I have noticed that interacting with the world today is about narrowing, whittling what you have to say down to the simplest and shortest expression possible. With the deluge of information available to us on a minute-by-minute basis, we are forced to develop our own systems to identify, sort, and prioritize what we think is valuable.
140 characters, 15 second sound bites, and headline journalism are quickly becoming the only way we produce or consume information — get in, get out, don’t leave a mess. We want only the highlights here.
Language impacts how we think, how we perceive events, how we interact with the world, and (most obviously) how we communicate our thoughts to others. If we fail to take special care of the words we have available to us and do not continuously strive to find more precise language to better articulate our thoughts, then the quality of our lives begins to deteriorate like an atrophied muscle.
This process of language erosion coincides with the development of the middle class and has rapidly accelerated alongside technological advancement in the very recent past. The expansion of language develops from the arts, especially novels and plays (I think Shakespeare invented a few words). Since the arts used to be a luxury good that only the richest people could afford, they wanted either of the following narratives: 1. to challenge their minds and seek intellectual growth through “high-society” 2. to signal to others their status and importance.
Even though the status-seeking incentive is wrongly motivated (if you disagree, read Emerson’s Self-Reliance), it at least got people to try to raise the bar for themselves in how they think, to push themselves to understand more complex thoughts with layers of meaning and to be able to accurately convey those thoughts to others. When people started hearing “don’t care what other people think,” they took it too far and stopped caring what they thought of themselves. This loss of social pressure as a tool for growth left a vacuum that created a race to the bottom for a swarm of the population.
As the middle class grew and pushed down the price of the arts, producers sought to reach a broader audience in order to maximize profits, thus taking away the elite nature. We have shifted from being aristocratic and wanting people to know we are “better” to over-correcting that mistake and dumbing down everything in order for the “common” person to understand. We have forsaken accuracy in exchange for inclusivity and expediency.
Restricting and limiting language also encourages simple, first level thinking. Too many Twitter personalities, celebrities, and members of the media seek the “drop the mic” moment rather than serious analysis and thorough argumentation. They think that one GOTCHA moment is better than a formulated thought that evidences a more complete understanding simply because it is easier to get a broad audience to “like” and “favorite” it. This stilted “sound-bite” thinking shifts focus solely to the ‘take home’ message and the path to the answer is forgotten. I say “forgotten” here intentionally, because it is not merely the case that it is overlooked or ignored, but also that the audience cannot recall how the speaker reached the conclusion and therefore cannot replicate the process for themselves. Imparting true knowledge shouldn’t involve just facts, but also methodology.
When we forget the latter, or just skip over it, we are training our minds to repeat the mistake and it eventually becomes System 1 behavior. If this becomes acceptable behavior, young people will have limited access to authentic argumentation and never learn that they are learning poorly. Adapting from Reagan, wisdom is never more than one generation from extinction.
We have seemingly given away our ability to express ourselves with the advent and cultural invasion of emojis, memes, stunted phrases like “that feeling when,” and even 1337 speak shorthand or talking how we type, because omg it’s so much easier. Communication is not simply about conveying a general idea, but doing so in the most specific way possible, which is quite a difficult undertaking anyway. These makeshift enabling tools let our brains plop down in a bean bag chair with a family-sized bag of Cheetos instead of doing the intellectual exercise necessary to get fit or at least stave off mental obesity.
Having lived abroad for several years in a country where I never really learned the language (completely my fault, I know, but I’m trying to make a point here), I struggled through conversations where both parties don’t understand each other. I’ve learned to be even better at charades in order to accomplish my task at the grocery store or bus station, but what I have lost is the ability to have my mind understood. When we repeatedly engage in this short-cut communication, we are training our minds to only scrape the surface of our basic thoughts. We are, thus, no longer able to understand ourselves or our own thoughts much less capable of conveying those thoughts to somebody else.
I am a huge advocate of non-verbal communication playing a significant role in understanding, but once we have forgotten how to verbalize our thoughts (or to even form thoughts in the first place) the non-verbal loses its impact and becomes almost irrelevant.
This fear of language devolution has been expressed many times by people far more eloquent than I, yet we haven’t heeded their warnings. From 1984 to Idiocracy, the control (Orwellian top-down) or implosion (Judge’s race to the bottom) of language was pivotal in society’s downfall. Citizens lost their ability and/or willingness to express their thoughts and subsequently restricted their opinions to a few pre-determined outcomes. This not only includes whether dinner was good or ungood, but also the framework for critical thought in general.
The only way to prevent this deterioration is for each individual to change their mindset and commit to expanding, rather than contracting, their language. This can be accomplished in several ways: 1. Make a conscious effort to use big words even when diminutive ones will suffice (something my high school English teacher used to say). 2. Read more and different pieces than you are used to — if you read novels, read some non-fiction — mostly academic literature, read poetry. But whatever you read, read to understand, not to check off your Goodreads list. Hint: if you think you understand everything you either (a) didn’t choose a very good book, or (b) need to re-read it.
3. Engage in discourse. The most valuable part of my educational history was participating in debate. It taught me to analyze to my opponent’s arguments, in addition to my own, in order to comprehend their strengths and recognize their weaknesses. It taught me to take a position I didn’t believe in, but came to appreciate after understanding their root problems. It taught me that winning doesn’t mean you’re right and that being right doesn’t mean you’re going to win. 4. Don’t be embarrassed to look up words you don’t know, or ask somebody to explain what they mean 5. Write. It doesn’t have to be scholarly, political, or even something you are going to share, but it helps to get in the habit of putting abstract thoughts or feelings into something more tangible. It forces you to focus the point you are trying to make and provide some sort of organization.
6. Finally, for now, don’t succumb to inertia and the lowest common denominator of communication. Challenge those around you to better themselves too. And if you can’t find the right kinds of people to push you to learn, grow, and seek new experiences, come down to visit us in Brazil. Leap outside of your comfortable life to develop new skills for the changing economy, learn about exciting new technologies, and interact with the most eclectic group of people you could ever hope to meet.
Let me know what you think,
As I was writing this article, I saw the movie Arrival. I didn’t want to make the article just about that, (and I hate spoilers) but there is some overlap in the area of “language is important because it affects how your brain works.” So I highly recommend seeing it.
Existential Comics backing me up a few weeks after publication… Freud always knows.