The power of words

Quite often in a discussion I’ve heard the phrase “semantics”, as if the meaning of words didn’t really matter in a discussion. Words are the building blocks of complex ideas, and if we don’t have a solid agreement on what they mean, then how can we hope of ever transmitting our message? We might not need to use a specific meaning offered by a dictionary, we might not even need to use a real word, but we need the idea to be packaged in a neat container–a word–which we can send back and forth multiple times in a conversation.

Words do more than simply package ideas in a singular conversation; they can serve as Eureka moments; the first time an idea is not only realized, but packaged, captured like an exotic Pokémon. People might have had Eureka moments before the word “Eureka” was widely used, but it wasn’t until the coinage of the idea that our collective minds became fully aware of such phenomenon.

Have you noticed that when you learn a new word, it suddenly appears everywhere? You probably saw and heard such word many times before in your life, but you never paid any attention to it. It’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which maybe you have never heard of before, but now that you have; ironically–it will pop up everywhere🙂

It’s hard to explain how our minds work (or the current scientific understanding of it); but if I attempt to summarize; it’s all about recognizing patterns, and feedback loops. That’s why the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon makes so much sense: we can’t recognize a pattern we haven’t seen before, but once we identify it; our brain will try to see the world through different lenses in order to check if the pattern applies, if it does; the feedback loop will reinforce the idea so we can recognize the pattern better in the future.

So it makes sense to think that language affects our worldview, which is the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Imagine we didn’t have a word for “thought”, how would you describe a thought? It’s hard to describe a mind if you don’t have the word “thought”, so it is to describe “believe”, “remember”, “forget”, and dozens of other ideas related to thoughts.

This is not merely a theory (or rather; a hypothesis); we know it happened in Nicaragua in the Seventies because there were no schools for deaf people. When the first school was established dozens of people without language gathered, and they slowly created their own sign language. However, their language was very rudimentary. The second generation of kids learned the language from the first generation, but they added new words. These new words did not merely amplify their vocabulary; they changed the way they thought. The first generation merely focused on describing events, the second generation talked about feelings, thoughts, ideas. They got better at thinking about thinking, in one generation, simply because of language.

There is an test called the Sally-Anne test; it is used to measure the ability of a person to attribute false beliefs of another; something that cannot be done without theory of mind. The test goes as follows:

Sally takes a marble and hides it in her basket. She then “leaves” the room and goes for a walk. While she is away, Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her own box. Sally is then reintroduced and the child is asked the key question, the Belief Question: “Where will Sally look for her marble?”

Fully functioning adult persons know the answer: Sally would look in her basket. But young children answer differently: Sally would look in Anne’s box. They don’t understand that Sally’s worldview is different than their own; they don’t understand that each person has a different worldview, a mind different of their own. The ability to understand that each person has a different mind is called theory of mind; something so incredibly simple most people take for granted, is actually a gift that young children don’t have, neither do most animals. And it turns out the first generation of Nicaraguan kids didn’t have this ability either, even after they became adults, even in their fifties. Language is the tool that helps us understand other people’s minds; it is words like “belief”, “mind”, “point-of-view”. The second generation of Nicaraguan kids had these words, and with them they easily acquired theory of mind.

Imagine the first time somebody used the word “empathy“. Surely the concept of empathy existed long before the word was coined. However, like many patterns; it was elusive, hard to explain, and thus hard to identify, discuss, mold, evolve. How can I say “the most basic level of empathy arrives with theory-of-mind” if I don’t have the word “empathy” at my disposal, and for that matter, the word “theory-of-mind”?

The word “economy” wasn’t widely used until after the 19th century, and again; surely people understood the concept of economy long before the word, but they couldn’t exactly discuss it. How would you say “the economy is bad lately”? How would you discuss different economic models, like capitalism, or communism? How would you measure something that doesn’t have a name, like using the GDP? The answer is: you couldn’t, and they didn’t. It was the word that gave people such power, in a way the word “economy” changed the world. Certainly there were many other factors revolving the industrial revolution, but the coinage of the word “economy” was instrumental.

A more recent example is the word “meme“. Again; memes existed long before the word, in fact; words themselves are memes; they spread around society like viruses. Curiously enough the word “meme” wasn’t coined until the word “virus” sank into wide use, which could only happen after viruses were discovered, at the end of the 19th century. It is no coincidence that the word “meme” was coined by an evolutionary biologist–quite familiar with viruses.

But words do more than expand our understanding of the world, they change it, shatter it, shift it. Consider the word “gender“. Previously the word “gender” was fixed to the word “sex”, so a male is masculine, and a female feminine. Today we’ve been forced to change that notion, mainly due to transgenders. So a transgender man might have been born with a female biological sex, but considers himself to have a masculine gender as far as society is concerned. This paradigm shift hasn’t settled still with many people, which consider both gender and sex to be the same thing. Inevitable society will have to change its worldview, otherwise transgender people couldn’t fit, and they must.

An even more dramatic shift happens with the word “person“. The concept of personhood has changed dramatically through history, in many cases excluding certain races, or considering one sex less of a person than the other. Today we accept that all people regardless of sex or race should be considered full persons, and the people that don’t accept that are considered bigots; sexists, or racists. So grand of us, isn’t it?

But that’s still not enough. Consider a human being so psychologically disturbed that he lacks any consideration towards other beings, incapable of empathy, even without theory of mind… Is he a person? How about a dog that truly loves his human companion, cares for him, would risk his life if the need arises, and would miss him to death if he was gone.. Isn’t he a person? Indeed; many dog lovers would attest that their dogs are better beings that many humans, and they might be right. A dog doesn’t care for race or sex, and in that sense he might be better than many family members that gather at your typical Thanksgiving.

dog-tilt-crop

Personally, I see empathy as the essence of person; if you can’t feel another person’s suffering, then what good are you in a society? Every dog owner has seen the expression of tilting the head to one side; it’s an attempt dogs make in order to understand humans’ emotions (probably because they have trouble seeing our mouths due to their snout), they do this because they are empathic; they understand their human might be sad, even if they themselves feel happy. Contrast this with a human infant, who is barely able to see anything beyond his own hunger, and certainly doesn’t have a theory of mind. Who is more of a person? Why should the word “person” be fixed to the word “human” then?

When you see from this vantage point, you realize that if it’s hard to say a human infant is truly a person, then it’s even harder to call a human fetus a person, which is barely distinguishable from a chicken embryo–both in terms of physiology and mental processes. Certainly less of a person than a fully functional adult woman, whose life might get ruined by abortion laws.

Thus the importance of thinking about the meaning of words, specially important ones like “person”, regardless of how firm you think you have your grasp on it. Because of the way minds work; it’s much more difficult to change the meaning of a word, than it is to learn a new one; it’s much easier to recognize a new pattern than it is to change an engraved one, thanks to feedback loops–much like a drop of water falling on a rock millions of times–the damage is already done. But if you don’t do that paradigm shift, you might end up in the wrong side of history, just like your bigoted, racist and sexist ancestors, you might end up being the bigoted family member in a future Thanksgiving, facing your son’s spouse which might be–let’s go for a long shot–an artificial intelligence; not a human, but still a person, as worthy of our respect as any other.

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