• The non-existent power of words

    One would think that casting curses, spells and enchantments are practices that were relegated to the History books as curious peculiarities of the dawn of Homo sapiens, who eventually realized that words and ideas cannot change the course of material world events, and discarded those practices… and one would be wrong.

    Unfortunately, magical thinking is more difficult to eradicate than we would like, and today it seems to running amok, albeit in much more digestible presentations for 21st-century humans. For instance, the popular claim that “language creates realities” is just as intellectually rigorous as to say that we are going to cast a spell on our enemies, although one is greeted with deafening applause, while the other is greeted with thunderous laughter.

    What’s going on here? For some reason, many people seem to mistake linguistic signs —words— for their referents —that which those words describe— and suppose they can change the referent just by changing the sign. It’s virtually no different than voodoo: believing that sticking needles into a doll can hurt the person the doll represents. Or believing that compelling us to adopt “inclusive” language will automatically create a more inclusive society. A rudimentary way of thinking in which words cease to be simple conventions to acquire magical powers. If language created realities, I would have already created a religion-free one for me, but that is impossible, for language is not prescriptive, but rather only descriptive.

    Of course, this will not stop those who believe that they can alter reality just by thinking about it or talking about it, for the underlying rationale has a wider scope. For instance, religious believers who put a cross around their necks or those who always have on them a picture of the saint of their affections, believing that it confers them some kind of protection, as if the powers of a supernatural entity —which has not even been proven to exist— were transferred to their representations.

    Same thing happens with the ‘law’ of attraction: the idea that we all have some supernatural power to transform reality at our whim just by wishing it—in reality, though, the ‘law’ of attraction is nothing more than a perverse disguise for the just-world fallacy, for if we attract everything that happens to us, it means that we are the only culprits of our misfortunes. The Holocaust? The Jews willed it into existence. A woman is raped? She willed it into happening. A guy is run over by someone else driving while intoxicated? He attracted it. African children starving? They attracted it: why didn’t they think about food instead of hunger! People who were captured and enslaved by settlers? They attracted it with their thinking. Taken to its logical conclusion, the just-world hypothesis means that if we are the cause of all our misfortunes, then there is also no need to fight injustice, which would not really exist: what those who believe in karma and other kinds of cosmic equilibrium are really suggesting is that any longing and aspiration for “justice” is a sin against the natural order of things, something we would not even have to worry about in the first place. Even worse, by this rationale, if we want to leave this world a little less unjust than how we found it, by the mere fact of thinking about injustices (in order to combat them) we would be summoning more misfortunes. It is a recipe for legitimizing injustice.

    Another idea that comes from the premise that the material realm can be altered just by uttering words is neurolinguistic programming (NLP), according to which words have a healing power… but clinics and hospitals still hire health professionals instead of wordsmiths and, to date, no Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to anyone for their literary production or oratory skills. Ah, and there’s that pesky evidence: after going through all the peer-reviewed studies published in long-standing indexed journals with high impact factors, it turns out neurolinguistic programming interventions does not improve health-related outcomes.

    It’s not that adverse evidence is going to stop motivated charlatans. For instance, one who was at it for years was Masaru Emoto, who claimed that human thoughts have a directly observable effect on the molecular structure of water and supported it with a very dubious methodology and omitted some of the photographic material from his ‘research’. It’s almost like he’s uncomfortable controlling all the possible biases in his research or something. Emoto’s bizarre claims are so popular that they are even at the core of my hometown’s public policy of Canto al Agua, which has the immodest pretense of “healing” water by singing to it (!) — for the record, they have been singing to lakes and rivers for more than half a decade and their tunes have not reversed pollution, much less provided a pulse or a heart or an immune system to quantify how the healing of the country’s water bodies is coming about.

    Although, quite possibly, those who profit most from the peculiar notion that changing the course of events in the material realm can be effected through rhetoric are those looking to deny the most elementary rights to anyone who thinks differently — thus it’s no wonder the popularity enjoyed by the dogma that words can be violence, which is as truthful as Bigfoot’s birth certificate; as a matter of fact, this doctrine doubles down on violence, for if words are violence, it is, then, legitimate to respond with violence to words. And apparently, there are not enough Socrates, Hypatia, Theo van Gogh, Salman Rushdie or Charlie Hebdo to convince anyone that the dogma that “words are violence” is only a carte blanche to respond violently to words, and that it will be readily used by those who are already prone to aggression.

    People will go to great lengths, ignoring completely the context in which words —or pictures, or any other type of convention that conveys meaning— are used. Last year, Scottish youtuber Markus Meechan was fined £800 for the pseudo-offense of trolling his girlfriend by teaching her dog to make the Nazi salute. (In his original video, Meechan —also known by his handle, Count Dankula— said he was going to teach the dog to be the most unpleasant thing because her girlfriend said the dog was extremely cute).

    In 2017, American television host and comedian Bill Maher was also forced to apologize because while joking with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, he replied to the politician, “Me go work in the fields? Senator, if I’m a house n***er“, a sentence aimed at mocking racism and how 19th-century slave-owners in the southern United States treated better slaves who did housework than those who worked outdoors. But there is no context or humor for political correctness: Maher had blasphemed, dared to mention the N-word and had to atone for his sin.

    There are plenty of examples where social media posts were taken out of context and radically changed someone’s life for the worse. The Justine Sacco case, a woman who saw her whole life’s achievements destroyed in a matter of hours for parodying ignorant white supremacist rhetoric in less than 140 characters, is telling. So is an episode of backlash against Charlie Hebdo: when they criticized the decision to ban burkinis in Cannes (France) with a cover that portrayed how bigots pictured Muslims, they received new threats for supposedly “mocking Muslims”.

    Links between magical thinking and censorship are more than simple coincidences, for whoever is emotionally committed to linguistic prescriptivism necessarily deprive themselves, and seek to deprive others, of the intellectual realm in which words are not the same as their referents, bestially severing human expression and imagination, and the progress these have had in the last 2500 years.

    And progress in general. Blurring the distinction between sign and referent is the gateway to blurring other distinctions that have enabled our species to overcome tribalism. For instance, where magical thinking reigns, the distinction between people and ideas, between the argument and who is putting it forward, is not very clear either. It is identity politics. Not infrequently, one comes across the intellectual bully who have trouble understanding that men can have opinions on abortion (despite the fact that many of us have done our bit to keep it a right, free and safe in our countries). And with depressing frequency we witness the representation of the interests of women or Blacks (or any other historically discriminated population) in public office being reduced to biological traits, which is more of a convenient bigoted blunder than anything else, for no one in their right mind would question that an eventual Bernie Sanders presidency would have meant more for Black women’s rights in America than an eventual Candace Owens one.

    Only a chauvinist would dare to say that Parker Pillsbury was not a feminist and would demote him to just an “ally” of feminism, or would deny that he or any other white abolitionist was an important pillar in the struggle against racism. The absurd joke of calling a women’s rights organization and asking for the man in charge assumes (and apparently works, because not few people find it funny) that one cannot stand in solidarity with those who are different and want their rights to be respected to the same extent as one’s own rights should be respected, which has been a key piece in bending the moral arc of the universe toward progress: widening the circle of solidarity to all our congeners no matter how different they may be.

    In late last August, the Nation’s poetry editors issued an abject apology for a poem published earlier that month, in which Anders Carlson-Wee sarcastically criticized social hierarchies. The ‘issue’, according to the editors, was that Carlson-Wee is white and has no disability, yet his poem, How To, used ‘ableist’ language and borrowed expressions from black communities. So, obviously, all hell broke loose. People were offended by the poem and, in a monumental display of literary and linguistic illiteracy, they demanded that it be withdrawn, which led to the mentioned apology, without considering either the context or the author’s intention —which are necessary elements for language to have any meaning—.

    A map is not the territory, and burning a map of the enemy village never brought an army any closer to victory. If we lower our guard, those who believe that words have powers will end up burning our maps, lest we build bridges to meet other communities and find our shared humanity. And they will use fire: no curses, spells, charms, or disintegrating our maps into disappearance with just words.

    Category: PhilosophySkepticism and Science


    Article by: Ðavid A. Osorio S

    Skeptic | Blogger | Fact-checker