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.
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?
- 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.
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.
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:
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:
- 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/.
- 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. William D. Lutz is the author of Doublespeak and Doublespeak Defined.
- 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?)
- Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Delacorte Press, New York, 1969, pages 2-3.
- Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 5th Edition, 1994, p.76. Available from IGS.
- 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.
- Kenneth G. Johnson’s comment as heard by the author, July 1994, IGS Seminar-Workshop at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
- 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.
- Milton Dawes, “The VASTness of General Semantics,” http://www.miltondawes.com/md_vast.html.
- Gregg Hoffmann, heard by the author during a lecture at Alverno College, July 2005.
- “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.
- Nicholas Lemann, “The Word Lab,” The New Yorker, 16 October 2000, pp.100-117.
- Internal Revenue Service website, “Estate Tax Questions,” http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=108143,00.html
- Matt Bai, “The Framing Wars,” The New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005.
- From the website of The Rockridge Institute, http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/bookstore/elephant
- Wendell Johnson, Your Most Enchanted Listener, Harper & Brothers: New York, 1956.
Time-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.
Attila the Hun
Leonardo da Vinci
St. Thomas Aquinas
African Slave Trade
Divine Right of Kings
Holy Roman Empire
Roman Empire Fall
100 Years War
Decl of Independence
gunpowder in Europe
Great Wall of China
Battle of Hastings
Irish Repub Army
30 Years War
end of dinosaurs
Bill of Rights
Space flight/moon walk
MLK “I Have A Dream”
Geocentric earth orbit
Heliocentric earth orbit
heat as element
heat as energy
2. Create a graphical timeline
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.
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”).
This uncrticial inference test is based on the work of William V. Haney.
Carefully read the brief story which follows. Assume that all of the information presented in the story is definitely accurate and true. Next, read the statements following the story. If the statement is definitely true based on the information presented in the story, check the TRUE column. If the statement is definitely false based on the information presented, mark it FALSE. If the true or false answer cannot be determined based on the information presented, check NOT SURE. You may refer back to the story whenever you wish. But you must answer the questions in order, and once answered, you can’t go back and make changes.
Stephanie and her friend walked into the music store after lunch. Stephanie wanted to buy the new CD by the group, “No Girls Allowed”. There was only one other person in the store when Stephanie and her friend arrived. Stephanie asked, “How much is this CD?” Stephanie’s friend said, “Here, let me see it. I don’t think he heard you. This tag says it costs $11.99.”
|1. Stephanie wanted to buy a CD.|
|2. Stephanie and her friend ate lunch together.|
|3. Stephanie owns a CD player.|
|4. There was only one boy in the store.|
|5. Two girls walked into a music store.|
|6. There are no boys in the “No Girls Allowed” group.|
|7. Stephanie and her friend are teenagers.|
|8. The store’s owner didn’t hear Stephanie because the music was too loud.|
|9. Stephanie had enough money to buy the CD.|
|10. The “No Girls Allowed” CD cost $11.99.|
|11. The owner of the store is a woman.|
|12. Stephanie wanted to buy a CD as a gift.|
|13. One of the CDs costs $11.99.|
|14. There were two boys in the store.|
|15. The clerk was hard of hearing.|
Pretty easy? Did you notice how you projected information into this simple story which wasn’t stated as ‘fact’? In every encounter or situation we face, we bring our past experiences to it in the form of unstated, usually unconscious assumptions and premises. We draw inferences based on these assumptions about the situation as if they were fact. Many times we cause problems for ourselves and others when we confuse our inferences with the ‘facts’, and when we don’t recognize our projections as projections.
Nothing illustrates the power of symbols and language quite like a presidential election. Of course, those of us who know a little bit of general semantics recognize that this ‘power’ lies not in the words and symbols themselves, but in the motivations, intentions, reactions, and evaluations of the individual human beings who speak, write, see, hear, and read the words and symbols.
Alfred Korzybski emphasized that we must vigilantly maintain an ongoing awareness that symbols (or “maps”) are not the things symbolized (or “territories”). He underscored the potential consequences of confusing symbols with their referents when he cautioned that, “Those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (1)
Who rules your symbols?
With this issue we introduce a new regular feature, “Calling Out the Symbol Rulers.” Each quarter we will highlight examples of how rulers rule by symbols, and how we let ourselves be ruled by symbols. This feature will succeed to the degree that you and other readers participate in the process by corresponding with us — we seek your responses, reactions, analyses, opinions, and examples you find pertinent to this topic.
Whom might we classify as potential symbol rulers? By our definition, just about anybody who participates in a communicative transaction could be considered a symbol ruler. We might start by carefully observing people of influence such as politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, bosses, parents, supervisors, coaches, advertisers, priests, preachers, rabbis, mullahs, commentators, columnists, reporters, etc. How do they generate, manipulate, frame, and convey their messages? What techniques do they employ to influence our judgments and decisions?
You might apply some of the principles of general semantics in your analyses:
- Do they confuse facts with inferences, judgments, or beliefs? (And by what standard are facts differentiated from non-facts?)
- Do they over-simplify complex issues into easy-to-understand but misleading either-or, black-or-white, right-or-wrong polarized choices?
- Do they attempt to attribute only one cause to an event or one consequence of an action, rather than recognizing multiple causes and multiple consequences — some of which we may never know?
- Do they generalize from one experience or one person’s anecdotal evidence as if that were the only possible or the ‘right’ universal experience?
- Do they take responsibility for their own statements and judgments, recognizing what Wendell Johnson referred to as “to-me-ness,” or do they attempt to speak for a group or with the authority of a group?
- To what degree are they saying something beyond the simple application of a label? (“All you need to know about him is that he’s a liberal!”)
- Do they objectify high order abstractions such as truth, justice, moral values, security and speak about ‘them’ as if ‘they’ were ‘things,’ rather than inherently inexact, personalized, and even arbitrary notions?
- Do they concentrate on similarities at the expense of ignoring differences, and vice-versa? Do they exhibit attitudes of allness (or none-ness)?
- Do they fail to apply Korzybski’s extensional devices — specifically, indexing (Muslim Leader1 is not Muslim Leader2), dating (Senator Phlops views on de-regulation1980 may not represent the Senator’s views2005), and et cetera, (the et cetera, or etc., means that more can always be said; we can never know all there is to know about anything).
Remember … these same principles that you apply critically to others, you can apply to yourself. And we want to emphasize that in general semantics we are not so concerned with the words as we are with the underlying human thinking-feeling and evaluating processes, judgments, perspectives, etc., that are conveyed by the words.
- Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.76.
Proposal for the NCTE Annual Convention, November 18-21, 2004, Indianapolis Convention Center
Title: De-Mythifying ‘Meaning’
Four educators apply principles of general semantics to debunk common myths regarding ‘meaning.’ Such ‘meaning myths’ inevitably lead to communication breakdowns, media manipulation, unrealistic expectations and slow self-development. Participants will takeaway practical methods to guide students toward more mature, responsible and self-aware attitudes about their own ‘meanings.’
The American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce is credited with the observation that, “You don’t get meaning, you respond with meaning.” Nobel physicist P.W. Bridgman expressed the notion in more operational terms when he stated, “The true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.”
Nevertheless, in our popular culture, in our mass media, in our personal communications, and even in our classrooms, we continue to perpetuate unproductive and potentially harmful myths about ‘meaning’ such as:
- the “single meaning myth” – that there is a single meaning, the meaning, rather than possible multiple meanings depending on context, circumstances, and the backgrounds of those involved.
- the “impersonal myth” – that ‘meanings’ occur or exist apart from the individuals who generate ‘meanings,’ that “things mean” or “words mean” rather than “people mean.”
- the “meaning = definition myth” – that a dictionary definition dictates how a term must be used and what it ought to ‘mean’ in the future, rather than noting how that term has been used in the past and how its current usage may be changing.
- the “meaning is spoken myth” – that the significant ‘meanings’ we experience in life can be verbalized, that we can actually describe “how it feels.”
General Semantics, a system for evaluating our language and behaviors, provides practical methods to aid teachers and students debunk, or ‘de-mythify,’ these and other commonly held but unproductive and potentially harmful notions about ‘meaning.’ This panel offers presentations from four professionals representing the fields of journalism, theater arts, communications, and management. Each presenter has applied the principles of general semantics in his/her own classroom environments.
Each presentation will offer practical demonstrations and exercises that can be immediately applied in the classroom to help students learn:
- They should expect to misunderstand others, and expect to be misunderstood by others; this “communicator beware” attitude will help avoid problems of presumed understanding due to an over-reliance on what the words ‘mean.’
- What words, or events, or other symbols ‘mean’ is a function of how each individual interacts with and responds to the word or event; each ‘meaning’ carries with it an aspect of “to-me-ness” determined by the individual.
- How to become an informed consumer of mass media, to discern the ‘facts’ of a news report vs. the reporter’s own interpretation of what the story ‘means.’
- How to avoid leaping to conclusions, or rushing to judgment, as to what another person ‘means’ by his/her statements, actions, attitudes, etc.
- That we ought to temper the meanings that we generate or the judgments we make with some degree of tentativeness and uncertainty. We cannot know ‘all’ about another’s motivation or intent, just as reporters cannot convey ‘all’ the details of a story in a limited amount of space.
By learning these and other critical distinctions, students can develop their individual abilities to respond with ‘meaning’ in their daily lives, and respect the ‘meaningful’ responses of others.
Speaking notes (not a transcript) and videos from the first annual Berman Lecture at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, endowed by a gift from Dr. Sanford I. Berman.
Calling Out the Symbol Rulers
Some Benefits of General Semantics (4:22)
Application of Knowledge (3:19)
Calling Out the Symbol Rulers (42:53)
1. About General Semantics
About general semantics, from our Capital Campaign Brochure, statement from Charles Russell, retired management consultant, professor and academic adviser at the University of Toledo:
I have enjoyed introducing General Semantics to hundreds of students who frequently asked, “Why have I just now learned the most significant things in my life?”
So how is it that general semantics can be labeled as significant and even most significant?
I think it relates to something from the Spanish philosopher and educator Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1930 collection of essays titled, The Mission of the University, stated that one of the purposes of the University was to teach people to live “at the height of the times.”
General Semantics increases our understanding and awareness of the role that our language and other symbolizing behaviors play in the “heights” that we can achieve.
There are many ways to define General Semantics and to describe what it’s about. I’ll say that we can describe GS as dealing with how effectively we manage our symbolizing processes. In other words, how well we:
- Perceive what is going on, our experiences are incomplete.
- Integrate our perceptions of what goes on with our past experiences.
- Create and generate ‘meanings’ that result in our actions, language, attitudes, etc.
Leonard da Vinci: All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.
Charles Sanders Peirce: We don’t get meaning, we respond with meaning.
When we are conscious of this process, when we’re practicing the methodologies that general semantics advocates, we have a greater chance of living “at the height of the times” in that:
- We’re less prone to hold unrealistics expectations,
- Less prone to jump to conclusions,
- Less prone to perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes,
- Less prone to mistake our own opinions and beliefs as ‘facts’ or ‘truths’,
- Less prone to respond automatically to symbols and labels.
On the positive side, when we’re most effectively aware and living near the “height of the times” we tend to:
- think-feel-and-act in the here-and-now, in the moment-to-moments of daily living rather than re-living the past or dreading the future [anybody “here” but not really … “here”? okay to daydream, let your mind wander];
- think, speak, write, read and listen more deliberately, more discriminatingly, and more productively;
- more effectively analyze and solve problems, resolve conflicts and maintain relationships;
- feel free to ‘be ourselves,’ to promote individuality and appreciate diversity;
- more accurately and more productively integrate and build upon all of our knowledge and share that knowledge with others (“time-binding”).
General Semantics isn’t just about “knowing” things, but it’s about how we apply what we know. GS is always asking, “So What?” How does it matter? What difference does that knowledge make? Is it a difference that makes a difference?
There are three quotes that underscore different aspects of ‘knowledge’ or ‘knowing’:
Old Persian proverb: “He who learns and learns and yet does not what he knows, is one who plows and plows yet never sows.” — do we apply what we ‘know’?
American Psychiatrist William Alanson White: “The trouble with people isn’t so much with their ignorance as it is with their knowing so many things that are not so.” — how much of what we think we know, isn’t really so?
Mark Twain: “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stovelid. She will never again sit on a hot stovelid, and that is well. But she will also never again sit on a cold one.” — do we recognize the limits of what we ‘know’ from our own experiences?
General Semantics advocates what we can call a ‘scientific orientation’, it’s based on scientific thinking rather than we can call “pre-scientific thinking.” Not just a collection of principles or concepts but an integrated system or methodology for how one views the world.
Continuum of how to view the world, spectrum of orientations …
Example: Astronomy vs. Astrology, two sides of the river valley … Mercury in Retrograde …. Galileo … persistence of astrology
For those of us who study and practice general semantics, it’s very important to understand this symbolization process, of how we perceive what we experience, how we integrate our experiences, and how we generate ‘meaning’ from our perceptions and experiences.
It’s so important that Alfred Korzybski stated in Science and Sanity that: “Those who rule the symbols, rule us.”
So … who’s ruling your symbols? Let’s talk about that.
2. Calling Out the Symbol Rulers
We typically think of a “symbol” as simply something that stands for something else. But in a more general sense we can talk about our thinking and our communicating as the symbolic manifestation of our what’s going on in our brains. I want to talk not just about “symbols” but how we as individuals use symbols, how we respond to symbols, how we get meaning from symbols, and how it might be possible that we end up getting “ruled” by symbols.
- Bombarded from infancy with symbols – words, numbers, figures, colors, etc. from:
- Parents, siblings, friends
- Preachers, priests, rabbis, Imams, clerics CONDITIONED
- Doctors, lawyers, politicians
- Advertisers, reporters, broadcasters
- Musicians, artists, writers, poets, actors
Each affected differently, each form our own unique neural networks, each develops our own unqiue way of viewing the world based on our value system of symbols, meanings, etc. We each have our own unique orientation …. (degrees of disagreement à agreement)
- You’re either with us or against us.
- You can’t change human nature.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- Clothes make the man.
- Nice guys finish last.
- In the end, we all get what we deserve.
- You get what you expect.
- There’s nothing new under the sun.
- Time heals all wounds.
- Everybody has a right to his/her own opinion.
You bring this orientation into each new life experience and you perceive, integrate and evaluate your experiences as a function of this orientation. We determine what’s important, what we choose to pay attention to, what we allow things to mean.
- Stacy, social club bias, now President of Women’s Club Council and Class Favorite
- Dating: “I’ll be glad to get my Passat back. I just hate these loaner cars.”
- Other examples of “status symbols” … to some degree, every symbol serves as a status symbol or some type of significance — clothes, cars, neighborhoods, music
In GS we have a term: “Identification”: responding to symbols AS IF we were responding to the ‘thing’ the symbol stands for; in other words, when we fool ourselves or allow ourselves to be fooled by symbols … not just verbally fooled, but fooled on neurological, physiological levels:
- food biases, how many don’t like certain foods that you’ve never tried?
- Reacting to a food after you’ve been told what it was?
- Stacy, three years old reacting to the Golden Arches
- My “Sixth Sense” movie experience, experiencing chills upon seeing the thermostat
- My allergies, Paper Rose anecdote
- Mandalay Bay roulette, 11 Black in a row, 23 of 28 black spins
Other examples of symbols that ‘mean’ something, in which we easily presume something based on the symbol:
- Credentials: Liz Phair, “Rock Me”, you’re potential without credentials
- Job titles
- Concepts such as “freedom” “equality” “justice” “liberty”
- “marriage” (“sancitity of the institution” must be “protected”
Consequences of how symbols are used and abused:
Taylor Hess … “weapon” …. “threaten” …. “zero tolerance”
Jack Beers … six-tenths of a second
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad
Factcheck.org – who fact checks the fact checkers?
So the question is, who rules your symbols? Do you rule your own symbols, do you form your own judgments and opinions and beliefs about your experiences? Or are your symbols ruled by others, are your opinions shaped by others or determined by the past? Do you believe what you see … or do you see what you believe?
Anecdote about Hemingway in the early 60s, Postman/Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity: “In order to be a great writer, a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”
Was he talking about being able to detect the crap that was going on around him … or the crap that he himself was writing?
In a way you can think of general semantics as an all-purpose “crap detector”, remember that it’s always more effective when used by yourself on yourself in your own symbolizing efforts.
Close with quote from ART, Yasmina Reza:
If I’m who I am because I’m who I am and you’re who you are because you are who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. If, on the other hand, I’m who I am because you’re who you are, and if you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are.
I submit that it’s near to impossible to be yourself, for yourself, if you don’t rule your own symbols. So I’m calling you out here to become your own symbol ruler, and I wish you success in learning how to live at the height of these times, and all times in the future.
This issue of ETC marks another transition in the organizational evolution of a discipline. Published from 1943-1948 by the Society for General Semantics, then from 1949-2003 by the International Society for General Semantics, ETC now falls under the stewardship of the Institute of General Semantics.
Twenty-seven years ago, this journal experienced a different type of transition. The late Neil Postman, remembered in the previous issue of ETC, began his 10-year editorship of this journal with a clearly articulated point of view in the first of his ‘themed’ issues, “The Roots of Fanaticism.”
He diagnosed that, in 1977, there existed a “state of mind which banishes reason and generates frenzy, [that] has accompanied mankind throughout our history and gives no sign that it is wearying of the journey.” He observed that this “state of mind” had produced “the odor of a kind of intellectual decadence that some of us have smelled before.”
Postman predicted that “the study of symbolic processes will be a pre-eminent intellectual enterprise for the remainder of this century.”
To whatever degree ‘we’ have, since 1977, engaged in “the study of symbolic processes,” it doesn’t appear to me that we’ve succeeded in diluting what Postman sniffed as the “odor of a kind of intellectual decadence.” Indeed, I contend that this ‘odor’ lingers, wafts and seeps even more persistently and pervasively in 2004 than in 1977.
Consider the issues that, on a given day, dominate our national interest as evidenced by newspapers, media talk shows, and the Internet. Many of these current (March 2004) issues represent deeply-rooted conflicts that concern “symbolic processes” and the “intellectual decadence” of rulers and/or the ruled, who lack the means to differentiate symbols as symbols, rather than things, values, or truths.
- A piece of paper generated by a local government official that symbolizes a societal practice that, in English, we call marriage has become a touchstone issue for the 2004 elections, undoubtedly to affect every level of elected office.
- The issuance of the piece of paper that, in English, we call a marriage certificate has become the object of a movement to generate another piece of paper that, in English, we refer to as an amendment, that will change another piece of paper that we, in English, call the Constitution of the United States of America. The intent of this amendment is to define exactly what marriage is, and by extension, what it most definitely is not.
- The cultural buzz focuses on the recent release of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. This film presents his (Gibson’s) creative interpretation of the Apostles’ descriptions of their recollections of the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. Much of the buzz deals not with the film as a film, but with Gibson’s motivations, with what some perceive as his anti-Semitic point of view, and with the question of “Truth” in his creative depiction—is it indeed “as it was”? (Except for the special effects, of course—I assume no actors actually suffered or were subjected to inhumane treatment during the filming.)
- The French National Assembly has voted to ban clothing and jewelry that constitute “ostensibly” religious symbols from that nation’s public schools.
- The ramifications of the “wardrobe malfunction” that revealed part of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime continue. Some major media conglomerates have taken actions to curtail or terminate indecent and obscene programming, even prior to governmental direction or market demands.
It seems to me, then, that our susceptibility to all things symbol-related, and our vulnerability to those who manipulate the symbols (and labels, words, morals, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) has not ameliorated significantly in the quarter century since Postman’s editorial. We still, as individuals, groups, and cultures, exhibit behaviors that amount to “eating the menu,” so to speak. We still confuse flags with freedoms, bumper stickers with beliefs, and appearances with ‘realities.’
So what, then, about the relevance of general semantics? Does our discipline bring anything to the table of “intellectual enterprise” for this 21st century? You may correctly presume that I, as the new Executive Director of this ‘new’ organization, would answer in the affirmative.
Twenty-seven years ago, Neil Postman wrote about the consequences of the “symbolic stench” (my term) that pollutes what passes for contemporary cultural, political, and social discourse. Alfred Korzybski warned us over seventy years ago that “who rules the symbols rules us.” The current ‘issues’ that exist on verbal and symbolic levels will divide us politically in this election year, even as our living existence is threatened on quite visible non-verbal levels in New York, Baghdad, Madrid and other cities inevitably to be named later.
Our challenge as students, practitioners, publishers and advocates of an extensional, scientific orientation is to forthrightly address the threats to sane, time-binding behavior as we can, using the methods and tools at our disposal.
Otherwise, we will continue to be fed menus, and eventually not object to the taste.
On Mindfulness: A Report on the 46th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture by Ellen J. Langer, October 1999
(Published in the Winter 1999-2000 edition of ETC: A Review of General Semantics.)
If you’ve participated in any social discussions regarding general semantics — among folks who would admit to having actually read Korzybski — you’ve probably heard the inevitable sigh, ” (sigh) Somebody needs to re-write Science and Sanity in language that normal people can understand.”
Relax. Nobody has, to my knowledge. However, Ellen J. Langer has achieved something almost as significant. Ms. Langer, Harvard Professor of Psychology, author, and guest lecturer at this year’s Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, espouses an orientation based on a notion she refers to as “mindfulness”. Her findings, derived from thirty years of research and study with various colleagues, parallel much of what Korzybski proposed almost 70 years ago as the benefits of a general semantics orientation.
In her 1997 book, The Power of Mindful Learning, Ms. Langer summarizes the distinctions she makes between “mindful“ and “mindless“:
A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.
Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective.
Drawing primarily on research and anecdotes contained in The Power of Mindful Learning and her 1989 book, Mindfulness, Ms. Langer engaged the audience in a lively, sometimes passionate, discussion regarding her findings. Many of her stories came from research conducted with the elderly in nursing homes. A key conclusion derived from these studies concerns the benefits of allowing, if not encouraging, aging individuals to make decisions and choices for themselves. As her data showed, those individuals challenged to make even seemingly-trivial decisions for themselves exhibited much more mindful behavior, as reflected by testing and — perhaps not coincidentally — longer lives.
Although she herself had not read Korzybski or other general semantics authors, Ms. Langer did state to Marjorie Zelner, Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics which hosts the annual lecture, that several of her colleagues had read Korzybski. On the one hand, as a student of and advocate for general semantics, I would have wished Ms. Langer had some familiarity with Korzybski. On the other hand, however, I find a certain validation and confirmation that her research and conclusions should so closely overlay those proposed by Korzybski.
For example, in my reading and listening of Ms. Langer, I noted the following similarities with general semantics formulations:
- She emphasized the importance of a scientific approach, or method, to how we think and act. We need to mindfully revise our theories and beliefs to fit the facts instead of mindlessly looking to find data to validate beliefs.
- She began her interaction with the audience aided by overhead transparencies to illustrate how projection influences our perceptions. She showed several dual images familiar to students of general semantics, such as the “old woman or young woman or old man”.
- She emphasized the importance of creating new categories, new labels, new ways of categorizing, reminiscent of Korzybski’s admonition to avoid “hardening of the categories”.
- She noted how much of our behaviors and attitudes come from traditions, with no more “mindful” consideration than “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” She related an anecdote I first heard from a participant at the 1994 IGS seminar-workshop, who perhaps had read Langer’s book. A young woman used a third-generation recipe for cooking a pot roast, which including slicing off both ends of the roast. When someone asked the woman why she sliced off the ends, she replied, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.” Her mother was then asked the same question, to which she responded, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.” The young woman’s grandmother was tracked down and asked why her family recipe for pot roast included slicing off both ends. The grandmother replied, “Because my pan was too short to hold the roast. So I cut off both ends to make it fit.”
- She spoke about the importance of context, the individuality of experience, and the ever-changing process nature of the universe.
She made the somewhat provocative claim that people should strive for mindfulness at all times. While admitting the unlikely achievement of this, she qualified her position somewhat by allowing that in every situation we encounter, we should either manifest mindfulness, or maintain the potential for mindful behavior.
Of the five AKMLs I’ve had the pleasure to attend, I found Ms. Langer by far the most engaging, informative and personable speaker. (I would still reserve the “most entertaining” label for Robert Anton Wilson in 1997.) I definitely recommend any one of her numerous books, especially those two referenced above, to anyone interested in the application, and benefits, of general semantics.
That said, however, I temper my otherwise enthusiastic review of Ms. Langer’s work with two critical observations. First, although she made an excellent presentation of her research, findings and implications regarding the benefits of mindfulness, I didn’t get a sense that she offers any explicit prescriptions for what one needs to do to achieve a mindful orientation. I failed to find a parallel, for example, to Korzybski’s extensional devices. Secondly, she seemed to dismiss the work of neuroscientists as of a different domain, with questionable relevance to that of psychology – she sounded content to let them (neuroscientists) do their thing, while she does hers. This struck me as a bit elementalistic, from my general semantics background.
Prior to Ms. Langer’s lecture, Jeffrey Mordkowitz, IGS Trustee and Master of Ceremonies for the evening, presented the 1999 J. Talbot Winchell Award to Robert Wanderer. The J. Talbot Winchell Award annually recognizes individuals who have significantly advanced the cause of general semantics. Mr. Wanderer serves as a Director of the International Society for General Semantics, Membership Secretary of the San Francisco Chapter for the San Francisco Chapter, and edited The Map for thirty-eight years. He has also compiled “A Compendium of Definitions” of general semantics, located on the ISGS website at: link no longer available.
Following the AKML on Saturday, October 23, the IGS and the Straus Thinking and Learning Center at Pace University co-hosted a one-day colloquium to further develop notions related to “mindfulness”. The agenda included presentations by Rachel Lauer, Allen Flagg, Milton Dawes, a Sensory Awareness panel comprised of Charlotte Read, Louise Boedeker, Betty Keane, Mary Alice Roche, and chaired by Jeff Mordkowitz, and wrap-up discussion led by Roben Torosyan.