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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/25/11

The Language of Our Country

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The Language of Our Country

by Peter Theis

If you had to choose just one of the following exclamations to hear all day long, which would you prefer, and what do you think the impact would be?

"You are such a jerk!"

"You are absolutely wonderful!"

Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, named one of the 25 Visionaries Changing the World by Utne Reader, says:  "I set out to show that language didn't affect perception, but I found exactly the opposite.  It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world."

Science is confirming what we all know on a gut level is just common sense:  Words have a profound impact on how we think, how we perceive the world, and as a result how we behave and act. 

Recently, while paying for some items at a local grocery store, the young lady working there told me, "Wow, this is the healthiest stuff I've rung up in a long time!"  I smiled and responded, "Wow, what a concept!  Eating healthy stuff!"  But then I thought:  Isn't that kind of like her saying, "Wow, you're the first person in a long time I've met who doesn't hit himself in the head with a hammer!"?

So what is the dietary language of our country?  What words do we use most of the time, and what might be some healthier choices?  Here are some dynamics to consider:

Work <-->  Play
Competition <--> Cooperation
Our Leaders <--> We the People
Economy <-->  Ecology
Grades <-->  Growth
Symptoms <-->  Sources
Separation <--> Connection

Author and social critic Derrick Jensen often asks, "How do we make the US economy grow?"  And when those he asks usually go about immediately answering, he points out how most people don't stop to look at the language and the base assumptions built into that question:  Do we even want the US economy to "grow"?  If so, in what ways?  And who, exactly, is the "we" we're talking about here?

If you haven't already done this, the next time politicians speak of "democracy" and "freedom" and "security" and "justice," try looking at it as if they are not speaking about us, or even about our country, but about the elite class they serve.  Are we really bringing "freedom" to the countries we invade, or is it actually the "freedom" corporate and banking interests have to profit from war and the monopolization of markets and resources?  Is it really "justice" and "democracy" for all of us, or mostly just for the 1%? 

George Orwell called it "double-think."  Edward Bernays, the founding father of Public Relations, called it "propaganda."

In the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi looking for the best language to shape our world:  metaphors be with you.  Or rather, with all of us.

Peter Theis holds a PhD in Creative Writing & Literature from the Center for Writers at the University of Mississippi and teaches Humanities, English and Writing courses in North Carolina.

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PhD in Creative Writing & Literature from the University of Southern Mississippi. CV online here:
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