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Group Writing: The Power of Words


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” — John 1:1

Andrew Klavan is always going on about how the left disbelieves in objective reality. Thusly, they are obsessed with telling stories because if they can get other people to believe in their stories then what people believe becomes real. This always sounded farfetched to me and a little self-serving, but awhile ago in a bar, I had a talk with this guy about words.

The topic of libertarianism came up and the guy mentioned that any sort of government provision for severely disabled people was socialism.

I mentioned that every libertarian philosophy had provisions for the truly needy. (I forgot to except Ayn Rand but she is a very unusual libertarian.) I was going to talk about Adam Smith and Milton Friedman and then make my way up to Thomas Sowell. Because that is my natural towards speech in a bar. (My conversational skills leave much to be desired.)

He interrupted me and insisted that socialism is any provision to the disabled and the poor. Furthermore, he said this in a manner that suggested he was uninterested in an alternative view.

Now I got to thinking about the motivations behind his insistence. Why is he so enthusiastic when he is so clearly ignorant? (A question I often ask.) He was making no attempt to persuade me of anything and he was not interesting in learning. (Though, to be fair, I should probably make my points more concise. Quoting libertarian economists is never short.) He seemed to believe that he could change the meaning of a word. After all, words are just symbols and all symbols can have their meaning changed. Yet the books written by libertarians use a clear and defined English and mean what they mean.

But if we can change reality with what we believe, then it makes perfect sense to insist on a falsity because once enough people believe it, it isn’t false anymore.

As I said before this seemed a bridge too far. But after listening to Jordan Peterson, I’m beginning to think Andrew Klavan might have been on to something. Jordan Peterson talked about why Genesis 2:20 was so important. “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there not was not found an help meet for him.”

Naming things lets you see them and that’s why Adam has to name the animals. He needs to understand one thing from another so he uses names to train his mind to recognize the differences. In many creation myths around the world, creation starts with thought and or language. In Asian myths, in particular, human beings are made through writing.

A more practical example of creation through words was given to us by Charles Krauthammer.

KRAUTHAMMER: I had created a concept in 1978 when I was a psychiatrist, I was doing the research on manic depressive disease, how often it happens, who it happens to, sort of the epidemiology, but in my research, I came across these odd cases where people would become manic, the high part of manic depressive disease without any psychological cause, but with certain diseases, and nobody had ever written about this.

So I began to think maybe there’s a form of manic depressive disease, just the upside, and caused by illness or drugs. So I collected all the cases I did, I gave it a name, I created the criteria of when you have it, and when you don’t. I published it in the Archives of General Psychiatry, and it lives to this day, every year people report 15 or so cases of this thing. But it’s the power of naming, it’s like the Bible talking about you name the animals, you control.

So I created, I identified a syndrome, but in fact, I created it so people began to look for it. So, I always had this idea that when you name something, and you create it, and you give it a coherence, a sort of phenomena, well, then you’ve actually, you sort of created the pressure to finding more cases, and to perpetuating it. So this was my second creation. A little bit different field.

The ability to name something is so powerful to human perception that we should not be surprised when humans think that language itself is power. George Orwell’s 1984 was a brilliant prophecy of post-modernism. In it, the core members of the socialist party that controls everything doesn’t believe in objective reality. If the party says that two plus two equals five, then that means two plus two equals five. One of the many brilliant parts of that novel is that the core members of the socialist party believe their language and the magical power that it has.

What we need to realize is language is incredibly powerful because it can elucidate or lead astray. An accurate map and the ability to read can mean the difference between life and death in a dire situation. Symbols are powerful in and of themselves. But as important and necessary as symbols and language are, reality still exists and your map better tell you where the drinkable water is or you won’t last long.

There are 8 comments.

  1. Coolidge

    Why is he so enthusiastic when he is so clearly ignorant? (A question I often ask.) He was making no attempt to persuade me of anything and he was not interesting in learning.

    This is perfect description of how most social media arguments start.

    • #1
    • May 15, 2018 at 5:35 am
  2. Inactive

    Another reason that it should be against the law to say: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.


    • #2
    • May 15, 2018 at 6:15 am
  3. Member

    Are you familiar with Alfred Korzybski and his work?

    This conversation (really) is part of our Group Writing Series. (No, really this time.) It is playing on our May theme of The Power of Words. (No denying it, just look at the title.) We still have four openings available this month if this brings to mind a story of the power of words in your life. Why not go and sign up right now?

    • #3
    • May 15, 2018 at 6:51 am
    • 1 like
  4. Reagan

    If words have power, then objective reality becomes irrelevant at best. Ideas have no independent “reality” and they are the most important things of all.

    • #4
    • May 15, 2018 at 6:58 am
    • 1 like
  5. Contributor

    A powerful post, @henrycastaigne. We bat words around like they’re tennis balls, and rarely think of their impact. Much to contemplate here. Thanks!

    • #5
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:16 am
  6. Coolidge

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    A powerful post, @henrycastaigne. We bat words around like they’re tennis balls, and rarely think of their impact. Much to contemplate here. Thanks!

    Ah, but the batting about is what is most delightful in language. 

    I do take your meaning though – that loss of meaning is loss of shared reality. 

    • #6
    • May 15, 2018 at 2:10 pm
  7. Member

    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    • #7
    • May 15, 2018 at 3:13 pm
  8. Member

    Very good, provocative piece, Henry!

    • #8
    • May 17, 2018 at 1:20 pm