Sunday, December 17, 2006

Words can deceive us when used by people we want to trust

We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas, and not for things themselves.
- John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)

I struggled with this quotation to craft my commentary in such a way that it would make sense. Words, after all, are one way by which we judge people.

We judge people by their grammar, their syntax (whether what they say makes sense), the level of usability of the words (whether all the words can be understood by the listener), whether sentences stay on topic, whether the progression of sentences shows a progression of thought (rather than just a jumble of random ideas), whether the sentences reach a valid conclusion, and so on. Each of these is used as a criterion as to whether the speaker or writer should be respected for his content, for his education, for what he intends for his audience.

When we read or hear the words of someone and evaluate the words in these ways, we come to believe that we know that person.

Yet we don't necessarily know the person at all. On the internet, especially, people take on personas that do not necessarily resemble who they are. People role play at work, depending on who is listening. Some lie blantantly to their spouses, family and friends.

Then there are those who should be believed, but are not. Saddam really didn't have any weapons of mass destruction (even residue would have shown up on scanners after the Iraq invasion). Palestinian mothers have the same love and aspirations for their children as mothers do anywhere, while western media would lead us to conclude that they spawn little demons. Women in several places in the world are blamed for being temptresses when they are raped, as if they deserved what they got by the way they spoke.

The words that people use should not be criteria for judging them any more than we should use their manner of dress, their religion, their political persuasion, their height or their hair colour, provided that they have not broken any laws. Words can deceive. They can trick us.

Words do not tell us who people are. They tell us how people feel at a particular moment. Few have the skills to analyze words to determine the kind of person who is behind them. For example, should a person be understood to believe everything they say in the heat of an argument or of passion?

Few have the skills to use words to change people's lives. Propagandists, advertising agency writers, political icons, religious leaders and the leaders of militant cults have such skills. The rest of us seldom even have the tools at our disposal to recognize how our minds are being twisted by these people to believe something we would and should otherwise avoid.

Words are not worthy ways to choose our friends, our political leaders, our religion or those we trust.

We should be taught ways to figure out who we can trust. As it is today, words too often persuade us to believe in things that are completely wrong, unhealthy, unwise or risky.

We need to be taught those tools early in our lives, before we become jaded by being betrayed by many people.

We need to know that collections of words such as "I love you," "I wouldn't lie to you" or "weapons of mass destruction" are not necessarily signals that the speaker should be believed.

When everyone is taught how to recognize trustworthy and sincere people from others, the untrustworthy and insincere ones will be more obvious to us. There will be less deceit because people will know that others can recognize deceit with tools they have all been taught.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to help you tell the difference.
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