A Fence Sieve Language

ETC Cover 64-3(Published in the July 2007 edition of ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 64 No. 3)

A culture cannot be discriminatingly accepted, much less be modified, except by persons who have seen through it—by persons who have cut holes in the confining stockade of verbalized symbols and so are able to look at the world and, by reflection, at themselves, in a new and relatively unprejudiced way.

Aldous Huxley, “Culture and the Individual” (1963)

During the first months of 2007, the American public, politicians, and media have banded together to up-armor our “confining stockade of verbalized symbols.” Instead of cutting holes through which to self-reflexively evaluate ourselves, our language, and our behaviors, we have reinforced our ancient, pathological attitudes toward words and the people who use them.

The Don Imus affair (Google: nappy-headed hos, jigaboos and wannabees, Rutgers women’s basketball, MSNBC, CBS radio, WFAN, the Rev. Al Sharpton) consumed the most print space and air time. But let’s not forget some of the other examples of language behaviors that have prompted outrage, lawsuits, indifference, or in some cases, applause.

  • Isaiah Washington, an actor on the television series “Grey’s Anatomy,” checked into a rehab center and began counseling after using the word faggot in reference to another actor on the show. (1)
  • Ann Coulter, the blonde darling of a certain segment of conservative Republicans, joked during a presentation to the Conservative Political Action Conference that, “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.” (2)
  • The family of a high school freshman filed a lawsuit against officials at Maria Carillo High School in California claiming the school denied the First Amendments rights of their daughter. The family is Mormon. The utterance at issue concerns the daughter’s response to classmates who needled her with questions such as, “Do you have 10 moms?” She replied, “That’s so gay.” School officials gave her a warning on the grounds that it has an obligation to protect gay students from harassment. The parents’ suit claims the phrase that’s so gay “enjoys widespread currency in youth culture.” The girl says the phrase means, “That’s so stupid; that’s so silly; that’s so dumb.” (3)
  • The day after he officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic party’s nomination for President, Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) said of fellow candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois), “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” He was immediately besieged with controversy over the words “clean” and “articulate.” (4)
  • Four days later, Senator Obama illustrated how quickly “what goes around comes around” when he used the word “wasted” to refer to the lives of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. (5)
  • A partner from one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, Fulbright & Jaworski, visited the law school at Duke University for recruiting purposes. During the course of an interview, the partner recounted a story about one of the firm’s founders (Leon Jaworski) and his commitment to justice in the 1920s. Jaworski represented a black man accused of murder in Waco, TX, and faced a district attorney who used “the n word” to refer to the accused. A student who heard the story objected and complained, the dean of the law school wrote a letter to the entire law school, and the chairman of the executive committee at Fulbright & Jaworski traveled to Duke to apologize. (6,7)
  • New York City Councilman Leroy Comrie embarked on a campaign to ‘voluntarily’ ban the n word. His campaign was featured in an “investigative report” on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” by the “investigative team” of Larry Wilmore (an American black) and John Oliver (a British white). During the report, Oliver refers only to the word and leaves it to Wilmore to fill in the blanks with the word nigger. (8)
  • “The Colbert Report,” with Stephen Colbert, immediately followed Stewart’s show and featured an interview with Jabari Asim, author of the new book, The N Word: who can say it, who shouldn’t, and why. (9)
  • City officials of the Bronx in New York City labeled a new German army training video as “racist” and demanded an apology from the German military. The video depicts an instructor describing a scenario to a trainee this way: “You are in the Bronx. A black van is stopping in front of you. Three African-Americans are getting out they are insulting your mother in the worst ways. Act!” (10)
  • Rush Limbaugh began referring to Senator Barack Obama and actress Halle Berry, each of mixed-race parentage, as “Halfrican Americans.” (11)

These examples come from just a four-month period. But they reveal just how confining our stockade of verbalized symbols has become. In other words, it’s become almost impossible to talk sensibly about how we talk. Forget about cutting holes … we can’t even make a dent.

Not that some haven’t tried. Compare and contrast these attempts at explanation, elucidation, or explication:

If you’re 10 or 100, nappy-headed ho means the same thing. — Al Sharpton on “Real Time with Bill Maher” (12)

Did you want to name the book The N Word and they said, no, you’ve got to call it The N Word, or did you say, I want to name this book The N Word and they assumed you meant, you know, the n word when in fact you meant the n word? The n word has become so anonymous [sic] with the n word. Is saying the n word pretty much like saying the n word? Because, I would never say the n word, but I don’t want somebody to think I’m saying the n word by saying the n word. — Stephen Colbert to Jabari Asim (9)

It’s really hard to address the language of racism without somehow directly engaging in that language. — Jabari Asim to Stephen Colbert (9)

[After letting loose with 47 “equal opportunity” racial and religious epithets …] There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those words, in and of themselves. They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent. I get tired of people talking about “bad words” and “bad language.” Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad. — George Carlin (13)

It doesn’t matter, the origins of curse words. What matters is that civilization has decreed —arbitrarily, obviously—that certain words are inherently obscene. — Dennis Prager (14)

Words don’t mean, only a person does. There is no meaning in a word. We sometimes talk about this as the container myth. Now you can put something in a glass—water, dirt, sand, anything. A glass will hold something, and we can talk about this as a container. A word, however, is not a container in the way a glass is. A container of meaning is a man, a woman. It’s you. It’s you listening, it is I talking. It is I listening, it’s you talking. A word doesn’t mean. — Irving J. Lee (15)

Understandably, the use of the word offended the student. — Katharine T. Bartlett, Duke University School of Law (7)

There is no excuse for what happened on this campus. There is no context for which that is permissible conduct. — Steven Pfeiffer, Fulbright & Jaworski (6)

It seems that two conflicting views are at work here, leading to these questions:

  1. Do words have inherent meanings that exist and apply irrespective of speaker, listener, or context?
  2. Do words have variable meanings that depend on context?
  3. Is it more appropriate to talk in terms of “offensive language,” in which specific “bad” ’words (profanities, obscenities, epithets) cause offense, justify outrage, and demand apology?
  4. Is it more appropriate to talk in terms of “language that some find offensive,” that recognizes each individual may respond according to his or her own standards of what offends them?
  5. Do actions like banning, censoring, and penalizing certain words and terms aid or hinder our individual and societal efforts to “cut holes” through our current culture, to progress beyond our prejudices and stereotypes?

From my general semantics perspective, it’s pretty easy to answer no, yes, no, yes, and hinder. What makes this so difficult for most people to understand? Or, what makes it so rewarding for people to perpetuate the “word=thing” identifications?

I offer four inter-related possibilities.

Control

Language has always been used as a means for rulers to exercise their power over their dominion. Religious leaders, politicians, business bosses, military commanders, teachers, parents, lawyers … virtually everyone is subject to someone else’s controlling or directive language. We have been conditioned to respond to certain words in specific, somewhat predictable ways. Go to church and you can expect to hear language intended to provoke penitence, guilt, grace, thankfulness, humility, or charity. Go to a political rally and you’ll get bombarded with carefully crafted words to evoke patriotism, civic duty, fear, pride, outrage.

As Alfred Korzybski observed in Science and Sanity, “those who rule the symbols, rule us.” Rulers need predictable results and desired reactions. They need their constituents to identify the labels of choice with the rulers’ desired attitudes and behaviors. If the people chose to deliberately and extensionally evaluate the assertions expressed by their rulers, then the rulers might well be forced to rule on substance, rather than by symbol.

Cop-out: Denying Personal Responsibility

Alfred Fleishman, co-founder of public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard, Inc., advocated general semantics in his own unique, street-wise way. One of the simple observations he would share with delinquent and troubled teenagers in St. Louis was, “Just because you call me a son of a bitch, that doesn’t make me a son of a bitch.” He encountered hundreds of youngsters in detention schools and jails who automatically reacted to being called a name … just words … in ways that caused pain, suffering, and despair to their victims, their families, and ultimately themselves. They didn’t stop to think that they could react any differently to the name. The label (boy, nigger, asshole, etc.) made them do it. The devil must be in those words; remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine’s universal excuse? “The devil made me do it.”

A different aspect of personal responsibility is described by Irving J. Lee, who used the term bypassing to describe another aspect of lazy, indiscriminant listening. He explained that a listener has two choices when encountering language that isn’t quite clear. The aware, responsible listener will ask the speaker, “What do you mean?” or pause to consider what the speaker might have intended. The lazy, unaware listener will immediately proceed to evaluate what the speaker says as if it were the listener talking; in other words, he will assume (or demand) that the speaker uses the same words in the same way as himself. He will maintain that it’s the speaker’s responsibility to use the ‘right’ words, rather than the listener’s responsibility to evaluate the speaker’s intent.

In the latter case, the listener/reactor denies his own responsibility for interpreting, evaluating, and appropriately responding to the words of the speaker. The words (symbols) ‘cause’ the response, just as Pavlov’s bell ‘caused’ his dog to respond. But Lee and Korzybski would contend that human beings have the capacity to act more appropriately than dogs.

Misunderstanding ‘Reality’

As we learn more and more about our brains and nervous systems, Korzybski’s formulation of the abstracting process continues to be validated. The brain orders and constructs our experiences from our sensory interactions through the nervous system to our ultimate evaluations of pleasure, pain, fear, etc. Therefore, like everything else, meaning is constructed by each of us, individually and uniquely. As Charles Sanders Pierce put it, “We don’t get meaning, we respond with meaning.”

However, a lot of people don’t quite understand this or don’t want to understand it. There are still many who believe that there is an “objective reality” out there that ought to be perceived “as it is.” They rail against “relativism” without acknowledging the inevitable relativism (or to-me-ness) that results from the natural functioning of six billion different nervous systems. Which one of those six billion is the right one to say what is the true or inherent meaning of a statement, an event, or a symbol?

Identifying the ‘Map’ as the ‘Territory’

Those who advocate eliminating or even banning certain words and phrases do not seem to grasp the symbolic nature of words. They misplace or misallocate their ire toward the word itself rather than on the underlying attitude, beliefs, and behaviors of the individuals who use the word.

Although Jabari Asim tries to straddle a difficult line in proposing that some people can use the word nigger but others shouldn’t, I support his statement quoted previously. From a literary and historical context, you cannot teach Huckleberry Finn without using the language of the time and understanding the attitudes of the time. (Not to mention that you can’t re-write what the author wrote.) Neither can you arbitrarily dictate (or request, in the case of Councilman Comrie) that nigger be stricken and banned from music lyrics. If nigger, what next?

The hip-hop world took a lot of the collateral damage from the initial Imus bomb, to the extent that rap/hip-hop icon and impresario Russell Simmons co-authored a statement that read, “We recommend that the recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words bitch and ho” as well as “a common racial epithet.”

As if bleeping accomplishes anything other than calling attention to itself and, by extension, what got bleeped.

If one thinks through the logical consequences of bleeping, one comes full circle to the realization that it’s the context, not the word, that establishes the basis for offense. Even without benefit of visually observing the following phrases spoken, do you have any doubt as to what the “bleep” stands for?

“I said drop your bleeping gun!”
“Go bleep yourself.”
“Get the bleep out of here.”
“You dirty son of a bleep!”
“This tastes so bleeping good …”

Leave it to the comedians to shine illuminating light on this shadowy subject. In their “investigative report” on Councilman’s Comrie’s quest to ban a “word with no meaning,” Wilborne and Oliver point out the potential consequences:

OLIVER: Leroy, are you at all concerned that we are banning one of the most versatile words in the English language? It can be used as a noun …
WILBORNE: Yo, yo, whassup, my nigga?
OLIVER: A verb …
WILBORNE: Hey, man, don’t nigger those potato chips.
OLIVER: An adjective …
WILBORNE: Oh, so now you nigger rich?
OLIVER: An adverb …
WILBORNE: Man … that’s some niggerly [bleep].
OLIVER: Are we kissing goodbye to all of this?
COMRIE: I think that all of those usages are just vile and need to be stopped.
OLIVER: What do you say to rappers who need that word in terms of a rhyme scheme?
COMRIE: Need the word? I don’t think you need the word.
WILBORNE: I’m not sure about that Leroy. Finish this phrase … “I’m not saying she’s a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke …
COMRIE: Hmm. (to himself) “I’m not saying she’s a gold digger, but she ain’t messing with no broke” … fool.
WILBORNE: (pause) Do you understand how rap works, Councilman?

Wilborne and Oliver understand that context determines meaning, and, like George Carlin two generations before them, realize that the English language offers unlimited opportunities to poke comedic fun at our arbitrary and multiple usages. As Carlin pointed out thirty years ago, even order establishes context: “You can prick your finger. But don’t finger your prick!”

A more serious reason to object to any type of ban, particularly with epithets, is that these words carry such strong social stigmas that their usage may serve a valuable purpose. Like the canary in the mine, or smoke that signals the possibility of burning embers, racial and religious epithets can alert us to the possibility of prejudice, bias, and hate within the speaker. If you ban the language, these people may comply with the ban and not say the word, but they may well continue to harbor the feelings and attitudes that may lead to discriminatory and prejudiced behaviors.

Huxley continued his “hole cutter” metaphor with this observation:

What the would-be hole cutter needs is knowledge; knowledge of the past and present history of cultures in all their fantastic variety, and knowledge about the nature and limitations, the uses and abuses, of language.

We can learn a lot from our daily news outlets and entertainment programs regarding our attitudes towards language. Unfortunately, we (English-speaking Americans) seem to be backsliding toward the 19th century in terms of our dependence on the cultural crutch of verbal taboos. Consider how prematurely quaint the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead seem, as reported in an unnamed local newspaper in 1969:

Anthropologist Margaret Mead says that the current binge of written and spoken four-letter words will also pass providing everyone doesn’t become uptight about it. It’s this uptightness in the current phraseology that is at the heart of the problem. We are in a temporary period when it is exciting to light up some-thing that was dark, saying words that were forbidden, exhibiting all sorts of things that weren’t allowed before, but this excitement is going to wear out. (16)

Until we exit this “temporary period” (going on 38 years now) in which we insist on righteously playing got’cha! with offensive language, our public discourse about racism, sexism, violence, drugs, and even taxes will never progress to the substantive from the superficial.

We must be vigilant, however, in clearly discerning and discriminating between the effective uses and the manipulative or ignorant abuses of language. The more we focus on the words, labels, and categories, the less we concern ourselves with the individuals who use those symbols, and the individuals upon whom those symbols are slapped.

Because the words of Irving J. Lee will forever apply: “We tend to discriminate against people to the degree we fail to distinguish between them.”

NOTES

  1. ‘Grey’s’ Isaiah Washington going to rehab, January 25, 2007. www.abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=2821901&page=1.
  2. Coulter: I Would Talk About Edwards But “You Have To Go Into Rehab If You Use The Word ‘Faggot’,” March 2, 2007. www.thinkprogress.org/2007/03/02/ coulter-edwards/.
  3. School sued for reaction to ‘That’s so gay’, March 1, 2007, by Lisa Leff, Associated Press
  4. Biden’s description of Obama draws scrutinty, February 9, 2007. www. cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/01/31/biden.obama/
    index.html?eref=rss_topstories.
  5. Is Obama sorry or right about ‘wasted’ lives? February 13, 2007. www. msnbc.msn.com/id/17131803/
  6. A Word Too Far, by Ann Althouse, The New York Times. March 3, 2007.
  7. Fulbright & Jaworski Partner Drops the N-Bomb During a Recruiting Interview, February 21, 2007. www.abovethelaw.com/
    2007/02/breaking_fulbright_ jaworski_pa.php.
  8. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Comedy Central, March 28, 2007. www.comedycentral.com.
  9. The Colbert Report, Comedy Central, March 28, 2007.
    www.comedycentral.com/
  10. Army video ‘racist,’ says Bronx chief, by Kirsten Grieshaber, Associated Press, April 15, 2007.
  11. Limbaugh on Obama: ‘Halfrican American.’ January 24, 2007. www.mediamatters.org/items/200701240010,
  12. Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO, April 13, 2007.
  13. Doin’ It Again with George Carlin, HBO Comedy, 1991.
  14. F**K: A Documentary, a film by Steve Anderson. 2005. ThinkFilmCompany.com
  15. “Talking Sense,” video series by Irving J. Lee, 1952. Institute of General Semantics. Fort Worth, Texas.
  16. “The Geolinguistics of Verbal Taboo” by Allen Walker Read. Published with permission of The American Society of Geolinguistics in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 61 Number 4.

Benham Disc

Even with the reduced size and resolution of this short clip, you can probably see the intended effects.

  • Watch the disc. Describe what you see … do you see shapes? Colors?
  • As the rotation slows, do the shapes and colors change? How so?
  • If others are watching at the same time … compare what you see with what they see.
  • What does this do to the conventional wisdom that “seeing is believing”?
  • Where do the “rings” and “colors” exist? (They’re ‘manufactured’ by your nervous system.)
  • This suggests that “color is in the eye of the beholder.” What does this imply for all adjectives and descriptions?
  • View more visual misperception demonstrations by neurobiologist Christof Koch here.

Here is a visual explanation for the effect by Blue Man Group, from “Inside the Tube”:

Here is a basic explanation for the effect: http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/benham.html

Here is another: http://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/benhams_disk/index.html

Count the Dots

For this exercise, all you have to do is count how many black dots you see.

Count the black dots
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If you think you’ve experienced some kind of electronic perception manipulation, try printing the previous page, look at the graphic on paper, and see if you get similar results …

What’s going on?

David Hewson in Australia reported that this is referred to as “Hermann’s Grid” and is explained (somewhat) at: http://www.yorku.ca/research/vision/eye/hermann1.htm

What’s the point?

I would say this exercise illustrates the following:

  • We can ‘see things’ that aren’t there.
  • What we ‘see’ is not just a function of our eyes; what we ‘see’ results from what our visual-brain-system detects, processes, and reports.
  • Even when we ‘know’ that our visual-brain-system is ‘lying’ to us, we cannot overcome it – we continue to see black dots (or even colored ones)
  • Given this clear demonstration of how our senses can sometimes fool us, perhaps we should exercise a bit more tentativeness and skepticism when we are tempted to fall victim to “seeing is believing”, because …
  • If we ‘see’ black dots when there are only white dots … what else do we ‘see’ that’s not there? At home, at work, in our relationships, among friends, etc. Can you recall a situation in which you saw what wasn’t there; heard what wasn’t said; understood what wasn’t intended?

What else came up for you in this exercise? What lessons do you take away?

Dimples or Bumps?

This exercise simply asks you to look at this image.

What do you see – 3 smaller dimples or bumps?
What do you see – 1 larger dimple or bump?

(A dimple appears to recede into the surface; a bump appears to protrude out of the surface.)

Dimple or Bump 1

After you’ve determined how many dimples and how many bumps you see, scroll down and look at the same image from a different perspective.
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Now how many dimples and how many bumps do you see?

Dimple or Bump 1

Now … what might this suggest about two different people observing the ‘same’ event from their own individual/different perspectives?

Brochures, Collateral

While Executive Director for the Institute of General Semantics (2004-2007), I was responsible for creating the following brochures, marketing, and promotional materials: General Information Brochure, Trade Show Booth Graphic, Capital Campaign Brochure, Conference Announcement, a promotional Bookmark, and my farewell video.

General Information Brochure about the Institute

Download the PDF

Brochure 1st fold

Brochure Inside

Trade Show Booth Graphic

This graphic was used for the 10-ft wide, 7-ft tall mylar backdrop display used in booths at trade shows and conferences.

Trade Show Booth

Capital Campaign Brochure

Download the PDF

Capital Campaign Cover

International Conference Announcement

Download the 3-page PDF for the 2006 “Making Sense” international conference announcement.

Making Sense Conference

Bookmark with Quotations

Bookmark

“Work to Do” Farewell Video

A Critical Awareness and Self-Learning Program for AP English

This presentation was given at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention in Nashville, TN, in November 2006.

Rock-Paper-Scissors: Words-Meanings-People

This presentation was created for the 5th Annual Denton (TX) Area Conference of the Texas Association for the Improvement of Reading in Denton, TX, on September 23, 2006.

Response Side Semantics

ETC Cover 63-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 63 No. 1, January 2006)

From the July 1, 2005, National Public Radio broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show:

Diane: Here is an interesting email from Steve, who’s the Executive Director for the Institute of General Semantics. He says: “These kinds of panels invariably concentrate on the supply side of political talk — the spin, the propaganda, the doublespeak. Seldom does anybody bring up the listener’s or reader’s individual responsibility to critically, sometimes skeptically, evaluate the messages they hear and read. Why isn’t there more emphasis on educating people as critical thinkers and evaluators?” (1)

The distinguished panel that prompted my question consisted of: Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University (2), William D. Lutz, Professor of English at Rutgers University (3), and Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich. The topic for this program concerned “Political Language.”

Responding to my question, Leibovich commented:

I think that’s a fantastic point. I mean, I think it’s one thing to talk about responsibility, it’s another thing to talk about ability. Quite frankly, you really, really need to think and listen hard to actually see and recognize a lot of the rhetoric that is coming your way. (1)

Lutz responded that he dealt with the question in the last chapter of his Doublespeak Defined book. The discussion moved on.

Is the premise of my question valid, that virtually all the focus is on the “supply side” of the communication process, implying that the reaction or response to the message is inevitable, pre-determined, or presumed?

Consider:

  • How many hundreds of colleges have programs in advertising and public relations? How many colleges have even one course that deals with how to intelligently evaluate and respond to advertising?
  • How many billions of dollars are spent around the world on campaigns to stimulate demand, desire, and support for products, services, political agendas, and religious causes? How many dollars are spent to inform and educate individuals as to the manipulative means used by media advertisers, politicians on the stump, and preachers in the pulpit?
  • It’s not uncommon to hear a remorseful person caught in the media’s crosshairs issue an apology such as, “I apologize to anyone who might have been offended by what I said.” How often does anyone challenge those who choose to take offense? Why is the burden on the speaker to not say something that might offend, rather than on the listeners who seem to seek opportunities to find offense?
  • Do we spend more time teaching children about “bad” words, images, and thoughts that should not be used, or do we teach them how they might react if they encounter such “bad” things?
  • Could there exist a more glaring prejudice against the notion of responsibly reacting and responding than the linguistic lunacy that underlies the pervasive term proactive? By what tortured logic should the act of reacting be de-legitimatized in favor of the false-to-fact folly that someone can be proactive, without benefit of any stimulus, prompt, or need? (As a public service, I offer the beginning of an indefinitely long list of topics about which it is now impossible to be proactive: terrorism, airport security, drugs, gangs, the budget deficit, the environment, urban sprawl, inflation, and — no offense — your weight. I’m sorry, but those and all other known issues are already out there, and it’s too late for anybody to be proactive about them.) (4)

In the early 1960s, Ernest Hemingway opined that the essential attribute of a great writer was to “have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.” (5)

In 1933, Alfred Korzybski warned that “those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (6)

As 2005 turns to 2006, I suggest that the burden for detecting crap now falls squarely on those who must continually respond to the accelerating and accumulating supply of crap generated by the growing hordes of symbol-ruling-wannabes.

Therefore I propose to introduce a new term to the general semantics lexicon that acknowledges the much-neglected response side of the communication relationship: Response Side Semantics.

A Metaphor Inspired by Economics and Behavioral Science

During the 1980 U.S. Presidential election campaign, Ronald Reagan promoted the economic theories of Arthur B. Laffer, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Laffer’s theory regarding taxation maintained that an economy required an optimal rate of taxation to generate the maximum revenue. Beyond that optimal rate, revenue actually decreased, which meant that, on the back side of the curve, tax rate decreases actually resulted in increased tax revenue. (7) In the political campaign language of 1980, the policy was referred to as “supply side economics.”

Laffer predicted that as tax rates were lowered (presuming, of course, that the current rate was beyond the optimal rate for maximum revenue), producers and manufacturers would apply their tax savings to produce and manufacture more goods and services, increasing the overall supply of goods and services. As the available level of supplies went up, prices would go down, consumers would buy and demand more, and the general economy would expand such that the same (or ever lower) tax rate would produce more actual revenue dollars. The rising tide of revenue would lift all economic boats. Supply rested on one side of the relationship, demand on the other; demand was a function of supply.

Supply Demand

or

Demand Supply

The supply side is like a dog, and the demand side is like the dog’s tail. Manipulating the supply controls the demand. The dog wags the tail.

Ivan Pavlov, the 19th-century Russian professor of chemistry and physiology, had a real dog. Pavlov’s dog became famous not for wagging its tail, but for salivating. Pavlov conducted experiments with the dog that illustrated he could train (or condition) the dog to salivate at the sound of a bell when the bell was substituted for actual food. Inducing a response (saliva) by manipulating the stimulus (food, then bell) illustrates the physiological action known as a conditioned reflex, or in behavioral studies, a conditioned response.

The response can be controlled by manipulating the stimulus, therefore the response can be expressed as a function of the stimulus.

Stimulus Response

or

Response Stimulus

Now we have two sets of metaphors, each representing a function in which the manipulation of the left side of the relationship results in a (to some degree) predictable change on the right side of the relationship:

Combining the two, I’ve created a third metaphor to suit my purpose:

        supply-response

The “Response Side” in General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski offered a general theory of human behavior that focuses on matters of evaluation. Korzybski used the term evaluation in a much broader sense than we normally use it today. He considered evaluation to include the total response (physiological, neurological, psychological, linguistic, etc.) of an individual to a given event in a specific environment, to include the individual’s awareness of the response. He considered the domain of his studies to include all fields related to how humans sense, experience, and perceive what goes on in their environments (including what he termed their neurolinguistic and neuro-semantic environments), and how they evaluate those goings-on in terms of their subsequent significance, ‘meanings,’ and consequences.

Coincidentally, Korzybski also used a dog (“FIDO”) to illustrate two important differences between humans and animals: 1) Humans have an almost limitless capacity to manipulate symbols, to make one symbol ‘stand for’ many things, or to have many symbols ‘stand for’ the same thing; and 2) Humans have a greater potential capability to temper their susceptibility to the conditioned response. In other word, we have the potential capability to respond conditionally to symbol stimulation.

Indeed, the late Ken Johnson recognized this as the core of general semantics when asked the question, “How would you describe general semantics in one word?” His answer: Conditionality. (8)

Clearly, general semantics already encompasses both sides of the Supply Side — Response Side relationship.

However, in my judgment, far too much well-intentioned attention has been placed on the supply side, or stimulus side, or sender side, of general semantics. We have extolled the benefits of general semantics as applied to “effective communication” (which translates primarily to writing and speaking) and “talking sense” with more clarity, precision, and less likelihood of being misunderstood. But our speaking, writing, and thinking-feeling depend first on our evaluations of our experiences. Just as Wendell Johnson said that we “can’t write writing” (9) (i.e., we must write about something), we do not speak or write unless prompted in some way as a reaction or response to some stimulus, need, prompt, or ‘thing.’ What we humans do, in the most general sense, is respond to our non-verbal and verbal evaluations.

Korzybski’s focus on evaluation (or the response side) has not received the emphasis that it deserves in differentiating general semantics from other disciplines like linguistics, philosophy, psychology, etc. I propose, therefore, that it’s time to acknowledge and emphasize the response side of general semantics, or Response Side Semantics — especially in light of two clear and present threats coming from the supply side.

Threat 1: Supply Side Saturation — Advertising

That we in 21st-century America approach a saturation point in terms of “semantic supply” is, I would argue, inarguable. Milton Dawes notes the millions of instances of “cultural conditioning” to which we’re exposed throughout our lives. (10) Gregg Hoffmann refers to the pervasive influence of the “mediated world” that surrounds us and unavoidably influences our thinking, attitudes and behaviors. He points out that most of us will be confronted by an onslaught of “mediated messages” within the first hour or two of waking up in the morning … the alarm clock radio, the newspaper, TV, talk radio in the car, billboards, ads plastered on every conceivable surface, the Internet, email, written reports, etc. (11)

Many of these mediated messages attempt to persuade us — some might say condition us — to think, feel, behave, and act according to the specific wishes of the suppliers of the messages. Do this, don’t do that, stay tuned, vote for me, rent this space, check our website, don’t touch that dial, act now, repent now, buy now.

In the excellent PBS Frontline documentary “The Persuaders,” Mark Crispin Miller of New York University notes the growing level of advertising “clutter” in our environment. The fundamental challenge of advertisers is to break through this ever-increasing clutter, yet each attempt to break through the clutter, adds more clutter. He warns that we’re on the verge of becoming acclimated to the pervasive effects of all this advertising clutter: “Once a culture becomes entirely advertising-friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all.” (12)

The late Robert P. Pula, former IGS Director, author, and teacher, defined culture as a “shared hallucination.” In this context, we might wonder who’s supplying the hallucinogens that define our current culture.

Does Miller’s warning overstate the threat that advertising may overwhelm our individual and collective abilities to appropriately evaluate and respond — or not respond?

Consider the declared objectives of the advertising gurus themselves:

Douglas Atkin, Merkley and Partners Advertising: “When I was a brand manager at Proctor & Gamble, my job was basically to make sure the product was good, develop new advertising copy, design the pack. Now a brand manager has an entirely different kind of responsibility. In fact, they have more responsibility. Their job now is to create and maintain a whole meaning system for people, through which they get identity and understanding of the world. Their job now is to be a community leader.” Atkin observed the cult-like devotion of some consumers to their brands, such as Saturn automobile owners, Nike shoe wearers, and Apple Macintosh computer users. His quest then became to “find out why people join cults and apply that knowledge to brands.” (12)

Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi, Inc.: “You feel the world through your senses, the five senses, and that’s what’s next. The brands that can move to that emotional level, that can create loyalty beyond reason, are going to be the brands where premium profits lie.” (12)

Clotaire Rapaille, French “Marketing Guru” who claims 50 of the Fortune 100 companies as clients and was trained as a psychiatrist who treated autistic children. He discusses his approach to marketing research and how he applies the results to advertising: “We start with the cortex because people want to show how intelligent they are. So give them a chance. We don’t care what they say … It’s absolutely crucial to understand what I call ‘the reptilian hot button.’ My theory is very simple. The reptilian [brain] always win. I don’t care what you’re going to tell me intellectually, give me the reptilian.” (12)

These three industry leaders, who influence the supply of millions of dollars of targeted advertising messages every year, have proudly and unapologetically announced their intentions to:

  • Create a “meaning system” for consumers by learning what cults do, then applying similar techniques to develop cult-like responses to their clients’ products and brands.
  • Generate “loyalty beyond reason” among their clients’ consumers.
  • Appeal directly to the ‘emotional’ or reptilian brain “hot buttons” of their client’s consumers, bypassing altogether their intellectual reasoning capabilities.

So … what’s in your hot button?

Now, I am not so naïve as to presume that these objectives are something new in the world of advertising. However, to hear this in such blatant, matter-of-fact terms in the presence of such overwhelming evidence that advertisers are already well on their way to successfully achieving these objectives, causes me concern.

And it apparently concerns Douglas Rushkoff, the co-writer and correspondent of “The Persuaders.” He asks the $64,000 question to Rapaille, echoing the sentiments I posed to Diane Rehm’s panel:

“What about the environment? If the lizard [reptilian brain] wants the Hummer, and the lizard’s not going to listen to the environmentalist then isn’t it our job, as aware people, to get the reptile to shut up and appeal to the cortex, to appeal to the mammal?” (12)

Right on, Brother Rushkoff!

But … whose job is it, anyway? Who volunteers to appeal to the mammalian cortex, to go toe-to-toe (or synapse-to-synapse) against the billions of dollars spent worldwide to supply our reptilian brains with delicious morsels of loyalty, devoid of any nutritional reason?

Is there any market for an antidote to advertising?

Threat #2: Supply Side Pollution — Politics

In the political arena of persuasion, Rushkoff’s documentary features the work of Frank Luntz, the consultant who constructed much of the language that has been so effectively used (progressives might say “abused”) by conservative politicians since the early 1990s.

Nicholas Lemann profiled Luntz in 2000 for The New Yorker in an article titled, “The Word Lab.” (13) Luntz worked with House Republicans in 1994 and is generally credited as the verbal craftsman for the “Contract with America” that swept the Republicans to victory in the 1994 mid-term elections.

Lemann describes the process Luntz uses to supply the words and phrases that work to get the desired response from voters. He notes that the purpose of Luntz’s “word lab” is not necessarily to find the most informative, accurate, or clarifying terms, but to research which terms most often result in the aims of the client — usually, election, or approval. Therefore, the point of Luntz’s work, according to Lemann, is “to find out what voters already think and then design rhetoric to persuade them that politicians agree with it.” (13)

Lemann credits Luntz with advising “his clients to say Department of Defense instead of Pentagon, opportunity scholarships instead of vouchers, tax relief instead of tax cuts, and climate change instead of global warming.” (13)

In “The Persuaders,” Luntz allows Rushkoff’s crew to film one of his research focus groups for a Florida utility company that wants to “build public support for a change in how it’s regulated on the environment.” (12)

Luntz describes his challenge:

I know that the public is very down on corporate America in general and they’re down on power companies. So what is the language, what is the information, what are the facts, what are the figures that would get Americans to say, “You know what? My electricity company, it’s OK.” (12)

However, based on what we observe in the documentary, the focus group isn’t presented with “information, facts, or figures” intended to educate. Instead, they’re subjected to language prepared by the utility company that promotes its scripted objectives. Through one-way glass, Luntz watches the subjects react and measures their responses on an electronic recorder. He looks for the language that most noticeably evokes the desired response from the subjects.

He (Luntz, not Pavlov) knows it when he sees his subjects (not his dog) react to it (sans saliva). “If the language works, the language works.” (12)

What’s his secret? What is Luntz paying attention to that others are missing? He states:

80 percent of our life is emotion and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside, so that’s what I need to understand. (12)

One of Luntz’s most notable successes was to gain popular support to repeal what has been known historically as the estate tax.

Here’s a brief description from the IRS website, which still refers to “the Estate Tax”:

Presently … only total taxable estates and lifetime gifts that exceed $1,000,000 will actually have to pay tax. In its current form, the estate tax only affects the wealthiest 2% of all Americans. (14)

Now, if you’re outraged that this tax is on the books, let me hear you yell “This is an outrage! Pishahhh!”

I didn’t think so.

But Luntz came up with a simple approach to rally the masses against a tax that only applies to the wealthiest 2% of Americans. According to Lemann, Luntz first asked a focus group “what they most want to eliminate: an estate tax, an inheritance tax, or a death tax.” The death tax came out first because the perception was that the government should not tax your family after you die. Then he asked them to guess how much money could be passed down before the “death tax” kicked in. Except for the accountants who knew the answer, everyone else in the focus group guessed way too low. Even with the subsequent information that you had to leave an estate valued at a minimum of $675,000 (the figure in 2000, subsequently raised to $1,000,000) before your heirs were subject to “death tax” consequences, the majority of the focus group still supported its repeal. And today, according to Luntz, 75% of Americans support permanent repeal of the “death tax.” (12)

Yes, world … we are indeed that stupid.

In “The Persuaders,” Luntz defends his semantic gymnastics on behalf of the death tax:

Look, for years, political people and lawyers — who, by the way are the worst communicators — used the phrase estate tax. And for years, they couldn’t eliminate it. The public wouldn’t support it because the word estate sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it’s not an estate tax, it’s a death tax because you’re taxed at death. And suddenly, something that isn’t viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It’s the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is, but they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die. I’d argue that is a clarification, it’s not an obfuscation. (12)

Challenged, Luntz continues:

I don’t argue with you that words can sometimes be used to confuse, but it’s up to the practitioners of the study of language to apply them for good and not for evil. It is just like fire. Fire can heat your house or burn it down. (12)

Is it just me, or is it getting uncomfortably warm in here? Is that smoke I smell?

Just like his advertising and marketing counterparts, Luntz makes no secret that he’s not out to inform or educate or appeal in any way to rationally-thinking mammalian brains. Like Rapaille, Luntz is after the lizard. And like Rapaille, he’s found it.

The success of Frank Luntz and his Republican benefactors has not gone unnoticed. As Matt Bai describes in The New York Times Magazine, some Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, think they’ve found their own progressive version of a semantic alchemist in George Lakoff. (15) Lakoff, linguistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, supplied the metaphor of frames and pitched it into the cauldron of political constructions.

Bai credits the Democrats embrace of framing as the key equalizer in their “victory” (some might say “standoff compromise”) earlier this year in defending the Senate filibuster. He describes the approach taken by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin:

Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story — a frame — for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds — that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights — was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were “changing rules in the middle of the game” and dismantling the “checks and balances” that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.

Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party “arrogant.” They said they feared “abuse of power.” This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style “war room” on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party’s top ad makers. She used Garin’s research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: “Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.” They concluded, “Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.” (15)

Displaying unusual solidarity, the Democrats kept driving home the “abuse of power” frame and eventually succeeded in forcing a compromise with seven Republicans that ‘saved’ the filibuster as a procedural option available (as of this writing) to the minority party Senators.

So, what’s in a frame ? According to Bai:

Exactly what it means to frame issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative. (15)

From the promotional blurb for Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate:

Author George Lakoff explains how conservatives think, and how to counter their arguments. He outlines in detail the traditional American values that progressives hold, but are often unable to articulate. Lakoff also breaks down the ways in which conservatives have framed the issues, and provides examples of how progressives can reframe them. (16)

So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Great American ‘Debate,’ 2005-style:

In this corner we have the Republican proxy Frank Luntz, armed with the jabs and punches practiced in his word lab.

And in this corner here’s George Lakoff, the Democratic “Great Linguistic Hope,” who’s learned his clinching and counter-punching technique in the basement of his framing franchise.

And all over the arena we have wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling advertising specifically designed (or devised?) by Rapaille, Roberts, and Atkin that gives our lizard brains a meaning system for loyally buying everything that the most effective lizard-pleasing persuaders can offer.

Let’s get rrrready to … what, exactly?

A Response to the Threats — Response Side Semantics

We live in two worlds, the verbal world and the non-verbal world. Wendell Johnson wrote, “The worlds we manage to get inside our heads are mostly worlds of words.” (17) Our daily challenge is to appropriately integrate these two different worlds in our evaluations, responses, attitudes, behaviors, actions, decisions, etc.

As the “supply” of words, images, and symbols exponentially grows, our individual and collective abilities to adequately evaluate and respond (or not respond) to the narrowly-interested symbolic stimulants targeted against us must also rise commensurately, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Otherwise, we risk lapsing into a state I call verballucination, defined as “a delusional state of uncritical unawareness in which individuals and groups can no longer discriminate words and symbols in any coherent way.” We are not ‘brainwashed’ so much as we are ‘mind-muddied.’ When we’re in this state we are especially vulnerable to appeals for “loyalty beyond reason,” to blindly accept the symbols offered by our rulers, to buy into the “meaning systems” sold by the suppliers.

I introduce this notion of response side semantics as simply a label that might help us more readily acknowledge the threats to our individual and collective sanities. We cannot simply acquiesce allegiance and responsibility for our actions, decisions, votes, and purchases to the lizard-loving manipulators on the supply side. Action must follow awareness.

And action, in this case, cannot be laying claim to another corner ring and creating another paradigm for semantic pugilism. We need to educate individuals and groups that we have the mammalian means to detect the crap, to resist the cult-like advertising indoctrination, to subvert our loyalties to our reasoning. We’ve known how to do it since 1933 when Korzybski’s Science and Sanity came out.

It’s time for us to clean up, not clutter up, our neuro-semantic and neurolinguistic arenas.

Otherwise, we might as well go ahead and get the signs made up to post at every port of entry:

Sign Welcome to the Verballucination

 NOTES

  1. Audio file for the July 1, 2005, The Diane Rehm Show, produced by WAMU, American University Radio, available for download from: http://www.wamu.org/programs/dr/.
  2. Deborah Tannen is the author of: You Just Don’t Understand, That’s Not What I Meant, Talking Voices, I Only Say This Because I Love You, and Talking From 9 to 5.
  3. 3.    William D. Lutz is the author of Doublespeak and Doublespeak Defined.
  4. I contend that blame for proactive falls to the insane popularity of Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #1: Be Proactive. (If you should attempt to develop that habit, are you not reacting in order to be proactive?)
  5. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Delacorte Press, New York, 1969, pages 2-3.
  6. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 5th Edition, 1994, p.76. Available from IGS.
  7. See http://www.heritage.org/Research/Taxes/bg1765.cfm by Arthur B. Laffer, copyright 1995-2005, The Heritage Foundation. Ironically, Laffer credits Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Muslim philosopher, as the first to articulate the theory of supply side economics. Present at the first sketch of the “Laffer Curve,” literally on the back of a dinner napkin, were Laffer, Jude Wanniski, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, in December 1974.
  8. Kenneth G. Johnson’s comment as heard by the author, July 1994, IGS Seminar-Workshop at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
  9. Wendell Johnson, “You Can’t Write Writing,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 1, Number 1, August 1943, pp.25-32. Society for General Semantics, Chicago, Illinois.
  10. Milton Dawes, “The VASTness of General Semantics,” http://www.miltondawes.com/md_vast.html.
  11. Gregg Hoffmann, heard by the author during a lecture at Alverno College, July 2005.
  12. “The Persuaders,” produced for the PBS Series Frontline, directed by Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin, produced by Rachel Dretzin, Barak Goodman and Muriel Soenens, written by Barak Goodman and Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright WGBH Educational Foundation. Originally aired November 9, 2004. Video distributed by PBS VIDEO. Script available online.
  13. Nicholas Lemann, “The Word Lab,” The New Yorker, 16 October 2000, pp.100-117.
  14. Internal Revenue Service website, “Estate Tax Questions,” http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=108143,00.html
  15. Matt Bai, “The Framing Wars,” The New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005.
  16. From the website of The Rockridge Institute, http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/bookstore/elephant
  17. Wendell Johnson, Your Most Enchanted Listener, Harper & Brothers: New York, 1956.

Time-binding Timeline Exercise

GraphTime-binding refers to the unique human capability to improve and progress over time through the use of symbols, language, etc. Because of books, diagrams, blueprints, plans, music, art, etc., each generation can build on the accumulated knowledge developed/discovered by previous generations.

The premise of this 3-step exercise is that the rate of human progress really began to take off in the 17th century with the widespread application of science, or a scientific approach.

1. Create lists

Make a list of xx notable People, Periods, Events and Discoveries (inventions, achievements, etc.) you can think of.

People
Alexander
Aristotle
Attila the Hun
Buddha
Caesar
Charlemagne
Columbus
Confucius
Copernicus
Curie
Darwin
Descarte
Einstein
Fermi
Galileo
Gutenberg
Harvey
Hitler
Jenner
Jesus
Joule
Kepler
King Arthur
Kubla Khan
Leif Ericson
Leonardo da Vinci
Marco Polo
Martin Luther
Marx
Muhammed
Newton
Plato
Ptolemy
Shakespeare
Socrates
St. Thomas Aquinas
Pilgrims
Thoreau
Salk
Periods
African Slave Trade
Communism
Crusades
Divine Right of Kings
Feudal system
Gladiators
Holocaust
Holy Roman Empire
Reformation
Roman Empire Fall
Spanish Inquisition
Witch trials
Inca Empire
Events
100 Years War
Decl of Independence
Appian Way
French Revolution
gunpowder in Europe
Hippocratic oath
Korea
Magna Carta
Punic Wars
WW I
WW II
Great Wall of China
Battle of Hastings
Irish Repub Army
Viet Nam
30 Years War
“Manifest Destiny”
end of dinosaurs
Bill of Rights
Berlin Wall
United Nations
Kennedy/Nixon election
Space flight/moon walk
Hiroshima, Nagasaki
MLK “I Have A Dream”
“Walden”
Discoveries
aqueducts
blood circulation
printing press
radioactivity
Geocentric earth orbit
Heliocentric earth orbit
smallpox vaccine
“New World”
nuclear reaction
heat as element
heat as energy
tools
language
agriculture
telescope
electricity
television
cellular phone
telephone
macadam roads
microchip
rayon
polio vaccine
Internet
aluminum
pre-fab construction
air conditioning
quantum mechanics
hydraulic brakes
personal computer
relativity
information systems
movies
steam engine

2. Create a graphical timeline

Plot each person or event you’ve listed on a timeline of history, from 500 B.C. to the present. What inferences, insights, observations can you make?
Timeline Data

3. Plot the historical rate of change

Draw or sketch a simple graph that reflects, in 100-year increments, approximately how similar/different life was at each hundred-year point compared to the prior period. So, for example, if you cannot identify much difference in the way humans lived between 500BC and 500AD, that period would be reflected by a relatively flat line. The period from 1900 to 2000, however, would justify a steeper curve to reflect a greater rate of change. A question for discussion could be whether or not specific changes, with some historical reflection, can be considered as “progress” or “advancement.”

Another, perhaps less subjective, method to illustrate would be to sum the number of discoveries or inventions during historical intervals and then plot those counts over time. The graph below shows the results of such an exercise with a college class of about 35 students. The horizontal axis depicts the time scale while the vertical axis shows the number of historically significant events during each period as determined by the aggregating all student inputs.

Timeline

Three Buckets Exercise

The principles of “ThisIsNotThat” denote more than just theories or explanations about language — they also require practice, actual doing or behaving to get a non-verbal ‘feel’ for your evaluations.

These exercises may enable you to become self-aware of your attitudes and behaviors, and possibly lead to changes in the way you evaluate and react to your environment.

If you have access to three buckets or large bowls, water and five minutes, you can gain some insights to the relative nature of your conditioning by doing this exercise.

Put cold water in one bucket, or bowl, placed to your left, comfortably hot water (not scalding – no lawsuits, please!) in a bowl to your right, and lukewarm (“just right”) water in a middle bowl. Place your left hand in the cold water and your right hand in the comfortably hot water. Keep them (your hands) submerged in the water for about a minute. Then pick them up (still talking about your hands now) and place them both in the middle bowl.

What do your senses tell you about the water temperature in the middle bowl?

You’re probably sharp enough to speculate what happens. (But come on, go ahead and do it for yourself anyway.) Your left hand, conditioned by the cold water, tells you that the middle water is “warmer”; while your right hand, conditioned by the comfortably hot water tells you the middle water is “cooler”. You have only one stimulus – the middle bowl of water – but you have two different sensory responses. Which one is “right”?

Just like the left and right hands in the experiment, we are each ‘conditioned’ by our past. Each of us has lived through our own unique, no-two-the-same life experiences. To every new situation or experience, we bring our own unique perspectives and attitudes resulting from our past experiences. We therefore can’t help but experience each situation uniquely from anyone else. If we fail to recognize this – if we expect others to see or feel or smell or otherwise experience something exactly the same as we do – then we forget the lesson of the three water buckets:

  • This (warmer water to the left hand) is not that (cooler water to the right hand); or
  • This (high school experience of a student from Harwood Junior High) is not that (high school experience of a student from Euless Junior High);
  • This (what I find “pretty”) is not that (what you find “ugly”).
  • This (what I find “funny”) is not that (what you find “revolting”).
  • This (what I find “offensive”) is not that (what you find “satirical”).
  • Etc.