On Language

Hola mi gente,
I would rather have a straight up racist like Trump and his gang in the White House, than a racist like Hillary Clinton. People are waking up.

I will be joining my friend, Soffiyah Elijah, on WBAI’s “On the Count” this Saturday at 11AM. We will be talking about Soffiyah’s new initiative, Alliance of Families for Justice. Click here for more information and to check us out live on the radio or the internet.


11-17-16_-on-languageThe Tower of Babel

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein


I have a friend. He is pretty smart, having first graduated from Harvard and then finishing his graduate studies at Columbia. He loves his sons dearly and oftentimes comes to me to discuss child-rearing practices. He points out that sometimes I come off as a “Philosopher King,” which is the aspect of my personality he loves best. He doesn’t like it when I’m “dicking around,” as he calls the aspect of my personality which loves to goof off (I happen to enjoy my dicking around, by the way).

Which was why I was surprised when, in asking his son to do a task, he told him, “And make sure you don’t spill any of the water?”

He had asked his seven-year-old son to bring me a glass of water. It was filled very close to the top. What do you think happened? Yup, he spilled the water almost as soon as his father asked him not to spill the water.

I have a co-worker who has recently met a woman with which he’s considering marriage. He came to me with some concerns. I noticed, as the conversation progressed that he was talking in terms of how things could go wrong, rather than how they should work.

Now, let me clarify that the aim of this post is not to make value judgments; we all have different ways of processing information. My intention here is not to judge. Rather, I am going to simply point out how our mind works how a familiarity with its mechanisms can assist in creating lasting change.

Language is a very powerful characteristic of change. It shapes the world we live in. Whenever I am involved in a social change project, I am often reminded of Einstein’s thought experiments. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into detail about them, but simply note that they entailed Einstein placing himself in an imaginary scenario in order to better understand a particular problem.

In one of his most famous thought experiments, Einstein asked himself what would happen if you chased a beam of light as it moved through space and caught up to it. Following the line of this thought experiment, Einstein eventually laid the groundwork for his special theory of relativity.

What is important here is that Einstein’s thought experiment compelled him to imagine a world that did not exist. In doing so, in immersing himself in that world, he had to act and behave as if that world existed. Furthermore, in order to properly envision such a world, he had to develop a language (theory) for it. In the process, he changed the world. What is needed to create lasting change is the capacity and will to envision a world that we want and the language necessary to create and sustain it. Unfortunately, that is what is missing from our collective political consciousness today. This is why we in the United States have Trump as president-elect.

At the micro level, observe almost every parent and you will hear people say things such as, “Don’t do it,” “Don’t think about it, or the famous parental admonition, “Don’t you dare say/ do that!” This is why punishment, as a parental tool, fails miserably. At the macro level, this is why punishment as a solution to crime, lack of access to education, and poverty has failed miserably, in the process making the United States an apartheid state. In both instances, the failure has been the failure of creating a language that sustains a vision.

If I were to tell you right now, “Don’t think about Eddie sodomizing you,” what immediately happens in your mind? Well (your protestations notwithstanding), you find yourself thinking about Eddie sodomizing you. The same thing happens when you tell your child, “Don’t spill the water.” The way our brains work is that in order to erase a negative (i.e., “Don’t let Eddie fuck you in the ass… ”), we first have to think about it. Our brains don’t know how to put things into negative language. In order to know what not to think of, our brains first have to think of it.

We all have people in our lives who, with good intentions, tell us what not to do. What they are actually doing is putting our attention exactly in the direction they feel in wrong. A few examples include, “Don’t say ____ anymore,” “Don’t worry,” “Don’t panic,” “I don’t think you’re stupid.” Using negative language is also something we do to ourselves. We tell ourselves we won’t think about something and we do. This is repression and we often mistake it for morality. For example, I am sure Weiner has struggled with posting dick pics on social media. Other examples include: “I won’t do that again (usually followed by, “Dear God!” LOL), “Don’t piss me off,” and “Don’t smoke,” just to name a few. We tend to think of what we don’t’ want to do, and then do it anyway.

Part of changing our society and even our personal idiosyncrasies is changing the language that supports them. One way is to understand that we can take our negative thoughts and state them in the positive. Instead of saying what we don’t want, we can instead envision and state what we do want. Try it.

Think of a negative statement you’ve been making to yourself, and experiment by turning it into a positive one, right now…

Yes… NOW! LOL!

Instead of saying to yourself, “don’t worry,” try asking yourself “How would I like to feel?” Instead of saying, “Don’t smoke,” try saying, “I would like to be smoke-free.” This not only feels better, it actually begins creating the mental conditions (actually making the synaptic connections) that reorients your brain and prepares you to achieve more of what you want, by focusing on the positive things you want in your life.

At the societal level, this was evident in the Clinton campaign. When running against Bernie Sanders, who was spearheading a wildly popular political movement and what he (and others) envisioned, the Clinton campaign settled in what we could not do. The language of the Sanders campaign was composed of declarations of what we could do. The Clinton campaign settled smugly into a faux “pragmatic progressive” that failed and failed miserably. The same happened with the general election where, say what you will about Trump, he was able to offer a vision and language of making “America great again.” The Clinton campaign was basically bereft of vision and language that did not counter the bleak status quo.

From a statistical perspective, about 80% of the people who make New Year’s resolutions stopped trying altogether by the end of a month. What I want to say here is that the vast majority of people who achieve change in their lives experience difficulty and fall off the wagon, sometimes many times, before they eventually get it. If you smoked a cigarette, try being smoke-free over again; see how long you can be smoke-free. Very few people get it the first time, people, so give yourself a break, and focus on the positive things you want in life. But in order to do that, you have to have a language that resonates with the kind of person you want to be or the world you want to live in.

In the end, whether we want to make personal changes or change the society we live in, we first have to create a language that helps manifest such a world. As this election shows, we are not even close and some of us believe — use language — that is self-defeating.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…


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