Author Ken Carey claims to have accessed true information about the world only after a long "media fast," in which he and his family lived without television, radio, magazines or newspapers for nearly seven years. If we assume that valid information about the world is a prerequisite for understanding our role it in, as well as our relative* control of it, then those of us who still tune in may find ourselves literally "out of control". We do, however, have an option for regaining some degree of influencing our world without dropping out from it for an information charge as did Mr. Carey. We just have to remember what Rudyard Kipling intended when he said, "Words are mankind's most potent drug."
Newt Gingrich probably thinks he understands what Kipling meant. This is what has given him a high degree of dominion over his affairs (and ours?). Just prior to the congressional elections, his political organization (GOPAC) distributed a memo to GOP candidates across the country that may have helped them gain control of the White House. The memo, entitled, "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," told Newt's students what words to use when describing their proposals, and which ones to use when referring to an opponent. " These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast," the memo says. It provides the degree of control desired by those who have echoed "a plaintive plea: "I wish I could speak like Newt."
Newt's understanding of Kipling's message is, however, not quite on target. Gaining relative control of our world does not mean necessarily mean that the rest of us should learn how to employ this "drug" on others. Kipling meant we should take heed not to be drugged ourselves. In psychology, self-determination is more a matter of resisting inclinations to force our beliefs on others through deception or any other form of coercion, while at the same time not being unduly influenced by others. With this in mind, here are a few tips to counter Newt's "mechanism of control."
1. Don't try to avoid stress in life. It is inevitable. Attempting to protect yourself from life's stress will make you a sucker for "us versus them" rhetoric. Such language is the classic device of propaganda. By wanting to avoid challenging situations, we tend to either disbelieve those who would make us face them, or attack others for causing them. Either way, wanting to avoid stress makes us vulnerable to the self-serving motives of those individuals who do not want us to have a clear picture of contemporary reality.
2. Face life's challenges with a minimum of distress. All you can do is to do your best. After that, a sense of humor is your greatest ally. If you become distressed, then you become hypersuggestible to language. This basic law is even recognized in the introduction of the most widely used emergency care book in the country: "During times of stress, words, even those that may seem immaterial or are uttered in jest, can become fixed in the patient's mind and cause untold harm." Simply put, when you are stressed, you are affected at unconscious levels by certain language strategies used by apparently trusted authority figures. Since we often look at our political leaders and media personalities as authorities, it is especially important to be careful when listening or reading their words while we are stressed about the issues being discussed.
3. Be on the lookout for double-binds and "either-or" statements. When you hear them, you automatically tend to forget there may be more than two choices. So, from now on, program yourself to look for other alternatives each time you hear or read something inferring only two options.
4. Listen for emotional, "contrasting," words, like those in Newt's memos, and don't fall prey to them. When you hear what is intended to be a negative word, ask yourself why that word describes something and why it has to be negative. For example, the words the GOPAC memo wants assigned to opponents include "...failure...deeper..shallow....crisis...they/them...and liberal." Even if these words tend to correctly describe someone or something, can't "failure" be something that we learn from? Can't it demonstrate that a risk was taken? If "deeper" and "shallow" both represent a negative, what's the point of responding to either? The character for "crisis" in Chinese represents both danger and opportunity. Should we only look for the danger? "They" become "Us" if we only allow it. As for the word, "liberal," does it accurately label someone ally more than does the word "conservative?"
Similarly, the words Newt want his students to use when describing themselves are also subject to scrutiny. For example, the memo lists "control... crusade... flag... compete...and eliminate good-time in prison." Do these words necessarily imply positive attributes? Nazi's controlled. Crusades killed millions of innocents. Wars are fought over flags. Cooperation may be preferable to competition. As for the last one, as a Director of a facility for troubled youth I know this means punishment instead of rehabilitation. Is this always a constructive goal?
Although a media fast may still be a good idea for most of us, it is not an exercise many of us will choose. For those of us who stay on a media diet, we can remain healthy on it only if we hold to the traditional Indian views on language that words have the power to destroy as well as the power for salvation. If we must listen to them, we should listen with respect for this power. We should understand the power increases proportionately to our own emotional state. When we forget that words are for communicating, we no longer use them to bring ourselves together in to help shape our future.
In the beginning was the Word. So will it be there in the end if we are not careful.
* I speak of "relative" control since it is healthier to realize that none of us can truly be in complete control of our destinies or of life's events.
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