Memespeak - Failings of Linguistic Specificity: Social and Cognitive consequences of common imprecision in language.

Imovane Mitford Jan 2016.

For a long time I’ve railed against social media, reflexive PC labels, memes, reductionist/polarised debate and any short-form fast-food-style communication. For friends it must often be hard to comprehend why I, unnecessarily devil’s advocate and often time’s outright dissent, and now I can go some of the way to explaining it with coherence. I use meme not in the sense of internet images of stun-drunk faces with LOL captions, but the original context; The meme, analogous to a gene, conceived as a “unit of culture” (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.) which is “hosted” in the minds of one or more individuals, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind. [1]

Anyone would think (naïvely perhaps) that opening up a subject to a very large audience and accumulating comments on the net — would incrementally lead further and deeper into shared communal wisdom, revealing diverse insights as ideas evolve and rebound, accessing an unprecedented mutual reasoning and building cogent comprehension. As it were: shining with the lambent light of collective epiphanies, flashing liquidly in commune around us.

Yet anyone who’s watched the typically shrill cacophony of stagnant arguments or rehearsing tired/standard popular opinion in social media would know this simply is not the case. Why hasn’t the information age resulted in everyone (sure you and your pals might be, but why not everyone) becoming more informed? It’s frustrating to see the opportunity wasted and sometimes it’s depressingly ominous for our capacity to overcome the entrenched problems which society continues to stumble over. I think I understand the root cause of my frustration and an angle on the problem. It could help us all agree more easily via accurate meanings, unsnare our conversations from interpretive peripherals, and make social media accrual of comment-upon-comment build from a tip towards enlightenment.

.. This is going to go down like an inflatable Titanic isn’t it?

At the heart of it is the fact that any individual cannot have all of his/her specific circumstances and beliefs summed up by a single group label. That is to say, there is a trade-off of individual identity for admission or assimilation; into a unified collective. For instance, I may agree with and subscribe to a large majority of Marx’s views, with the exception of a central tenant (such as de-commodification of labour intensity for distributing value), however once I’m labelled as a Marxist, the difference is lost or forfeited. Other readily available examples are — you may be a Liberal supporter (the Australian political party) but prefer a more progressive education policy, but once you are labelled ‘a Liberal supporter’ that fine grain personal detail is broadbrush-stroked over (subsumed). It’s mixed meanings roughly analogous to saying ‘if you don’t vote Democrat then you mustn’t believe in democracy’. Surely you’ve noticed countless time that the partisan ‘left vs. right wing’ divide has been dissolving? This glimpses the problem of static divisions where groups of people with individual beliefs are concerned. The term ‘Centrist’ seem a necessary plea for election as all policies are caught in the same run-off catchment.

To avoid getting off track on political affiliations or social structures, let’s cut deeper to the common mechanism at play here in many varying examples. Linguistically we can think about ‘Collective Nouns’ (i.e. large ‘L’ Liberals) and what I think of as ‘Subscriptive Suffixes’ ie. ‘ist’ or ‘ism’ as in Marxist, journalist or Capitalism. They’re ways of binding a labelled class/group/type. You can stick an ‘ist’ on the end of just about anything and form a subscribed group, or a social schema. These are linguistic conventions for making ‘the many’ into a ‘Single’, and here’s where the trouble creeps into the mechanics of vocabulary. It’s easier than qualifying a person’s specific version of Feminism, or an exact era of Socialism. Easier and lazier interchangeably, since the intention is to save time. Now with all the Social Media posting in short-form and commenting rapidly back-and-forth, these easier modes of language amplify and terms snowball, gathering their own momentum — completely unchecked in the public/uncontrolled internet space of social media, the ricocheting meme, the viral leviathan. You can’t have viral without implication of a virus with its own unfettered life snaking around the globe, comprised almost entirely of strangers who bear no duty of care to one another.

Here I’m reminded of Our instinctive Tribalism, ‘reflexive solidarity’ — where a polarised ‘side’ is portrayed so that anyone who disagrees with it will knee-jerk associate with the opposite side even if it doesn’t represent them distinctly. It’s valuable to delve into the realm of psychology behind people’s motivations and reactions; the way they process information and filter it. Some other concepts relevant here are ‘Out-group homogeneity’ bias and the threats of Xenophobia, wars of ideals (even misinterpreted ideals often have real physical aggression and consequences) and dangers of anonymous accusation and defamation. If you can look through the prism of implicit bias, some of the noise can pause in a moment of clarity. For instance, consider the compound intellectual diversity sacrificed by Group Think[2], and the cannibalising ignorance of Confirmation Bias (tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, and ignore any contrary information). Also notable is the Cheerleader effect (The tendency for people to appear more attractive in a group than in isolation) and Availability Cascades (A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains — more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse). I’ll go on to offer a new cognitive bias concept later in the piece.

A blunt label can obscure the multitude of underlying facts, ideas, needs, goals, beliefs and events, denying the reality that such factors almost always super-impose and interact. Denying the spectrum of fine grain motives, often results in cutting down and devitalising the accuracy of how we can convey knowledge. Writing, and more often conversation, falls back on the standard “either/or” principle, for instance Nature or Nurture, or Capitalist or Communist, when these kind of polar oppositions are just a symptom of rhetoric or out-dated debates. This discursive tendency for binary opposition could in fact stem from something deeply engrained in us, the Western dualism inherent in a Cartesian world view[3], classic examples such as the problem of mind vs. body, agency vs. structure, or drilling down a level, the location in time/space — the x and y axis. All of this manifests and has feedback in the language we take for granted, and the thought systems that extend from it. It’s possible to drill down through dialectics even further though. There is a mechanism here at an even deeper extent underlying East or Western traditions, something like a metaphysical principle or a base law — of action such as ‘observation leads to dichotomy’, a me vs. other which is really just internal vs. external. Imagine it as a river running down a hill, which forks and separates into tributaries on either sides or a ridge line. This kind of systemic action forces a divergent boundary, the natural parsing that comes with extensional definition. That’s a mouth/mind full, but the real key here is that we tend to split things because it’s easy to imagine two sides to any issue, and it’s more difficult to hold multiple sides all in suspension in the mind at once. However when you get to typical opposition in debate, almost all cases — there is some synthesis position that integrates elements for a much better account. Think back on the Nature vs. Nurture ideology which almost all kids grew up reading debating opposed views, but when you combine aspects of both sides it results in a much richer and informative picture of adolescence. Life is not comprised on single discreet and discontinuous conditions. One event flows into another without isolation, often with bifurcations that diverge and converge then overlap in expositions that cannot be demarked into simple dislocated correspondence. River and streams and seas, this fluid-seamless state, say of childhood into adulthood, through hours and into days, across different contingent social groups and contexts in flux, has to be one of the most beautiful and tribute-worthy aspects of life. Lazy simplified communication and Subscriptive Suffixes could waive this complex beauty and drain it of lifeblood, leaving only cadaver casualties of sensationalised social-media speech on either side of the wreckage.

Novices, bedroom bloggers, YouTubers, forums and all the other amateurs are both: actors & self-proliferating structure of this. It’s a curious self-indictment to read in a blog, but this is much better than the problem of accusationally speaking about the silenced Others (often a cause of the systemic false-dichotomies discussed previously), consider this instead speaking about ‘us’. When we go onto the inclusive ‘us’, keep in mind there’s no restriction of an adult who knows, compared to a child groping around petulantly for learning. A naive child has equal ability to post, comment and mimic/reinforce then spread bogus terminology, in fact the child has a greater proclivity to do so. In a dimension that is basically a competition for the most attention, all things remaining equal, there will be an irresistible tendency/drift towards hyperbolic language, even straight out grandstanding of extreme and unwarranted labelling. Stacking terms against each other, saying someone ‘has been discriminatory’ will be quickly overlooked in comparison to calling someone ‘sexist’, and if that level of language has already been taken/normalised, what’s to stop mob mentality from going all out and saying ‘misogynist’? With enough time and safety in numbers the cycle will degrade even further in capricious declension. I’m thinking of rampant cases such as the insane downward spiral of trolling of female journalist Lindy West on Twitter. Entirely without reason, they first they called her Feminazi, but it wasn’t long until anonymous men were proposing assault — escalating into unthinkably atrocious violent acts that I refused to repeat. Twitter and the like, enables people to behave in ways they wouldn’t face to face, primarily without considering the specifics of the individual person or case. Publicly anonymous internet (apps like Yik Yak on campuses, or Reddit) can become KKK hoods and rallies. Children throwing stones in faceless, hysterical packs with no courtroom, jury or arbiter in sight — this should clearly raise the red flags for a zone of misuse.

Unfortunately, blame isn’t as simple as a one way street. The same mechanisms that allow ignorant children to hurl racially or sexist damaging anonymous comments at people, can also enable the crazed mob-mentality that fights back against it. People will know of the disproportionate and histrionic Yale Halloween protests, where students rallied and publically shamed professors for not boycotting Halloween costumes or not issuing ‘trigger warnings’ and guidelines for how to dress in costume without ‘the potential to offend or hurt’ racial minorities. They were talking about not allowing people to wear Mexican hats, carrying maracas or wearing Native American Headdress. This is Halloween, its dress up costumes, and these students who screamed down (also staging mob nervous breakdowns) professors attempting open conversation with them when demands weren’t immediately acquiesced too, are meant to be robust, adaptive young adults. They’re meant to be able to assess moral appropriate decisions for themselves, not to cry-bully institutions into blanket boycotts. Students who are meant to engage with challenging ideas and stand up for free speech. This crying and screaming mob called the professor names like bigots, called them disgusting racists and event threatened to have them fired. Rather than growing up, movements seek “safe spaces” with every potential difficulty censored. Infantilization (treating a non-infant as an infant) is what they are protesting for, it seems unimaginable for a young person to want to be treated as less than an adult. Articles such as “Coddling the American Mind” emerged from psychologists trying to analyse the dysfunctional breakdown of the students. Trouble finds its way into these systems here because there are no clearly marked measures of degree, or sign posts for proportionality. The clumsy, blunt language has hit ‘all or nothing’ velocity and once the momentum turns to an impassioned issue like this, hurtling down a slippery slope without moments of pause to reassess if it’s gone too far. One has to question the constructive value of such acts, and the blind hypocrisy of outright label-insulting people around you, many of who would have done nothing wrong such as professors on the peripherals trying to find inclusive and collaborative solutions, all as a response to being discriminated against.

The law (dynamics) of popularity themselves lend firstly to avoid detailed, nuanced and complicated analysis of an issue, and secondly dictates a compounding of this reduction by aiming purely for the greatest number of hits/likes/re-Tweets. The dynamics here are about quantity not quality of message, put another way: explaining an intricate truth which would take a person an hour to absorb and then reach a true revelation or insight, will be willingly abandoned in favour of repeating a populist view that can be clicked on instantaneously (preconditioned as agreeable without further thought). With the number of browser windows open on a smart phone or screen at any time, cycling with attention deficit, it’s easy to see how this manifests.

Or, arguably worse than uncontrolled forums, the spaces only filtered by media-corporations whose profit relies on sensationalising ‘saleable’ news and the mechanics of demagoguery, or co-opting and coercion based on an Owner’s oligarchy agenda. Even in absence of a traditional oligarch, other commercial media outlets are incentivised to cash in on any trend without consideration of the harm or contagious mistruth it may promote, all for the quick buck (the quicker the better). For instance news services rode the wagon of Bowie’s death for promotional purposes. Or the way a skewed word can start trending and warping such as ‘microaggression’ with such a loose definition as ‘verbal, nonverbal, environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional’. So vague and ambiguous a definition, that it can be applied wholesale to almost anything without justified measure/reasoning (where it is not actually and aggressive act perse, whether it be a genuine infringement such as a prejudice, carried airily down the senseless and unchecked treadmill to cases such as looking past someone in the street), wafting on the disproportionate outrage implicit in the original/base term. Why not just use the word discriminatory? Is there a genuine similarity to aggression proper? If the answer is no, where’s the justification for sneaking in under the umbrella of ‘aggression’. This manipulation is hidden under the demagogue veil, all the while steadily eroding the meaning of the original terminology and devaluing language. Ambiguity is the enemy of accurate communication. Counter-constructively, terms like ‘microaggression’ can actually produce a problem where there is none, plucking a grievance from the thin air of normal everyday life. Get it into a headline, get it into people’s heads and let it loose. Here a single collective pejorative noun or Subscriptive suffix such as racist or sexist can be enraging (sales) for an audience, damning (sales) by vilifying a target and efficiently spread like wild fire (sales), and if it sells, it will exponentially boom.

For those who are into logic (who doesn’t love a tender yet unflinching latex glove-gripped mind enema? Queue up right here.) INUS is a type of relationship intended to shed more light on the inner workings of what is often assumed to be one thing directly causing another AKA causal relationships. This form of logic illustrates that there is a system at play, with many more than two distinct components. INUS[4] conditions are Insufficient but Non-redundant parts of event which are in themselves Unnecessary but Sufficient in-composite with other elements; for the occurrence of the effect. It’s a way of digging deeper into the pluralism that clusters as factors of one event leading to another. For instance, let’s say you see a weather report predicting a heatwave in your city and advising preparations, you do in fact hear the air conditioner struggling in the night’s heat and you vaguely remember a hot spell causing electricity blackouts in your neighbourhood. So you go to the store to buy candles. Now, is it your memory that caused you to buy the candles? What about if you happened to realise you memory was wrong and it was in fact a lightning storm that caused the blackout. Couldn’t it be the weather prediction that was the cause, or the hot weather itself? Or could it be the case that any one of those conditions are sufficient (though not singularly necessary) when combined with an undefined cluster of other conditions? So was it climate change that caused you to have these candles? Put another way, are you 100% sure climate change did not cause you to buy candles? This is an INUS scenario. These relationships are often called nebulous to define their cloud-like morphing or networked structure. This way of unpacking the complexity of the real world around us, illuminates the — problematic nature of compartmentalised and impoverished language.

If you shrink the pool of vocabulary in popular vernacular from 171,476 words that are in current use, to halve that number, what will the consequences be? What about the flow on effects after the first consequence? How will we be impaired?

These modes of language and its consequential mode of thought, obscures the breadth and depth of features inside it. It does not admit its own inadequacy and inaccuracy and leads to intellectual irresponsibility. These lazy labels do not acknowledge that a single word explanation rarely if ever accurately describe the rich fullness, pluralism and multiplicity of explanations that comprise the person and their specific views/circumstances/history/culture/identity. Put another way, the single descriptor which gives an illusion or pretence of being the sole cause, i.e. it serves to exclude other explanations, does not in fact exclude other descriptions that may have equal merit or in combination — may give a much more accurate depiction.

-> The label is “not exclusionary”.

This is showing a tendency for people to place a simple economical explanation in front of (obscuring) a long-form complex & time consuming one, avoiding the burden of deep inspection, also a preference for a more forceful reduction with more emotive or sensationalised impact. I call this Obstruction Bias. Clearly calling out the bias in judgment and decision making can help to train engaged critical thinking.

I’m often reminded of a Don DeLillo line in the novel Underworld, about a boy not being able to name the tongue of a shoe because it was obscured by the laces on top of it, a gruff teacher sprawls out across the desk in dismay and says ‘you didn’t see the thing — because you don’t know how to look — and you don’t know how to look because — you don’t know the names.’ It seems to have profound repercussions into how a person can parse and analyse the contributory factors in an issue, and the cost of running rough shod over and sanding away terminology, thus discarding capabilities of scrutiny and effective problem solving.

That rich depth, breadth and granularity of explanation isn’t easily accommodated in everyday vernacular and conversational language. So how do we avoid the trap of broad brush stroke labelling without having to write a dense treatise (and lose the attention and persuasive power of the communication) for every comment?

I propose a linguistic device that we can employ as a short hand disclaimer or caveat — which can serve to admit that the following description does not sum the whole, and empowers the speakers to take responsibility of the fractional nature of reductionist language and labels, thus freely allowing for other interpretations and analysis without cost of the assertion. The key here is to find a very quick convention, which could work in the framework of rapid-fire Social Media post/comments. An honorary paying of respect, an all-in-one specific acknowledgement to the complex and irreducible nature of being a Human-being. I’ve thought through a lot of alternatives such as; ‘not isolatable’, ‘admitted limitations’, ‘featuring’, and ‘pluralism accepted’. None have ease of short hand use, and often miss the burden that should be carried with such imperfect explanations. So the grammatical convention I’ve come to is; ‘Non-ex’ or Nonex, short for non-exclusive. Ex from Latin means “out of, out from’ or ‘without.”

Used in a few examples, I may be ‘non-ex Marxist’ but have certain post-capitalist leanings. Or I could ‘behave in nonex Consumerist manner’, but it may be a result of personal (necessity for instance, or commonly a personal inclination of substituting a void with material goods), corporation (marketing) and societal (institutional or peer) pressures.

We could call it a linguistic (or social semiotic) Occam’s Razor — in it’s true sense, which I deliberately juxtapose with it’s common misconception of ‘parsimony’, so clearly anathema to this train of thought. The Occam meaning which I’m signifying is; never sacrificing any information with explanatory power from the represented formulation.

Let me use a real world example to make this more concrete. A good friend is an academic and teacher in America. A guy engaged with social causes and activism, he edits a Teachers College newspaper at the Columbia University in the US. Recently he did some copy editing for a piece and made grammatical corrections, due to the article starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’, also no capitalised proper nouns. Seems innocuous enough, but this good intentioned guy got a long angry e-mail response, rejecting all of his corrections as ‘RACIST!’ (the author believing he was using ethnically valid language, under the spurious veil of something like Ebonics).

Racist” — dropped indifferently like a bomb, at whim, it’s even protected from the burden of evidence behind the claim. Now: let’s say that ‘nonex’ was accepted into popular vernacular, and the accuser here considered putting the qualifier ‘nonex’ in front of his pejorative. I venture to say that it would cause rethinking and most probably even a broad-contextual rationalised reappraisal of the base judgement. Other causes would have become obvious, instead of the reflexive smearing denigration — at sheer cost of dialogue and learning about each other’s position.

Suspicion of any reductionist or quickly polarised matter which should reasonably have more than just binary (1 or zero) properties, or where composite facets should naturally form the whole; is an altruistically healthy attitude to improve critical thought. This attitude is in-of-itself a social good — to acutely pin-point a problem to interrogate the specific solutions that will work and save misguided efforts. We need to parse deeply through all the layers of extraneous distraction and prior misinformation, in order to locate the root of a problem — in turn to understand it in — order to effect a meaningful change. With linguistic specificity held as a virtue in all public spaces, we have a very real chance to turn our stockpile posts and comments from a garbage heap, instead — into successive layers accumulating upward into something like enlightenment. All of us will be better off with a means to trade in some of the desire for validation, in its place instill the values of challenging — and being receptive to challenge as a way forward in conversation. In our modern day and media saturation, we need to laud those who question the status quo, and we need to rally against those who callously propagate presumptions. Without it, we’re awkwardly bound; ungainly stumbling over each other, all screaming at once, completely unaware that each of us has blinders on.

[1] Richard Dawkins, 1976 “The Selfish Gene”.

[2] Irving Janis, 1972 “Victims of Groupthink”. Actor-observer bias as a fundamental attribution error, or Group attribution error, also plays a part here.

[3] Paul Bloom, 2005 ‘Descarte’s Baby’.

[4] J.L Mackie, 1973, “Truth, Probability, and Paradox”.