Friday, July 10, 2009

Sleight of Word

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“Hey Mom, we want to climb Rooster Rock.*” My friend’s son was the adventurous type and she didn’t like the idea.

“You will not climb Rooster Rock today.” Her response left no wiggle room – or so she thought. He didn’t climb it that day, he climbed it that night.

Every parent of a teenager has probably encountered such verbal rationalization. Kids tend to look for any excuse to avoid the clear wishes of their parents; it’s part of growing up. However such twisting of clear meaning is not limited to the young.

Suppose you ask your boss for a 10% raise. The boss says he would like to pay you that much, but with the current economic problems he just can’t do it. Instead you get a raise of 5%. Did you get an increase or decrease in your pay? Of course most people would laugh at you if you complained about getting your pay cut, it wasn’t cut it just wasn’t increased as much as you wanted. That’s the way mathematics works – unless you are in government.

The legislature in my state finally wrapped up its 2009 session, after much moaning and complaining about having to cut spending. In fact they raised the budget over the previous biennium. The “cut” was that they couldn’t spend as much as they wanted to spend. That is a common tactic among politicians: propose a big increase over previous spending, pass a smaller increase than originally proposed and call it a cut. Somehow they often get away with it.

That is only one example of fast and loose use of language to mislead people. Those who do this claim they didn’t lie, but the effect is the same. Politicians, advertisers and others twist the language in order to hide or change meaning instead of to communicate clearly. That is still dishonest and the people who do it are liars.

Like politicians, advertising and sales people regularly hide the truth with such terms as “save up to $50” or “we can help you lose up to 10 pounds in a week.” Just what does “up to” mean? Clearly if a person loses half an ounce or saves one penny, he is included in the “up to” group. Though advertisers mislead people into thinking they will save $50 or lose 10 pounds, few if any people will lose or save that much. The great majority will probably save or lose almost nothing. The term “up to” is a weasel word (or weasel term) that sucks meaning from the words around it, much as a weasel sucks the nourishment from an egg while leaving the shell externally intact but empty.

Similar examples abound. You’ve probably received mail from some company indicating that, “in order to serve you better we are making the following changes.” The changes often include fewer services or charging for services previously provided without charge. How that serves us better is never explained.

Some politicians want to avoid the label “liberal” so they call themselves “progressive” without saying just what is so progressive about their ideas. If we examine those ideas we find that they are quite similar to the statist “big government is right” beliefs that give liberals a bad reputation among much of the population. The “progressives” want to give us a bigger, more powerful government, something we rejected in 1776. I would call that regressive, not progressive. However the term “progressive” sounds good so they get away with it.

Unfortunately I don’t foresee any end to such disguised lying. As long as there is a buck to be made or political power to be gained, people will attempt to deceive others. They will seek loopholes, use misleading language and otherwise try to avoid plain and open communication. The only solution is for each of us to make the effort necessary to really understand. We should not just follow the misleading impressions they deliberately create.

We can ask ourselves what is really behind statements from advertisers, sales people, politicians and others who might benefit from creating misunderstandings. Are there “weasel words” that suck meaning from other words? Are there other meanings for the words being used? Are they inventing new meanings for words? Yes, that takes effort on our part, and constant vigilance, but there is no other way to protect ourselves from being deceived.

We can even go a step farther when opportunity presents itself. We can publicly point out the misleading communications. If a sales person claims savings of up to $50, ask him what the average saving is and how that number is determined. Ask the politicians how they can call a budget increase a cut. Ask the company how cutting previously provided services is supposed to serve us better.

What I would really like to see is for schools to teach critical thinking, encouraging students to question such statements. Certainly there is no shortage of examples they could use to illustrate such a class. However I doubt that will happen so we will all just have to do our part. With enough questioning, especially public questioning, we can expose those misleading claims. That would be especially true if people regularly and publicly tell those fancy liars, “I think you are trying to mislead me and I’m not going to fall for it.” If that starts happening regularly it will encourage those fancy liars to start using plain and effective communication instead of trying to cover up what they really mean.

*Rooster Rock is a basalt column, rising well over a hundred feet from the bank of the Columbia River. Though not a difficult climb, it is spectacular enough to give a mother gray hair.

1 comment:

Bobkatt said...

I was just thinking yesterday about the large amount junk mail I receive almost daily telling me that if I buy their car insurance I can save up to $350 compared to another insurer. Geico can save me over State Farm and the next day State Farm can save me the same amount over Geico etc.
If critical thinking was taught in our schools perhaps we wouldn't be in the situation we are in. The public might just challenge the candidate that claims they can give you everything you desire and lower taxes at the same time. Just maybe.