6: Review and Reflection

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This course was developed and presented on the Canvas Network by Steve Stockdale, Mary Lahman, and Greg Thompson. It is reproduced here under terms of the Creative Commons Share Alike License as published on Canvas Network from 13 January – 24 February 2014.


Module Map

Module 6

Artwork by Alice Webb Art

In this final week of the course, we will introduce only one new item related to General Semantics – an explanation of extensional orientation.

But we have five short articles we think provide a nice wrap-up to review and reinforce some of the broader aspects and applications of General Semantics.

  • First, a reflection on the role that GS played in the lives and works of the “Grand Master” science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, and Albert Ellis, father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).
  • Then we have an excerpt of one of the last articles written by Aldous Huxley, from the November 1963 issue of Playboy Magazine in which he extols the benefit of General Semantics.
  • Steve’s essay on stereotypes ties together the physics insights of Niels Bohr with what we currently know about brain science.
  • Mary’s conclusion of her Awareness and Action e-textbook offers some very good tips to students.
  • Wendell Johnson’s “After You’ve Studied General Semantics” concludes the readings with advice that’s just as relevant today as it was in 1945.

Following the readings, we have two pages of resources – Steve’s map of Korzybski’s General Semantics, and a list of course materials that can be downloaded or accessed online.

Finally, on Wednesday, 19 February, we will post individual videos to conclude the presentation of course materials.

Your role in this final week will be to participate in a special Discussion and submit one last 250-word essay.

No time for goodbyes yet – we have a week of work awaiting.

Extensional Orientation

The final GS formulation to cover in this course is one we’ve mentioned and referenced several times during the past five weeks. However, we haven’t really defined or explained it. Perhaps that’s because, without the previous readings and discussions and videos, a description of extensional orientation may not have made much sense.

But since an extensional orientation can be considered as the practical objective of General Semantics in action and practice, let’s briefly explain the differences between extensional and intensional.

Intensional and Extensional

The first thing to understand is that you will not find these terms in a dictionary. Alfred Korzybski used these two words, spelled with an ‘s‘ in the middle instead of a ‘t‘, to denote a continuum of attitude, behavior, or orientation.

Intensional orientations are based on verbal definitions, associations, etc., largely disregarding observations as if they would involve a “principle” of “talk first and never mind the life facts.”
 

Extensional orientations are based on ordering observations, investigations, etc., first and the verbalization next in importance. — Alfred Korzybski

 

Similar to the table we used to illustrate the differences regarding Consciousness (or Awareness) of Abstracting-Evaluating, we can consider intensional and extensional orientations as exhibiting the following characteristics in terms of degrees on a continuum.

 

ext-int-continuum.jpg

Relies primarily on verbal definitions. Gives primacy to observed or reported facts.
Uncritically accepts validity of labels, categories, classifications, properties. Prone to ‘animalistic’ evaluations (hardening of the categories and dogmatism); allness.
Focuses on individuals or specific items, challenges appropriateness of group labels. Recognizes differences among similarities, similarities among differences; non-allness.
Exhibits signal reactions: immediate, reflexive, conditioned, “hot button” responses. Exhibits symbol reactions: delayed, considered, attentive responses.
Lacks consciousness or awareness of abstracting; confuses or reverses the order of abstracting. (Identification) Conscious or aware of abstracting (non-identity). Uses the extensional devices of indexing and dating.
Prone to either/or, two-valued evaluations. Recognizes multi-valued potential for evaluations.
Prone to confuse inferences as facts. Recognizes inferences as inferences, sets a high standard for ‘facts.’
Prone to elementalistic evaluating, presuming that different words mean that their different referents exist in isolation, separation. Recognizes the non-elementalistic nature of items or events that may be separated verbally but cannot be separated in the non-verbal ‘reality’; uses extensional device of the hyphen.
Uses absolutistic, unconditional, and all-presuming language that presents false-to-fact assurance and certainty. Uses conditional language that reflects humble awareness of the tentative, uncertain, and limited nature of human knowledge; uses the extensional device of etc.

 

In Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General-Semantics, Susan and Bruce Kodish explain:

When we orient ourselves by verbal definitions, when we prefer preserving our maps (even maps without territories) to checking them out against ‘facts,’ when we fail to become aware of our assumptions and inferences and to test them out when possible, when we identify different levels of abstracting, we behave intensionally.

 

When we orient ourselves towards ‘facts,’ when we check our maps against possible territories, when we clarify and test our inferences and assumptions, when we don’t identify different orders of abstracting, we behave extensionally.

 

Intensional and extensional orientations also exist on a continuum. We know of no one who exhibits a purely extensional orientation. Unfortunately, abundant examples of people near the other end of the continuum exist. Some of them are confined to institutions. Some of them speak, write books, appear on radio and television and run institutions. Most of us appear somewhere in between. (p. 126)

Heinlein and Ellis: Converging Competencies

by Steve Stockdale

Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 64 No. 4, October 2007

Heinlein Society WebsiteOn July 7, 2007, the Heinlein Centennial was held in Kansas City to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of acclaimed “Grand Master” science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is generally acknowledged as one of the four great American science fiction writers, along with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. Among his most notable books are Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough for Love.

Albert Ellis Institute WebsiteOn July 24, 2007, Dr. Albert Ellis died at age 93 in New York City. His front-page obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “one of the most influential and provocative figures in modern psychology.” He originated the field of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and authored more than 70 books, including Overcoming Procrastination, How to Live With a Neurotic, A Guide to Rational Living, and How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything — Yes, Anything.

These two accomplished and celebrated men would seem to have little in common — one a Midwesterner, Naval Academy graduate, futurist, with an almost cult-like following of fans; the other a New Yorker who was referred to as “the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy,” known for his blue language and results-oriented approach to talk therapy.

And yet Robert Heinlein and Albert Ellis shared a common perspective, or point of view, that developed from the same source — Alfred Korzybski and general semantics. Heinlein came to general semantics through Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words (1938) and attended two seminars with Korzybski in 1939 and 1940. In a speech in 1941, Heinlein made the seemingly outlandish assertion that Korzybski was “at least as great a man as Einstein” based on his “monumental piece of work,” Science and Sanity.

Ellis, so far as I know, never met Korzybski but credited him (and general semantics) as a major influence in his development of REBT, using descriptors such as brilliant, masterpiece, and pioneer.

I attended the Heinlein Centennial in Kansas City. One of the panel sessions I attended was on “The Competent Man.” I learned this was a theme of Heinlein’s that recurred throughout his novels. An oft-repeated quote from Heinlein’s novel Time Enough for Love concerns competency as a general trait:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

 

I had the privilege to hear Dr. Ellis speak on one memorable occasion a few years ago. In recalling that talk and in reviewing several of his writings, it seems to me that “competency” was also a recurring theme in his work, specifically as it related to cognitive competency.

As the lives and contributions of these two great men — Robert A. Heinlein and Dr. Albert Ellis, just seven years apart in age — shared the news pages in the same recent month, we choose to devote this special section in this issue of ETC to them.

The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny. — Albert Ellis

 

I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. — Robert A. Heinlein

What We Could Become

I have read only enough of Heinlein’s writings to have a minimally-informed appreciation of his work. But I know something about the field of general semantics, which certainly influenced Heinlein’s point of view during his early years as a writer and is unmistakably reflected in character and plot development throughout his work.

In the July 2002 Heinlein Journal, Kate Gladstone provided some details from the Institute’s archives regarding Heinlein’s attendance at two seminars with Alfred Korzybski in 1939 and 1940.(1) From my standpoint, the most interesting piece of Heinlein memorabilia found in the archives is an original transcript of Heinlein’s Guest of Honor speech to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention held in Denver in July 1941. The transcript was sent to the Institute by Heinlein’s wife at the time, Leslyn. He titled his address, “The Discovery of the Future,” published in 1992 in Yoji Kondo’s collection of Heinlein’s writings, Requiem. As he concluded his Denver speech, Heinlein offered this testimony to Alfred Korzybski and general semantics:

I save for the last on that list of the books that have greatly affected me, that to my mind are the key books, of the stuff I’ve piled through, a book that should head the list on the Must List. I wish that, I wish that everyone could read the book – it’s just a wish, there aren’t that many copies of it, everyone can’t, nor could everyone read this particular book. All of you could, you’ve got the imagination for it. It’s Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, one of the greatest Polish mathematicians when he went into the subject of symbology and started finding out what made us tick, and then worked up in strictly experimental and observational form from the preliminary works of E.T. Bell.

A rigor of epistemology based on E.T. Bell (break in transcript here – some words lost) … symbology of epistemology. Book refers to the subject of semantics. I know from conversation with a lot of you that the words epistemology and semantics are not unfamiliar to you. But because they may be unfamiliar to some, I’m going to stop and make definitions of these words.

Semantics is simply a study of the symbols we use to communicate. General Semantics is an extension of that study to investigate how we evaluate in the use of these symbols. Epistemology is a study of how we know what we know. Maybe that doesn’t sound exciting. It is exciting, it’s very exciting. To be able to delve back into your own mind and investigate what it is you know, what it is you can know and what it is that you cannot possibly know is, from a standpoint of intellectual adventure, I think possibly the greatest adventure that a person can indulge in. Beats spaceships.

Incidentally, any of you who are going to be in Denver in the next 5 or 6 weeks will have an opportunity, one of the last opportunities, to hear Alfred Korzybski speak in person.(2) He will be here at a meeting similar to this at a meeting of semanticians from all over the world – oh, McLean from Los Angeles, and Johnson from Iowa and Reiser from Mills College and Kendig and probably Hayakawa from up in Canada – the leading semanticians of the world – to hear Alfred Korzybski speak. I think starting Aug. 9, isn’t it, Missy? The early part of August. It’ll be in the newspapers in any case. And it’s much better to hear him speak than it is to read his books. He’s limited by the fact that he’s got to stick to the typewriter, to the printed word; but when he talks – when he talks it’s another matter! He gestures, he’s not tied down with his hands to the desk the way I am; he walks, stumps all around the stage, and waves his hands; (audience laughs) … and you really gather what he means. Incidentally – he looks like A. Conan Doyle’s description of Prof. Challenger, if Prof. Challenger had shaved his beard. Dynamic character.

You may not like him personally, but he’s at least as great a man as Einstein – at least – because his field is broader. The same kind of work that Einstein did, the same kind of work, using the same methods; but in a much broader field, much more close to human relationships. I hope that some of you will be able to hear him. I said that this will be one of the last chances, because the old man’s well over 70 now; as he puts it, “I vill coagulate someday, I vill someday soon, I vill coagulate” – which is the term he uses for dying.(3) He speaks in terms of colloidal chemistry. Properly, it’s appropriate. He won’t last much longer, in the meantime he’s done a monumental piece of work. He has worked out in methodology the same sort of important work that HG Wells did in the matter of description; and the two together are giants in our intellectual horizon, our intellectual matrix today, that stick up over the rest like the Empire State Bldg. (4)

Heinlein wasn’t the only futurist who expressed admiration for Korzybski’s general semantics.

  • A.E. Van Vogt’s series of Null-A novels was rooted in general semantics and provided many serious students their first exposure to the subject.
  • Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World): “A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition. Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument.” (5)
  • Alvin Toffler (Future Shock and The Third Wave) “… all of the questions that are raised by Science and Sanity are inherent or should be inherent in the work of any thinking writer or communicator.” (6)
  • Robert Anton Wilson (Prometheus Rising, The Illuminatus Trilogy, and Schrodinger’s Cat) “All the events in the world that are going on I tend to see through a Korzybskian grid. He made a bigger impression on me than just about any writer I ever read.” (7)

I must admit that I’ve never been a big science fiction fan. My naïve impression has been that most futurists or science fiction writers tend to focus on imagining how future technologies, alternative life-forms, or distant universes will be invented, evolved, or discovered.

However, among the authors who claim Korzybski as an influence, I find a common interest in describing or developing human capabilities to their potentials. They seem to delve into positive speculations about what we as humans could become, were we to actually manifest the extensional orientation of perceiving, evaluating, and behaving as prescribed in Science and Sanity. Of course, the rocket ships and aliens are still featured aspects, but there is, to my limited reading, an attempt to imbue their characters with an abundance, or absence, of defining characteristics that can be related back to Korzybski’s “semantic man.”

I’d like to give you [originally the attendees at a breakout session I presented at the Heinlein Centennial on the subject of Heinlein and general semantics] the briefest of introductions to the subject by discussing just four of what might be referred to as fundamental premises of general semantics.

1. Human abilities are limited and differentiated

The first premise is that our human abilities to perceive and sense what goes on in our continually-changing environments are limited and differentiated. As members of the human species, our abilities to see, hear, taste, touch, and feel are limited. For example, we know that there are limits to the frequencies humans can hear. We know that humans can’t see certain wavelengths of light. We can extend our sensing capabilities through the use of tools and instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, microphones, amplifiers, etc. Although we as humans share these general sensing potentials, we vary in terms of our actual individual capabilities. We each have a different combination of visual, auditory, and other sensory acuities. Therefore, presented with the ‘same’ event or stimulus, we will each perceive the event or stimulus according to the limits of our senses and nervous system processing. We will each abstract something different, to some degree, than anyone else and we will then individually construct our experience, awareness, and ‘meaning’ of the stimulus.

2. Language habits influence our world view

A second fundamental premise upon which general semantics is based may be best stated by quoting from the linguistic anthropologist Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (8)

In other words, the culture and language in which we are raised will shape or influence how we construct the ‘realities’ of our experiences, given the peculiarities of that culture and language. This has become known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Similarly, Korzybski posited in Science and Sanity:

… every language having a structure, by the very nature of language, reflects in its own structure that of the world as assumed by those who evolved the language. In other words, we read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use. (9)

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of semantic reaction and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us. (10)

3. Humans can respond conditionally to stimuli

Another fundamental premise of general semantics is that humans have the ability to respond conditionally to verbal and non-verbal stimuli. In his famous experiments, Dr. Ivan Pavlov trained his dog to manifest a conditioned response behavior. By ringing a bell at the same time he fed the dog, Pavlov conditioned the dog to associate, or identify, the sound of the bell with the food. When the dog heard the bell, it expected food and began salivating in anticipation. Therefore the dog’s behavioral response (the salivating) resulted directly from the stimulus of the bell; when Pavlov rang the bell, the dog salivated.

Humans, however, have the ability to respond more appropriately in less conditioned ways — conditionally rather than conditioned. We may talk in terms such as “he really pushed my buttons,” but in most cases we have some degree of control over our responsive behaviors, regardless of which button is pushed. If we don’t exercise that control, if we immediately react without pause and without regarding the situation and the consequences, then we can rightly be accused of exhibiting more animalistic, rather than more human, behaviors.

4. The map is not the territory

The fourth premise I would mention in this condensed introduction is related to perhaps the most familiar metaphor associated with Korzybski — the map is not the territory. Our ability to achieve “maximum humanness” and evolve to our individual potentials is at least partially a function of how accurately our language behaviors reflect and are consistent with what we ‘know’ about our world. In other words, our verbal ‘maps’ ought to be congruent with and structurally similar to the facts of our non-verbal ‘territories.’ The world of words we put inside our heads ought to be related to and similar with the world of non-words in which we live.

Abraham Maslow, in his study of what he called self-actualizing behaviors, wrote of individuals whose internal ‘maps’ were in synch with their external ‘territories’:

One particularly impressive and instructive aspect of this superior relation with reality…was [their ability to] …distinguish far more easily than most the fresh, concrete, and ideographic from the generic, abstract, and rubricized. The consequence is that they live more in the real world of nature than in the man-made mass of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes that most people confuse with the world. They are therefore far more apt to perceive what is there rather than their own wishes, hopes, fears, anxieties, their own theories and beliefs or those of their cultural group. (11)

Please note that these four premises do not constitute all of the premises of general semantics. Some might claim that these do not even constitute premises as much as they represent derived extrapolations from other, more fundamental, premises. But in the context of this Heinlein Centennial, I hope they provide a basis for re-examining Heinlein’s work — particularly his characters — from a general semantics perspective. I suspect that, in addition to his “discovering the future” of interplanetary travel and intergalactic communities, Heinlein has revealed through his fictional characters what we, the readers, might one day become.

And that, to quote the Grand Master, “beats spaceships.”

NOTES

  1. www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/history/GeneralSemanticsInfo.html
  2. Heinlein refers to the Second American Congress on General Semantics held at Denver University in August 1941.
  3. In 1941, Korzybski was only 61 years old. He died in 1950 at age 70.
  4. Heinlein, Robert A. (1941) “The Discovery of the Future.” Speech delivered as Guest of Honor to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention, Denver, CO. July 4, 1941. Recorded on discs by Walter J. Daugherty. Transcripted by Assorted Services. Presented by Forrest J. Ackerman. A Novacious Publication.
  5. Huxley, Aldous. (1963) “Culture and the Individual.” Playboy Magazine, November 1963.
  6. Toffler, Alvin. (1991) “The Relevance of General Semantics.” Thinking CreAtically, Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  7. Wilson, Robert Anton. (2001) “The Map Is Not the Territory: The Future Is Not the Past.” Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, 1997. The General Semantics Bulletin Numbers 65-68.
  8. Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf edited by John B. Carroll, p. 134. The M.I.T. Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Reprinted from Language, Culture, and Personality, Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir, edited by Leslie Spier, Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, Menasha, Wisconsin, 1941.
  9. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933) Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.59-60, Fifth Edition (1994). Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  10. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933) Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.90, Fifth Edition (1994). Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  11. Maslow, A.H. (1954) Motivation and Personality, p. 205. Harper & Brothers, New York.

Aldous Huxley: An Excerpt on “Culture and the Individual”

This is an excerpt from an article riginally published in Playboy Magazine, November 1963, as “A Philosopher’s Visionary Prediction,” one of three essays published together under the title, The Pros and Cons, History and Future Possibilities of Vision-Inducing Psychochemicals.

aldous-huxley-183.jpgThanks to language and culture, human behavior can be incomparably more intelligent, more original, creative and flexible than the behavior of animals, whose brains are too small to accommodate the number of neurons necessary for the invention of language and the transmission of accumulated knowledge. But, thanks again to language and culture, human beings often behave with a stupidity, a lack of realism, a total inappropriateness, of which animals are incapable.

Trobriand Islander or Bostonian, Sicilian Catholic or Japanese Buddhist, each of us is born into some culture and passes his life within its confines. Between every human consciousness and the rest of the world stands an invisible fence, a network of traditional thinking-and-feeling patterns, of secondhand notions that have turned into axioms, of ancient slogans revered as divine revelations. What we see through the meshes of this net is never, of course, the unknowable “thing in itself.” It is not even, in most cases, the thing as it impinges upon our senses and as our organism spontaneously reacts to it. What we ordinarily take in and respond to is a curious mixture of immediate experience with culturally conditioned symbol, of sense impressions with preconceived ideas about the nature of things. And by most people the symbolic elements in this cocktail of awareness are felt to be more important than the elements contributed by immediate experience. Inevitably so, for, to those who accept their culture totally and uncritically, words in the familiar language do not stand (however inadequately) for things. On the contrary, things stand for familiar words. Each unique event of their ongoing life is instantly and automatically classified as yet another concrete illustration of one of the verbalized, culture-hallowed abstractions drummed into their heads by childhood conditioning.

It goes without saying that many of the ideas handed down to us by the transmitters of culture are eminently sensible and realistic. (If they were not, the human species would now be extinct.) But, along with these useful concepts, every culture hands down a stock of unrealistic notions, some of which never made any sense, while others may once have possessed survival value, but have now, in the changed and changing circumstances of ongoing history, become completely irrelevant. Since human beings respond to symbols as promptly and unequivocally as they respond to the stimuli of unmediated experience, and since most of them naively believe that culture-hallowed words about things are as real as, or even realer than their perceptions of the things themselves, these outdated or intrinsically nonsensical notions do enormous harm. Thanks to the realistic ideas handed down by culture, mankind has survived and, in certain fields, progresses. But thanks to the pernicious nonsense drummed into every individual in the course of his acculturation, mankind, though surviving and progressing, has always been in trouble. History is the record, among other things, of the fantastic and generally fiendish tricks played upon itself by culture-maddened humanity. And the hideous game goes on.

What can, and what should, the individual do to improve his ironically equivocal relationship with the culture in which he finds himself embedded? How can he continue to enjoy the benefits of culture without, at the same time, being stupefied or frenziedly intoxicated by its poisons? How can he become discriminatingly acculturated, rejecting what is silly or downright evil in his conditioning, and holding fast to that which makes for humane and intelligent behavior?

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. Such persons are not merely born; they must also be made. But how?

In the field of formal education, 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. A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition.

Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument. As a preparation for hole cutting, this kind of intellectual education is certainly valuable, but no less certainly insufficient. Training on the verbal level needs to be supplemented by training in wordless experiencing. We must learn how to be mentally silent, we must cultivate the art of pure receptivity.

huxley-excerpt.jpg

Suspended in Stereotypes

by Steve Stockdale

Race Gender and Stereotypes in the MediaThis essay was my contribution to: A. M. George and T. Thomason (Eds.), Race, gender and other stereotypes: A reader for professional communicators (pp. 7-13). San Diego: Cognella. ISBN 978-1-6092763-0-0. Available mid-2012.

Niels Bohr, an icon of 20th-century physics, was also an astute observer of language and behavior. “Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others” (Petersen, 1985, p. 301). “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature” (Petersen, 1985, p. 305). “We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down” (Petersen, 1985, p. 302).

This last statement relates to Bohr’s formulation of what he called complementarity. One of the conundrums of early 20th-century physics concerned the fact that, under certain experimental conditions, light behaved as particles in a “shower of photons” (Einstein & Infeld, 1938, p. 297). Under other conditions using different observational and measurement methods, light exhibited the characteristics of a wave. Prior to Bohr, physicists were captive to the prevailing language of physics, which carved up definitional structures of mutual exclusivity. By definition, waves behaved in ways that particles did not, therefore a wave could not be a particle. So what was light really — a particle or wave?

Bohr resolved the apparent paradox by rising above the definitions to focus on the observed behavior of light, regardless of the definitional label. He demonstrated that the relative perspective of the observer, including how the observer chose to measure and evaluate the phenomenon, directly affected the observer’s perceptions, measurements, and evaluations of the observed behavior.

We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down. — Niels Bohr

 

Bohr’s notion of complementarity (and its eastern Taoist cousin, mutually-dependent yin and yang) provided an alternative point of view to the western philosophical tradition based on dichotomous, either/or, thinking. Bohr showed that the problem wasn’t with light itself, or with how the physicists measured light. The problem was in the limitation of the vocabulary that physicists had at their disposal to classify light. “Is light a particle or a wave?” presumed that light had to be one or the other, either particle or wave. Bohr proposed that the particle/wave debate resulted from an inappropriate application of either/or thinking. From his complementary perspective, the debate dissolved from an either/or labeling stalemate to a both/and understanding that rose above the labels; light exhibited the characteristics of both particles and waves.

In other words, Bohr argued that physicists had to overcome their stereotypical thinking about waves and particles in light of what they were observing about light. Their observations of light caused them to reevaluate their presumed categorical distinctions between particles and waves. Rather than focus on just the similarities between light and particles, and the differences between light and waves, they had to think in terms of both similarities and differences. Rather than think in terms of only two values, physicists had to orient themselves toward “many-valued” thinking (Korzybski, 1994, p. 93).

This type of thinking — complementarity, yin/yang, both/and, many-valued, or whatever label you prefer — is necessary to resist the easy inclination to adhere to rigid and categorical labels that we typically refer to as stereotyping.

Although that term carries a (usually deservedly) negative connotation, we can think of this type of generalizing activity on a continuum. The order and placement can be argued, but notionally such a continuum could be depicted this way.

benign-consequential.jpg

 

What distinguishes the more Benign activity to the left from the more Consequential to the right?

At the far left, as human beings with a highly-developed nervous system, we have learned through our life experiences to automatically recognize and categorize many different types of stimuli. We immediately differentiate people from animals from plants, strangers from friends and family, foods from tools, danger from routine, etc. Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee (2005) refer to this process generally as pattern-matching. They explain that this activity occurs at multiple levels in the hierarchy of the nervous system. From sensory stimulation to cognitive awareness, your nervous system makes inferences as it attempts to match current stimulus data with past experience and memory. Even at the most basic levels (distinguishing the edge or color shading of an object), your brain must take incomplete sensory data and “fill in the gaps” with guesses or assumptions in order to create an integrated image of what you believe you see. At this neurological level, “stereotyping is an inherent feature of the brain” (Hawkins & Blakeslee, 2005, p. 204). We are, to paraphrase Bohr, suspended in stereotypes.

To the right, however, lies the more consequential and problematic behaviors that we usually attribute as stereotyping. Such behaviors and underlying attitudes can be considered non-complementary in that they reflect the most simplistic either/or, categorical, and uncritical thinking; some may even say lack of thinking. They presume similarities and disregard differences, and can extend from an individual to a group, or from a group to the individual. They may be labeled as bias, pre-judgment, or prejudice. In every instance, however, such attitudes and behaviors result from a failure of recognizing both differences within similarities, and similarities among differences. “We discriminate against people to the degree we fail to distinguish between them” (Lee, 1952).

We discriminate against people to the degree we fail to distinguish between them. — Irving J. Lee

 

An aphorism purports that there is a kernel of truth in every stereotype. That might be worth considering, both in terms of “what if there’s not?” as well as “so what if there is?” I would suggest that the flip side of the aphorism is also worth considering: “every label lies a little.” We should remember that, as verbal constructions, labels and stereotypes do not exist in the material world. They reflect symbolic expressions that, more often than not, arise from arbitrary, superficial, and inconclusive classifications and judgments. Nevertheless, indiscriminate, biased, and prejudicial judgments against individuals and groups can have devastating individual and societal consequences.

“We must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us” (Korzybski, 1994, p. 76). The first line of defense against potential symbolic subjugation is to become aware of, and practice, a complementary attitude about the verbal environment in which we find ourselves suspended. Within items labeled or categorized as similar, look for and recognize differences; among items that appear to be different, look for similarities. Rather than think in two-valued terms like either/or, right/wrong, or good/bad, consider the fuzzy, middle, gray many-valued areas that lie in between. Look for the lie in every label. Remember that the more time and attention you give to someone else’s verbal categories, classifications, and stereotypes, the less time you have to develop yourself in your own “real world of nature” (Maslow, 1987, p. 129).

And that time is a terrible thing to waste.

Discussion Exercises

  1. You recently heard a new band at your local club that you really liked. You want to encourage your Facebook friends to download a free track from the band’s Facebook page. How might you describe the band’s music so that your friends will check out the band’s page, and have some idea as to what they should expect to hear? Discuss your description with others. Is any stereotypical thinking exhibited?
  2. How might you describe the band’s music if you dislike it and wanted to urge your friends to avoid the band?
  3. Break up into groups of two or three. In three minutes, list as many different criteria as you can that could be used to stereotype an individual or a group.
  4. Assume you are a reporter covering a crime story. If one or more of the stereotyped criteria listed in the previous exercise applied to the victim or the perpetrator, how would you decide if those descriptors are relevant to the story?
  5. Does stereotyping factor into discussions about how to segment a target audience for a new product launch? Or for a press release on behalf of a candidate in a heated political campaign? Are there “kernels of truth” that underlie such targeted decisions?

References

Einstein, A., & Infeld, L. (1938). The Evolution of Physics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Hawkins, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2005). On Intelligence: How a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation of truly intelligent machines. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Korzybski, A. (1994). Science and Sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics (5th ed.). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Lee, I.J. (1952). Talking Sense video series. Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Maslow, A.H. (1987). Motivation and Personality (3rd ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Petersen, A. (1985). The Philosophy of Niels Bohr. In A.P. French (Ed.), Niels Bohr: a centenary volume (pp. 299-310). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Awareness and Action – Conclusion (Mary Lahman)

Living Extensionally Takes a Lifetime

Beginners often take upon themselves the task of enthusiastically spreading their new-found “wisdom” to family and friends. We suggest that, for best long-term results, you temper this response. —Susan & Bruce Kodish (2011, p. 200)

 

At the end of a Language and Thought course, we often conclude that everyone needs to learn about general semantics. Once we recognize the allness language in that statement, we discuss ways to continue the “course-generated enthusiasm” for a general semantics approach to language behavior. Fully convinced of our time-binding responsibilities, we wonder how to best teach others about the patterns of miscommunication.

One semester, I shared these discussions with Professor Keller, who proposed that we worry less about “teaching others” and more about “modeling the correctives.” I often saw him follow this advice when participating in and facilitating community group discussions. Beginning his interactions with the simple phrase, “I wonder if,” he modeled how to question and paraphrase. He often used the “how much,” “which,” and “when” indexes, seeking information from the territory (people and contexts) and then updating his map (language and perceptions).

After helping to edit this text, my son wondered how I could have known about the pitfalls of language for so long and still exhibit patterns of miscommunication. I explained to him, as Meiers (1952) convinced participants at The First Conference in General Semantics in 1951, that living extensionally is “a lifetime process” (p. 277). More telling is how Meiers warned newcomers of the dangers of becoming general semantics fanatics. I share Meiers’s concern, so offer several of these warnings as well:

  1. Beware of accepting the disciplines of general semantics as a panacea . . . speaking of it with such “allness” of enthusiasm that it sounds like a panacea.
  2. Beware of using trade jargon—that is the particular terminology of general semantics—in conversation with those who are unfamiliar with the terms.
  3. Beware of the “wiser-than-thou” attitude of applying classification labels to conversational remarks of other people . . . students usually find great pleasure in their ability to recognize higher and lower abstractions in language—especially in the language of others. To make matters worse, they sometimes act as if the higher abstractions and inferences and judgments are less worthy of their consideration than descriptive statements.
  4. Beware of exaggerating the use of the semantic devices to the extent of appearing ridiculous. These five little devices suggested by Korzybski—quotes, dating [when index], indexing, hyphens, and the etc.—are practiced inconspicuously in the everyday language of thousands of people who make no overt reference to general semantics.
  5. Beware of merely talking about general semantics without applying its principles in practice. The highly verbal individual who finds in general semantics a new and exciting philosophy is in danger of keeping it forever on the verbal level, thus increasing the very futility that its discipline hopes to correct. (pp. 275–277).

Each of these dangers resonates with those who believe that they can communicate more effectively if they keep applying general semantics formulations. People may find themselves guilty of each of these behaviors as they diligently pursue eliminating patterns of miscommunication.

In the pursuit of excellence, we may forget, that we are “acquiring an orientation, not a straitjacket” (Kodish & Kodish, 2011, p. 200). Just because we are raising our awareness of our nervous systems’ limitations, we cannot assume that others will be as willing to learn about abstraction and the resulting “misevaluations” found in language behavior.

Ultimately, we would be wise to heed the advice about “minimum expectations” offered by Kodish and Kodish (2011): “When we have minimum expectations about any situation, that is, we’re prepared for not finding what we want, we will more likely find the ‘facts’ of the situation better than we expected; we’ve prepared ourselves for curiosity, change, excitement, happiness, hope, sanity, etc.” (p. 199). Perhaps just aiming for humor in the way that we misuse language will help us to continue the extensional journey.

After all, we have a lifetime to do so . . .

After You’ve Studied General Semantics

Wendell Johnson

The following handout was found in the archives of the Institute of General Semantics. It was probably a mailing sent to members prior to the publication of Johnson’s People in Quandaries in 1945 ( referenced as note 1). It was reprinted in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 61 Number 4, Special Edition – General Semantics Across the Curriculum.


portrait-wj-380.jpgGenerally speaking, you will make applications to two large groups of problems or situations: those that are essentially personal, and those that you will call professional or relatively impersonal. A word about each of these should help somewhat.

With regard to personal problems, it is to be emphasized that over the years you have grown accustomed to your own behavior and to the people and the world about you. You have a strong tendency to take for granted whatever is thoroughly familiar to you. Your notion of what is ‘normal’ is, therefore, determined largely by the behavior, beliefs, attitudes, customs, social conditions which you have come to take more or less for granted as ‘right’ or ‘natural’ or ‘customary.’

This means that, even though you and your environment may be obviously below par, you may feel that you have no ‘personal problems.’ Many people become so thoroughly accustomed to the frictions, bad feelings, irritabilities, frustrations, blue moods, confusions and general flounderings of their day-to-day existence that nothing short of murder or stark insanity strikes them as peculiar. They are so utterly adjusted to maladjustment that it does not even occur to them that human life might be, except by sheer luck, different from what they know it to be. The fact that you were attracted to a book like this probably indicates that you yourself have not fallen to such a state, of course, but if the above statements serve to polish your semantic lenses a bit, perhaps you will take stock somewhat more in detail than you otherwise would of your own daily round and of the particular ‘peep-holes’ that define your outlook on the world in which you live. (1)

You do have personal problems, of course. What they are, and how important they seem to you, depends on the amount of tension, misery and confusion you have learned to tolerate. Generally speaking, if you examine carefully what you call your ‘big problems’ you will find that they are made up of little things, which accumulate all but unnoticed until your tense back gives way under ‘the last straw.’

The most effective way to apply general semantics, therefore, is to sharpen your awareness of the little things and apply it to them. Not even with general semantics can you gain much by cutting the weeds after the lettuce has wilted. It is the moment-to-moment, seemingly insignificant, applications that make the greatest difference in the long run. The assignments described in Chapter XXI are designed, in part, to illustrate various possibilities of such moment-to-moment applications, and a careful reading of the book as a whole should readily suggest many more.

Aside from the problems you have which center around intimately personal concerns and relationships, you have also the problems that arise in the course of your work in a profession, or business, or in running a household; in learning a trade, a skill, a game, or in teaching something to others. General semantics can be put to use in many ways by doctors, lawyers, teachers, editors and writers, radio program directors, motion picture executives, housewives, students, merchants, etc., through the long catalog of human occupations. Wherever symbols are used and evaluations are made, wherever there are problems to be solved, use can be made of the method, the principles, the basic orientations which general semantics involves. Likewise, in the general business of being a citizen, of evaluating social, economic and political issues, of contributing constructively to the life of the community and of society in a broad sense, the value of general semantics lies in the practical use that is made of it.

General semantics contains no recipe for boredom. You are not likely ever to say of it, as you may have said from time to time of a course in history, or mathematics, or French, that you ‘have had it.’ At least, if ever you do say of general semantics that you ‘have had it,’ as though for you it were over and done with, you probably didn’t ‘get’ it.

A Map of Korzybski’s General Semantics

Now that we’ve reached the conclusion of this course, the following is a map of General Semantics by Steve Stockdale. Perhaps it may serve as a helpful review, or give you some ideas for creating your own map.

AKmapGS-760-used.jpg

Resources, etc.

seeds.jpgWe realize that we have thrown a lot of material at you during this course. We suspect (or even hope) that you may not have had the opportunity to fully digest the course materials. Therefore we want to provide this summary of resources that may facilitate your return to the course content at your convenience.

Downloadable Content by Module

The course content will be made available for download in two different formats via the links below. You are welcome to download either or both formats.

The HTML format file for each module, and then one file for the entire course, contains all of the text, images, and embedded YouTube videos. As long as you are connected to the Internet, you will be able to follow links and watch the YouTube videos.

Note: The videos posted to the course using the Canvas Media Comment tool are not available.

To download the files, depending on your browser, click or right-click on each link and save to your computer or portable device.

The PDF format file for each module, and then one file for the entire course, contains all of the text and images from the course, but no videos. As long as you are connected to the Internet, you will be able to follow links.

The PDF format file is significantly larger than the HTML file, but may be easier to read for some.

To download the files, depending on your browser, click or right-click on each link and save to your computer or portable device.

Downloadable Readings (PDF)

  1. The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes by Alfred Korzybski
  2. Awareness and Action: A General Semantics Approach to Effective Language Behavior by Mary Lahman
  3. Here’s Something About General Semantics by Steve Stockdale
  4. ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 61 Number 4 (Special Issue – General Semantics Across the Curriculum); provided courtesy of the Institute of General Semantics
  5. ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 65 Number 1 (Special Issue – General Semantics in India); provided courtesy of the Institue of General Semantics
  6. Allness in Language and Politics (Student Paper) by Alex McGuinness
  7. The Science and Sanity of Listening by Benjamin J. Cline
  8. Language, Appearance, and Reality (Doublespeak in 1984) by William D. Lutz
  9. Allness Case Studies, Chapter 11 of William Haney’s Communication and organizational behavior: Text and cases.
  10. Languages and Logic by Benjamin Lee Whorf
  11. Science and Linguistics by Benjamin Lee Whorf
  12. Language, Culture and Mind in Comparative Perspective by John A. Lucy
  13. The Linguistics of ‘Color’ by John A. Lucy
  14. Rights and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision by Fuambai Ahmadu
  15. Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb by Carol Cohn
  16. What We Do with Language – What It Does with Us by Bruce I. Kodish
  17. To Be or Not to Be: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking by D. David Bourland, Jr.
  18. Language Revision by Deletion of Absolutisms by Allen Walker Read
  19. The Inner Interpreter by Laura Bertone
  20. Response Side Semantics by Steve Stockdale
  21. “Lecture Notes on Teaching General Semantics”?by Lance Strate, Ph.D.
  22. “A Continuing Education Guide to Teaching General Semantics”?by Martin H. Levinson, Ph.D.
  23. “Twelve General Semantics Lessons for Middle School Students”?by Martin H. Levinson, Ph.D.

Forms and Activities

Videos

Websites

Personal Time-binding Discussion

passbox.jpgAs an exercise in personal time-binding, review the Discussions from each of the previous five course modules. As you review the posts, note comments from your classmates that you’ve found personally meaningful and valuable.

Select three (3) posts that you personally found most meaningful and valuable. Then to earn 100 points:

  1. Contact the author of each post you select, via the Canvas Inbox internal email and express your appreciation to the author.
  2. Then share a summary of the 3 comments you selected using the “Reply” block below.

Unknown Author Issue

Unfortunately, about 55 of your classmates – including some of our most active participants – have been afflicted with a Canvas Network bug which, for reasons not yet understood or corrected, cause their names in the Discussions to be shown as Unknown Author.

If you select one of the posts by Unknown Author as one of your most meaningful and you cannot determine the author’s name, please Inbox (Canvas internal email) me with three pieces of information:

  • which module and discussion (please use the titles listed above)
  • date of the post
  • the first few words of the post

It’s not a big deal for me as an Instructor to associate the Unknown Author’s post with an actual name. Then I will send you the name and you can express your appreciation directly to the Known Author. 🙂

Module 6 Assignment

The title of this course is General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior.

In the Concerning Expectations video you viewed in Week 1, we asked you to consider what the course title might mean. We asked:

  • What other “approaches” to “language behavior” (effective or otherwise) are you familiar with?
  • How familiar to you is the phrase “language behavior”? Are you more familiar with “language” and “behavior” used separately? Do they even belong together?
  • And what about “effective”? What do you think that means?

Final Assignment – 100 points

man-tech.jpgIn no more than 250 words, provide your evaluative response to this question:

After experiencing this introduction to General Semantics, what will you take away from the course that might contribute to the effectiveness of your own language behavior?

To submit the assignment: Click on the Submit Assignment link in the upper right of this page. You can then type your essay in the editing box, or copy/paste from another application.

Steve’s Concluding Remarks

My apologies for going so long, but I had some thing I wanted to say and two video clips I wanted to show. Steve Stockdale

Script

Well, this is the hardest part for me … having to stop and put a period and an ecetera to the course. Before I get to that period, however, I have a few personal reflections I’d like to offer.

First, thanks to Mary and Manchester University in Indiana for being willing to put their names on this course. And thanks to our volunteer TAs who, because of various life events, didn’t have as much time as they would’ve liked to spend with us.

At the beginning of the course I had a few things to say about expectations. Here are some data as we conclude the course:

  • This chart shows the pattern of our enrollment through 31 January. As the course was open for enrollment through last week, the final count was 1,326.
  • Representing 67 different nations, or about a third of all the countries on the planet.
  • Here you can see the top-level graph of participation in the course, measured by daily number of logins and page views.
  • And here are the numbers of module badges that have been awarded.

So what does this say about the success of the course? What does this all mean with respect to the value of this course?  To you the students, and to Mary, Greg, and me? And what does it mean to the Canvas Network administrators who will evaluate whether to offer it again?

One of the points we’ve tried to highlight about General Semantics is to emphasize that we are concerned not with theories or philosophies about language or communication in the abstract. As Alfred Korzybski put it, we are concerned with living human reactions – not according to detached, academic categories but in terms of living human reactions “in the wild” of daily behaving.

I’d like to show you two short clips to reinforce how GS applies to our living human reactions.

The first is from the 1983 movie with Michael Keaton and Terri Garr, “Mr. Mom.” The father has been laid off from his job and hasn’t yet found work. The mother has found a job and is returning to work, while the father stays home to play “Mr. Mom.”

[clip]

The second is from a talk by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 1980.  View the entire 23-minute talk on YouTube.

[clip]

To me, these clips illustrate two things.  First, Korzybski’s diagnosis of our human shortcomings ­– how we’re doing it wrong.  And second, his prognosis for what might result if we were to acknowledge these shortcomings, overcome them, and amplify our own human abilities.

Now I happen to think these are laudable sentiments, and as the past 20 years of my life attest, I’ve evaluated Korzybski’s General Semantics as still relevant after all these years.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, seemed to agree.

Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument.

So, yes, I’ll confess to enlisting in Korzybski’s quixotic quest. I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to attempt to amplify our inherent human abilities. I believe we can do better. I believe it’s possible that we can up our game, raise the bar on normal, shift the mean, reshape the bell curve, and reduce humanity’s standard deviation.

Does that mean we can take humanity to the next level? Can we change human nature?

Well, before I get completely carried away, I recall an anecdote told by David Bourland, the E-Prime guy, that was told to him by M. Kendig, Korzybski’s right-hand assistant who succeeded Korzybski as Director of the Institute of General Semantics after Korzybski’s death.

David wrote:

Once, one of Korzybski’s “senior grade” students (Kendig) said to Korzybski, “Together we can change the world!”

She told me that he replied, “Well, we might change you a little.”

If you really have an interest in changing “human nature,” perhaps it would work best if you begin with yourself.

And with that, I want to thank all of you for contributing to this learning experience. And now for me comes the period. And et cetera.

 

Greg’s Concluding Remarks

Greg Thompson

Mary’s Concluding Remarks

Mary Lahman

Script

Thank you for persevering to Module 6

We have enjoyed sharing our understanding of how to move an awareness of GS into action: learning to silently add etc to avoid Allness and being person-minded not word-minded to address Bypassing.

With your newfound awareness of abstraction, you have encouraged each other in the Module discussions. I appreciate your stories and applications of GS.

Thanks you for being an essential part of this learning community.

As you leave us, remember we are acquiring an orientation, not a set if rules. May we be humbled by the way we use language and it uses us. And, may we learn to live extensionally one day at a time.

Conclusion

We hope you’ll enjoy this last video that we think is an appropriate conclusion to the course.

Final Video

Module Completion Checklist

checkbox.jpg

open-checkbox21.png 1.  Did you review the Extensional Orientation material?
open-checkbox21.png 2.  Did you read Heinlein and Ellis: Converging Competencies?
open-checkbox21.png 3.  Did you read Aldous Huxley’s On Language and the Individual?
open-checkbox21.png 4.  Did you read Suspended in Stereotypes?
open-checkbox21.png 5.  Did you read the Conclusion of Awareness and Action?
open-checkbox21.png 6.  Did you read After You’ve Studied General Semantics?
open-checkbox21.png 7.  Did you review the Map of Korzybski’s General Semantics and the list of available resources?
open-checkbox21.png 8.  Did you acknowledge three fellow students for their discussion posts, and did you contribute to the Personal Time-binding Discussion? (100 points)
open-checkbox21.png 9.  Did you submit the Module Assignment? (100 points)

 

Have you completed all of the modules?

Thanks for taking the time to learn something about General Semantics as an Approach to Effective Language Behavior. We hope you’ve found the experience valuable and meaningful. If you missed some of the course, you can always return to the Modules List to review the entire course, or download the course content by module.

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.