On Labels and Magic Words

I have a close relative who decades ago converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses. We had many discussions about religion, and being a convert, he was quite enthusiastic about all of the things he was learning to believe. In one of the discussions, the subject of “magic words” came up. It was not specifically about words believed to be magical, but rather words you don’t know the meaning of that may have power that you do not suspect. I absorbed that explanation, but he was quick to explain that this was not a metaphor, but literally a danger of summoning a demon, or some similar outcome.

As you may know, I do not disparage religion. While one side of me sees the notion of Hocus Pocus as something altering reality as superstition, the pragmatist in me says that if the description accurately represents reality, there is something to it. Language is a living thing. What is a metaphor today is a word tomorrow, such as having a “definition” of pig of “a person of poor hygiene or untidy habits”, which is sometimes called an entrenched metaphor, or a metaphor that ceases to invoke a comparison, and simply becomes a description. You don’t have to know anything about real pigs to use the word correctly in that context. In fact, the metaphor turns out to be a poor one, but the description is still usefull. We use the word stereotype even though the printing process it comes from is almost totally unknown to most who use it. In short, language can drag a metaphor into literal use, or even change the meaning of the written word over time, such that a literal observation could become a metaphorical description and then migrate back to a different literal interpretation, depending on the language and worldview of the audience. My sermon today is about the wisdom that survives, the truth that hides in plain sight of our closed eyes, and the necessity to communicate across those barriers for the sake of those on either side or the middle of the division between the mystical and the pragmatic, or the orthodox and the heretical. Specifically, this ancient warning about being careful to say what you mean rather than sounding impressive is metaphorically true, and in a sense literally true.

So, if you had trouble unpacking that opening paragraph, you have a glimpse of the problem I hope to address. We can all see how society seems to be abandoning the struggle to communicate and instead digging into their “side” against the other side. While we think we are saying “please explain that again, so I can understand what you mean” we only hear “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Any statement of an opposing belief is not treated as an invitation to conversation, but is “an attack on my beliefs”, in which anything that looks like strong evidence is just seen as an escalation of that hostility. This is very sad, and it is very destructive. I could point fingers as to who I think is to “blame”, but I know that, as with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the temptation to sin is not where the sin lies, but in the choice to give in. We, the People, have allowed this to happen, and We, the People, need to find a way to come through it better than before.

So, about Words and Labels.

Humans are, for the most part, rational. What does that word mean? Rational comes from ratio, which essentially is about dividing things up. It is about differentiating between things and literally putting them into proportion, another synonym for ratio. So we differentiate night and day, hot and cold, heavy and light, on down to fruits and vegetables, cats and dogs, X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, and on and on. It is very useful and adaptive and is at the core of our language, our intelligence, our logic, and our memory. It is good stuff. For the record, I am not against rationality. Remember this when I delve into the dark side of rationality a bit to show where it can let us down.

This is not my first essay on how people think. As I have pointed out before, we all have beliefs that we are reluctant to alter. We cannot function by re-analyzing every thought over and over, we have to build a framework of default beliefs from which to start and then decide if any need to be revised. It is easier to refuse to do any analysis at all than to bother to revalidate our beliefs up to the point where the negative results become undeniably greater than the positive, and we have a great capacity for denial. In terms of rationality, we tend to structure our explanations of our beliefs into patters based on rational concepts of distinction and differentiation. I believe this is the right thing to do because I am this kind of person and I have this value system. This rational construct allows us to adopt minor updates or stiffen our resolve about some component of our beliefs. I can see now that the dog is a little more red than brown, but I am even more convinced it is a dog. Although it is a rational construct, active rationality is looking for updates, while our normal mode is to avoid them.

A lot of comedy is based on the flaws of that process, such as when a stand-up comic extrapolates an absurd conclusion from things we all take for granted. For example, there is a joke “if the black box always works after the plane crash, why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff?” If your rationality is dialed up on aviation technology, the joke is not funny, it is stupid You can’t make a solid steel and concrete block plane that will fly. However, everyone who never thinks about those things gets a mental “I never thought of that” rush, which is one of the causes of “funny”. Others do not find the idea funny, but that there may be people that ill-informed who they can laugh at. Most ethnic jokes work the same way. Tropes about an ethnicity form a pattern, so a funny ethnic joke either extrapolates the trope to a new place, or arrives at another branch of the trope by a new path. A generic example might be of the pattern “I asked one of them why they let the trash pile up in the front yard where it will attract flies, and he said ‘it keeps the flies away from my [alleged favorite food for the ethnicity].” I will leave it to you to “mad-lib” a version of that joke to see how one stereotype of the trope connected to another can be humorous because it flatters the person’s bigotry while tripping the rationality circuits into a new usable pattern. The lower the base rationality of the ones telling and hearing the joke, the lower the requirement of clever connections for humor to be found. The objective correctness of the patterns assumed by the joke are irrelevant, but the acceptance of the usability of the pattern are key. That is, even if “some of my best friends are…” or “I know several who are not …”, the baseline from which those distinctions are made is the pattern being used. The more our brain is rewarded for reinforcing the pattern, the more entrenched it becomes in our thinking. Yes, laughing at ethnic jokes can increase your bigotry. Stop it.

Now what I just described is not rationality per se, because although it uses the process of rationality, it is not the power of rationality to make observations about reality, but rather the pleasure or relative ease of simply utilizing rational work done by others or fitting things into established “rational” patterns you already have in place. That is, patterns of division and distinction that fit our thoughts, rather than divisions and distinctions generated or altered by active rationality. The former fits our “common sense” but the latter is the basis of skepticism. Skepticism is not disbelief, it is the inclination not to take an assertion as true without examination, and to err on the side of disbelief if sufficient proof is lacking. People often wrongly claim skepticism when they refer to simple denial. No rational progress is made without skepticism, but neither is it made from willful denial.

One dark side of rationality is sometimes referred to in pop-psychology as rationalization, in which the mental tool of rationality is used to explain something after the fact, in a way that makes sense to us but that not truly what is being explained. An example of this might range from claiming credit for blind luck, to justifying unethical behavior with a description of necessity or a higher cause. It is important to note that rationalization is not a conscious attempt to deceive, but how your mind copes with the conflict of having done something that does not rationally fit your own values. It looks to the outside observer as a crock of shit or a constructed lie, but for it to be rationalization per se it must be unbeknownst to the speaker.

“Why did you eat my lunch?”

“It was in there for a week, so I thought it was just leftovers”

“It’s the same box, but a new lunch every day”

“Well, it looked exactly the same and I had seen it in there after lunch”

The last line could be both entirely made up and entirely believed by the speaker. That is what we call rationalization.

I promised at the top that this would be about magic words, and I did not forget. This primer on rationality and rationalization is to give you a glimpse of the smoke and mirrors, but also the natural process of the mind that leads to altered reality. That is, even if we assume that reality exists apart from what we think about it, if we do things, things happen in reality. So, if something makes us do something we would not have otherwise done, it has “altered” reality by doing so. The magic is in that change happening as a direct result of words and how we process them. Ergo: Magic Words.

The simplest and most direct form of Magic Word is the label. When we label something, we gain the power to differentiate it from other things. That power may also make us see differences that are not real and similarities that are either not present or incidental to the label. The label is like a reference to all of the believed or perceived common attributes of things with that label.

Life can be Plant or Animal (except when it is neither or both). Animals can be vertebrates or invertebrates, vertebrates can be reptiles, amphibians, mammals and so on, mammals include primates, felines, canines, ovines, bovines, equines, and so on, primates include monkeys and apes, apes include orangutans, gorillas, and yes, humans, and (widely believed but not supported biologically) humans include Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid “races”. This last one shows where we tend to be confident in our distinctions and cling to them even when we are shown that they are false, or at least not as well differentiated as we assume. This happens at any level of a hierarchy like the one described above, and affects our understanding of the rest of the distinctions. We also have enormous capacity to embrace the assumption of distinction if a label is present even if we have firsthand knowledge that it is no distinction at all. An example of this is the stereotype that African-Americans love fried chicken and watermelon. Virtually every non-African-American who accepts this as an inherent and defining trait of the African-American also loves fried chicken and watermelon. Almost nobody does not love fried chicken and watermelon, so this is in no way a distinction between the labelled “races”, but because of confirmation bias (“I see examples of my assumption, so the entire assumption must be true”), the label’s validity as a marker for distinction is confirmed in the mind of the labeler.

Labelling allows us to sort our ideas, and badly chosen or poorly understood labelling can cause us to sort things poorly. This goes to another human trait: Tribalism. It is evolved into us to distinguish us from them. Those who are us contribute to the survival of our tribe and those who are them are a threat to our limited resources. In a world where you hunt and gather what is there, scarcity is the biggest threat. The fear of scarcity drives deep divisions between us and them. When you combine tribalism with rationalization, you get pseudo-ideological hostility. That is, the labels that apply to us and them may indicate an ideology, but typically they serve more to signal what ideology our tribe is socially required to hold rather than be a rationally held ideology that happens to attract allegiance. It is more about adopting an ideology to be part of a tribe than adopting a tribe because of a common ideology, but then rationalization causes the members of the tribal collective to convince themselves of the validity of the ideology. Hence, evidence of the invalidity of the ideological basis is seen by it’s members as an attack on the tribe rather than one on the ideology.

Labels apply to them as well as us, and there are many, many more kinds of them. Like us, we don’t really care what the basis of why they are them is, only that they are not us. We don’t call them “them”, we call them by labels that we identify them as not us. Those labels may include Liberal, Conservative, Humanist, Muslim, Feminist, Racist, Socialist, Communist, Fundamentalist, Christian, Non-Christian, Democrat, Republican, Marxist, Capitalist and so on. Each of these labels denote ideologies, but the ideologies referred to by the name may have nothing at all to do with the ideological leanings of the people identified by the label. While we believe that the purpose of the label is to better understand the motivations and values of others, it is far more often a way to short-circuit any temptation to investigate and dismiss a statement outright as an example of a bad label.

“If we divide the total number of hours it takes to produce the current wealth by the number of people able to do the work, we may find that we could all work 10 hours a week and still have enough wealth to feed, clothe and house the entire population”

“Don’t give me your commie math!”

“I am not suggesting we make it happen, I am pointing out that our understanding of what are resources are might be a bit skewed”

“Tell it to Kim Jong Un and Adolph Hitler”

That is the gist of conversations I have actually had, and the one refusing to think was in each case convinced that they had won some argument. As soon as they had decided what label the conversation fell under and that it was a “bad” one, no other thinking could be allowed, and this lack of investigation is perceived by the denier as an intellectual insight and acute analysis rather than an evasion. I recently was exposed to an argument that anyone in favor of a single payer health system were out to destroy the world, because Hitler used the claim of Socialism to lure people into the Nazi party. This person was not an idiot, it was just someone who had sorted and resorted the labels to find the worst version of them and because of the rational process of distinguishing and differentiating based on flawed labels, it made perfect sense that any rational person should see clearly, as far as they could tell. Labels are useful to think about things, but are harmful when they replace thinking.

At the risk of digressing, I would like to illustrate how bad we really are at using labels correctly by delving into some labels that get lots of use in our political discourse, and most all of it is misleading. Capitalism v Socialism/Communism (often incorrectly used interchangeably). Let’s start with Capitalism. Marx started the argument with a pretty spot-on description of nineteenth century capitalism. The name had a very important meaning. A Capitalist was someone who believed that capital was the best basis for all markets. If I have a store that makes a lot of money, and you have a store that makes a little money, but cuts into my market, then I use my money to end that competition. I can do that by undercutting you until you go out of business, or by buying you out, or by hiring away your best employees to keep you struggling until you go out of business, or I could buy the land you lease and raise your rent to put you under, buy the delivery service that brings your supplies or delivers your goods, and cut you off. Anything that I do that leverages the greater capital I have to win the market is what a Capitalist does in that original meaning. These things occur today, too, but we recognize this as undesirable. It is the old Golden Rule “he who has the gold makes the rule”. This is far from what most people who claim to be capitalist today mean when they use the term, but that is exactly what the term that was properly contrast to “communism” meant, and any other meaning is incidental to that contrast. Also, when Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, there was no assumption that a commune would ever have a dictator at the head of government. The very terms “communist dictator” and “Marxist dictator” are oxymorons. Also, Marx was not opposed to the marketplace. He was opposed to regular people being shut out of the marketplace. Each commune was expected to compete with other communes, but competition based on merit and performance would yield rewards for the commune, without the kind of interference to competition that Capitalism entailed. Within the commune, there were shared resources and governance by committee, and communes may cooperate by committee, but the power of the people was the goal of the ideology.

These labels bare virtually no resemblance to how they are used today, except when they are used interchangeably with modern ideologies that differ markedly from these. For example, because some totalitarian governments used the lure of socialist ideals to rise to power, the totalitarianism is wrongly referred to as socialism in order to smear successful social programs found around the world. It involves the socialist label, so it must be the same. Likewise, to contrast between a managed economy and a free market, the label of capitalism is incorrectly used to describe free market enterprise which differs in very important ways. In ECON 101 you will learn that a “free” market is one in which buyers and sellers of goods and services negotiate value in open competition without fraud or coercion. This emphasis on competition based on value and merit is in many ways the opposite of Capitalism, but because people confuse the two, Capitalist ideals, such as cornering markets and leveraging monopolies is hidden behind an incorrect use of the term “free market”. They equate “coercion” with regulation rather than leverage of non-competitive resources. This is an obfuscation that usurps the rational value of these labels and instead evokes tribal, rather than intellectual allegiance to hide the damage done by things like shuttering profitable employers to loot wealth at the expense of the workers.

This is where the idea I started with begins to come in. When you use words that you do not truly know the meaning of carelessly, you can evoke lurking demons to make mischief. You can be tricked into rejecting the values you claim to espouse and into believing that you are protecting those values by rejecting them. A skilled charlatan can string together words that awake your fears and hates and twist them into plans of action that fit patterns woven skillfully into your belief that are your doom. If you believe that your problems are due to actions of them or even the very existence of them, when in fact, them are of great benefit to you, or if in your rush to remove the protections afforded them you remove the same protections for yourself, you can be harmed by actions you are fooled into taking.

Just like the way that the worldview of the Jehovah’s Witness relative who wanted to make sure I knew that the words could have supernatural power, and not just be tricky, I must emphasize that the power of bad labels is so deeply woven into the workings of our minds that this effect can literally be indistinguishable from magic, even if you know how the spell works.


About UncleJoe

I'm a middle aged male who has attended a seminary as well as receiving a degree in philosophy from a secular university neither of which would particularly impress you if I said which. I have pondered and puzzled questions of faith and the lack thereof for many years. I don't not claim to be holy, or an expert on everything, simply observant and interested. I'll make bold statements about what I see as the way things are, and you don't have to take my word for it. Call me on it. I am here for the discussion.
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