[commentary] Abstract Words and the Problem of Clarity


[commentary] Abstract Words and the Problem of Clarity

January 2017

Part I.

It interests me how language- a symbolic system which humans have devised to communicate information- often obscures itself unintentionally.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Think of the word ‘politics.’

I want to contrast the word ‘politics’ with other more straightforward, non-abstract linguistic ‘signs.’ (‘signs’ is a conceptual term found in the study of semiotics)

When the brain receives the input of ‘green’, the brain automatically calls forth a specific color.

When the brain receives the input ‘carrot’, the brain brings up an image of the vegetable.

When the brain receives the input ‘politics’ however, I think for many only a vague abstract idea appears. When the brain encounters an abstract word, the proper reaction is for the brain to bring up a vast array of other more simpler words. But this reaction only occurs after an extensive education, and vast swathes of America have neither the desire or means for that. This is problematic.

My argument here is that one of the core causes of systematic political apathy in the USA amongst university students, might perhaps be as simple as the difficulty of ‘abstract words’ and ineffective ‘signifiers.’ I note that of course, the topic of disenfranchisement in actuality necessitates a much more thorough analysis, and my argument is in many ways superficial and elides much.

But my only goal in this five hundred word post, is to point out that societal change begins with education and ‘Consciousness’- and that both of these things are made very difficult when we use a vocabulary that is too abstract. Recognizing this fact, I hope we can all begin to make more liberal use of metaphors and more ‘fundamental’ words in our political efforts. More generally, as life-long students and intellectuals, perhaps we can test the extent to which we truly understand our world by attempting to ‘deconstruct’, ‘simplify’, ‘dumb down’, and ‘re-represent’ the many abstract words which we encounter daily in our classes and books. I believe words like ‘wealth’, ‘institutional racism’, ‘immigration’, ‘financialization’, and ‘justice’ all require this kind of analysis.

I suggest that it may be more effective to rephrase “politics” as “the battle for limited resources.”

Let us observe how a simple synonym or word/phrase substitution can dramatically help the laymen understand that which is obscured.

Instead of Sarah asking Jim, “Are you interested in politics?”, suppose Sarah asked Jim:

“Are you interested in how yesterday in Washington DC, different competing parties were battling for those limited resources (like physical land, clean air, who gets to drive Range Rovers, who gets to live closer to the beach in San Francisco, how much your rent goes up next month, how much of your paycheck you can keep every two weeks, the cost of your Dad’s heart medicine, who gets to bring their family to America, whether or not White police brutality may continue, and how to redistribute the huge collective pool of money collected annually through taxes)?”

Or more concisely, “Are you interested in resource-battles?”

Part II.

I leave you with one more example from a different arena that might help demonstrate how effective it is to employ the technique of word substitution/synonyms. I tell people I’m interested in ‘movies’ and how they deeply affect our lives. I tell people, “I’m interested in making more humanistic movies.” I lose many people there.

If I were to apply the lessons of this post, perhaps I should be substituting the phrase “the #2 socializing agent” for the word “movies.”

A more effective sentence might be, “I’m interested in the #2 socializing agent, and how one can alter the mentality of our communities through it.”

Or, “I’m interested in how the #2 socializing agent, aka movies, are constantly deployed by all factions in the many ongoing, modern resource-battles.”