I know, most people are probably thinking something like, “Words? All the crap that’s out there and you start with a warning about words? What about Ebola??!”
Well, that’s kind of my point. Hear me out on this one:
Words build ideas; ideas build mindsets; mindsets build worlds.
Words have power. They have power in spades. They are probably the most powerful things humans have ever invented, and we are swamped with words every day. Conversations, gossip, advertisements, books, articles, propaganda, entertainment, and news all compete for our attention — and if you want to live a good and happy life you have to be suspicious of ALL of them.
See, here’s the thing — words nail down reality. It’s weird to think about this kind of thing, but there are a lot of themes I see repeated in the world that are bound up in this concept. Once you name something, you can identify it. Once you identify it you can think about it. Once you can think about it, you can devise ways to gain power over it. Words are about control. They are little packets of thought that we bundle up into a sound and a series of letters. And then we use them to describe the world. And then we think the words are how the world works.
Think about this for a second — nobody has the faintest idea what a lot of things we have words for actually are. Take “energy,” for example. Ask a physicist what energy is, and they’ll say something about the property that must be conferred to an object in order to perform work. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that this doesn’t answer the question. The question is about what the thing is, not what it does. And no one actually knows. They know what different forms of energy look like in abstraction, but the actual property of the thing is frequently outside our current understanding.
“Energy” in this sense is a label we’ve given to a set of physical phenomena. It is useful to describe these phenomena as different kinds of energy, and as a result many people believe that since there is a word for the thing, we understand the thing. But we don’t. The word “energy” gives us a concept, not a reality. Seriously, this happens all the time, and it’s worth paying attention to definitions and phrasing to keep track of what people say they understand, vs. what they think they understand, vs. what they don’t understand at all and want to gloss over.
And on the other hand there’s tonal qualities of words that have profound and immediate psychological impacts on an audience. Every successful business leader, teacher, politician, and military commander knows about the Voice of Authority — that particular tone that indicates that you know what you’re doing, you are confident in your choice, and you want it done NOW, thanks very much. And this is the easiest, simplest, and often most effective way to exert authority: just use a tone that suggests there’s no possible way you could be wrong.
On the other side, you have people who go through life always using submissive tones. These are the folks who get ignored or talked over, for no better reason than their tone cannot convince their audience of their sincerity, authority, or competence. They usually then complain that they’re being ignored or talked over, often in the same tone of voice, never realizing that they’re reinforcing their status as a submissive party.
You see this all the time in the workplace — just watch who dominates your next meeting, and note their tone of voice. Then compare and contrast to political speeches and sermons from the pulpit. They all use variations on the Voice of Authority.
The interesting thing about all this is that it seems to indicate that the actual information content of words is often secondary to the emotional responses they produce. Some words tie down reality and exert control not by being right, but by being said in the right way.
And then you have loaded words, that because of their context or historical burden automatically mean something when you use them — usually it’s something not very good at all. These words, and the context in which they are used, convey immediate emotional and historical imperatives (depending on their audience).
Not to mention dismissive words, exhortations, leading phrasing… all those words and sentences and phrases that invoke an image or emotional state in the listener’s mind. “Honor” is one to watch out for. “Patriot” is another. “Communist” and “socialist” are also ones to watch out for in the US. These are words that turn on or turn off our ability to absorb an idea, based on what we think the word means.
“Socialist” is a slur here in the US; it means “anti-American” to a lot people. And if you’re described as socialist, then you can’t possibly be a real American. But… you know you’re an American, so obviously you can’t be a socialist. And if you’re not a socialist, then you certainly can’t support a policy that someone else describes as socialist. And that’s how politics is decided for a huge portion of the population.
Last but not least, watch out for repetitions of words. It’s a psychological reality that people tend to believe things that they hear often. This is why the Daily Show or John Oliver can show those videos of thirty different news outlets and politicians saying the exact same phrase: someone is coaching them to produce and implant a particular pattern of thought in their audience. The insidious part is that even when you know this is happening, it still works.
The point is, people who are good with words can spin their audience around their own intentions and worldview. In storytelling and politics this is called building a “narrative,” or “framing” the world. It’s how powerful people build the worlds that the rest of us think we live in.
If you ever wonder why someone else simply can’t see things your way, keep this in mind: it’s not necessarily because you’re right and they’re wrong, or you’re wrong and they’re right. It’s often because you live in different mental worlds. You have different mindsets, your brains are programmed to believe different things, and so your worlds “work” differently.
The world does not work. The world simply is. But our ideas twist that “is” into stories, and those stories define our lives.
To return to where we started, let’s talk about Ebola. Ebola is a concept: it’s inextricably linked in modern minds with the ideas of death, fear, sickness, blood, and nausea. Ebola is the disease where if you get it, you die. Ebola is the disease where you die bleeding from everywhere. Ebola is dangerous, and foreign, and worthy of the most stringent measures of containment.
Some of these things are true, certainly. But almost everyone gets that package of ideas when you say the word “Ebola.” And so, when Ebola hit US shores back in 2014, everyone panicked. The CDC isolated the infected. The feds got involved. Travel advisories were issued. Airlines stopped flying to certain countries. Billions of dollars were spent.
Was this all necessary? Well… possibly not. Ebola is actually fairly easy to manage in a society with adequate medical care, particularly a society that can marshal resources for long-term palliative care. But the word was so scary, the images it conjured so profound, that enormous resources were concentrated on containing this disease. It worked, too. We did not experience a massive Ebola outbreak.
Let’s contrast that with another combination of words: “chemical,” “autism,” and “vaccine.” The US medical establishment is currently being buffeted by the ridiculously false allegations that vaccines contain dangerous chemicals that cause autism. As a result, diseases thought to be long-since eradicated in the US (such as measles and polio) are making slight comebacks.
“Chemical” is a very poorly understood word. Most people tend to forget that everything is chemicals, and in the context of the vaccine debate people use the word “chemical” as a synonym for “unknown,” “corrupt,” and “dangerous.” And because this word has such vague connotations, and the explanations involved take so much time and require so much scientific knowledge, many people are perfectly happy to assume that dangerous chemicals cause autism. It gets even worse when you use the word “mercury,” which everyone knows is a poisonous heavy metal, to describe one of the chemicals used to stabilize and preserve old vaccines.
Of course, the “mercury” in this context isn’t the same as the “mercury” you handled in high school science lab. But the word resonates because we all handled mercury in high school science, and we all were warned how dangerous it is. Never mind that there are different kinds of mercury, and different dosages of those kinds of mercury. All of that information takes effort and education to process. The story “mercury is dangerous,” on the other hand, is easy to believe and simple to transmit. And so a small but growing portion of the country thinks that vaccines cause autism. Anti-vaccine advocates told a story that was as simple, scary, and efficient as it was dangerous and false.
This is the power of words. They guide our perceptions, influence our decisions, and sometimes make up our minds for us. To survive in the modern world, you must therefore remember:
Be careful whose words you listen to. Be careful which words you listen to. Be careful how you listen.
This is important because much of our survival in the modern world is dependent on maintaining a few of the stories that define our world. Stories like “The US is a Democracy,” and “Vaccines Are an Effective Disease Preventative.” All these stories are susceptible to new ideas… and not all ideas are equally beneficial. And it all starts with words. Be wary of words.
Post Script: Someone might be asking, at this point, “But Allen, you use words… lots of them. What’s your angle?” Well, honestly I’m just writing stuff that I think people ought to think about. This stuff is interesting to me. I’m not trying to push an agenda… but I will. I won’t be able to help it. My worldview will come out, has come out, in these articles. So maybe just assume the following:
There is no way you can know for sure that I’m not trying to give you bad advice.
There is no way you should absolutely trust me.
I am not the smartest man who ever lived.
Take it all with a grain of salt.
Make up your own mind.
For reference, politically I’m a moderate liberal. If you want to know why, I have a thing on that.
And that’s why this is the first entry.