Scott’s Thoughts: Mind Your Words

“The relations between rhetoric and ethics are disturbing: the ease with which language can be twisted is worrisome, and the fact that our minds accept these perverse games so docilely is no less cause for concern.”

-Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and diplomat.

Words in neon.Words are not, as so many politicians would have you believe, empty containers to be filled at will. Words may have multiple meanings, but those meanings are well-defined. It is a sign of a deceptive mind when words are expediently redefined on-the-fly.

Choosing words wisely is not only the business of writers. Anyone who seeks to build trust, deepen relationships, and strengthen friendships should routinely inspect their words. Am I saying what I mean? Could my words be misinterpreted? Is there a better way to say what I want to say?

No one knew this better than Fred Rogers, the iconic creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. An article from last year in The Atlantic details how “The TV legend possessed an extraordinary understanding of how kids make sense of language.” According to the piece:

“He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children–the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience–tend to hear things literally.”

Fred Rogers’ exacting approach to language was called “Freddish” behind the scenes. Again, from the piece:

“They later created an illustrated manual called “Let’s Talk About Freddish,” a loving parody of the demanding process of getting all the words just right for Rogers.”

The article goes on to give an example of a simple idea revised nine times to comply with Fred Rogers’ thoughts on clarity in language. Definitely check out the example in the article. It is worth your time.

We live in an age when the concept of the truth is under assault. Phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” point towards the ways in which power attempts to undermine language for the purposes of propaganda. We need now to mind our words more than ever.

As Susan Sontag wrote:

“A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.”

Tags: , ,

Please support the partners who make Tuesday Tactics possible:


Comments are closed.