July 31, 2019

Words Lose Their Meanings in Politics

Treason. Spying. Contempt. Constitutional crisis. There's a pretty good chance you’ve heard these words a great deal just over the past few months. It's very difficult to look at the news from whatever source you choose without engaging with them repeatedly to some extent. 

Though it’s not necessarily the intent of those doing the speaking, there's a mental phenomenon that causes repeatedly used words to lose their meaning over time. The term “semantic satiation” was introduced back in 1962 by a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. Leon James performed studies that showed brains employing a defense mechanism to counter the effects of the increased energy required for neurons responding to oft-repeated words. Each time a word is repeated, the neurons, in an attempt to prevent themselves from overworking and causing eventual fatigue, will give less attention and significance to each iteration. In other words, the more we hear a word, the more it loses meaning.

James’ work also revealed that certain words, due to their emotional impact or consequential nature, may not show rapidly diminished meaning as others do. That may depend a lot on how they're presented, such as, say, if spoken by varying speakers in different settings.

It's difficult to discern why political leaders choose the words they do, but it's certain that words—and phrases, for that matter—can be, and are, chosen purposefully by them at select times to initiate a desired public response. Effective as commercial jingles and slogans, political ideologies abound in slogans (“Lock her up!”), sound bites (“self impeachable”) and tweets (“illegal investigation”). 

Yet even if a campaign finds ways to vary the delivery between speakers and venues in an attempt to counteract the loss of meaning, it can still occur. Let’s take it a step further, then, and consider that in anticipating the effects of semantic satiation, a campaign puts an additional strategy into play. What if, as expected, a word or phrase has eventually lost its meaning, but then, by design, is reshaped and repurposed to mean what the associated speaker wants it to mean in a given situation? With its new meaning, it’s now being used somewhat differently (even inaccurately at times), whether semantically, historically, ethically. etc.; but again, it suits the speaker’s intention. Think of meaninglessness as a precursor to propaganda.

We must not forget that language is subject to interpretation, whether it be the subject of laws, beliefs or intentions. Just as ethics can be situational, so can language. It’s also important that we don't forget to take speakers positions into consideration and, more importantly, that we assume nothing.

My father used to always say to me, “Believe half of what you hear.” Since he also taught me to believe in math, I guess that leaves a person at a starting place of 25% confidence in any given topic. Disheartening, but it does provide somebody with just enough awareness that although they might have less of a grasp of something, there’s still room to work towards really thinking it through and making decisions about it for themselves.

If half of the people believe that we are in a constitutional crisis or that treason is being committed, it doesn't make it so. But it’s without a doubt plenty of reason to examine the seriousness of the charge. Half of the population in agreement is far from rendering something completely meaningless. Even a popular hoax has to be addressed thoughtfully and logically walked back if it is to be successfully discredited.

It’s a pretty simple notion: Either a leader chooses to divide or unite. And their choice is not merely in the words uttered, but also in the patterns those words form. Patterns that, counter to semantic satiation, are not likely to lose meaning over time, particularly in how they indicate the direction the leader wants to go.

Meaning is nothing absolute and evolves over time. Now, more than ever, getting to the core of something requires reflection, even collaboration. If the words and phrases like those above are to have any meaning in the preservation of our democracy, then we ought to work hard towards maintaining the efficacy and integrity of how they integrate with our sense of humanity. Even if it means having to start over at understanding only 25% of something, it’s better than just taking somebody’s else’s word for it.