Power of Words

Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher of 6th century BC,  was once asked what he would do on priority if he were to become the ruler of the empire. He gave a reply which baffled everyone. He said: I’ll rectify the names for things.

At first sight, this sounded as trivial as our politicians renaming cities and street names. I understood the significance of this statement when I read a book by Steven Poole titled ‘Unspeak – words are weapons’. This book gives a great insight into how we get biased conditioned by words used by politicians and Multinational businessmen. Here are a few interesting examples of the power of words over us:

All of us have heard of Global warming. This word coined by scientists caused a lot of inconvenience to politicians and businessmen with vested interests in huge oil businesses. This lobby managed to rephrase the problem with a less intimidating expression ‘Climate change’. This successful rewording of the challenge justified virtual inaction on mitigation of global warming by reducing oil consumption.

Consider another controversy on Genetically engineered agricultural produce. American Multinational companies like Monsanto have a lot at stake in these dubious technologies with unproven safety. Inspired by these powerful lobbies, politicians managed to neutralize the negative connotation of the word ‘genetically engineered food’ using innocuous descriptions for these foods. Genetically engineered food was changed to a neutral description ‘genetically modified’ in the first instance which later became to a more desirable ‘Biotechnology foods’. The first change gave an impression to the layman that only a slight harmless tinkering was done while the second change seemed to imply even a beneficial effect of such foods.

In a similar fashion, if the arguments legalizing abolition were termed Pro-choice, the arguments against were termed Pro-life. It’s very easy to confuse issues for the layman by clever usage of words. For instance how can anybody be against life?

In the recent past the dirty words ‘Genocide’ was replaced by a more moralistic expression  ‘ethnic cleaning’. ‘War on terror’ was replaced by ‘Global struggle against violent extremism’. War on something appears unilateral and expresses one’s aggressiveness whereas the word ‘struggle’ has a sense of built-in righteousness.

In India we have politicians using terms like War on poverty, war on corruption, war on black marketing etc – what do they mean? Nothing much, if you look at them closely. By declaring war on inanimate objects, one loses focus on the real offenders. That is why we see so many criminals getting away without punishment. And Governments are fighting these wars indefinitely for over 4 decades! These are open-ended wars which we continue fighting without punishing the corrupt people, black marketeers or politicians.

Consider further the words like ‘Executive’, ‘Chief executive’, ‘Captains of industries’. All these are words of business and commerce  borrowed from the war industry . The use of the expression ‘Human resources’ for human beings meant that a set of men could be looked upon as any other resource like a machine and so can be ‘fired’. Likewise the term ‘launching a product’ gives one images of a rocket launch.  In other words, one is encouraged to look upon business as a warfare, no holds barred.

So, the great Chinese philosopher is right, after all, in saying that he would give priority to rectification of names for things. To quote the great philosopher: When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech doesn’t sound reasonable,things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, structure of the society is harmed; when the structure of  society is harmed, punishments do not fit crimes; and when punishments do not fit crimes, people do not know what to do.  The thing about the gentleman is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned.”  What a great insight!


Published in: on October 12, 2014 at 10:39 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A wonderful treatise on the power of words…

  2. Thanks

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