Why Do You Think What You Think?
How a simple language hack can scramble your instincts.
You probably think of yourself as a reasonable person. You’re smart. You think things through. You get your information from sources that you trust. But not so fast. As tempting as it is to think that this is enough to ensure you’re covering your blind spots, we’re still hopelessly vulnerable to the subtleties of language and context.
Emotive conjugation is the mind-killer.
In 1948, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell popularised a little known linguistic quirk called emotive conjugation. Russell used the following examples to illustrate its effect:
- I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool.
- I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.
- I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.
In each case, “I” sounds reasonable, even admirable. “You” sounds neutral or slightly negative, depending on your disposition. And “He” sounds like an asshole. In each case what they are saying is factually identical, but we empathise with them in very different ways. Russell’s point was that beyond their dictionary definitions, words and concepts have emotional content which in many cases influence our perception more than the words themselves do. Firm, obstinate, and pig-headed are all literal synonyms, but their emotional implications are vastly different.
At first glance, this seems incredibly obvious. After all, emotive conjugation seems to be nothing more than a way of saying that the way we phrase things matters. But the impression that it’s obvious (and therefore easy for someone as smart as you are to avoid) is exactly what it’s so difficult to guard ourselves against it. The ramifications of this emotional quirk go much deeper than many of us realise. As can be seen in today’s growing climate of wokeness.
It’s no coincidence that terms like “micro-aggression” or “cultural-appropriation” have become increasingly popular over the last few years. They take actions that might previously have been described with benign terms like “misunderstanding” or “fancy dress”, and give them a negative emotional context. Once it’s accepted that these words put their perpetrators in the “asshole” category, the details of the incident don’t matter any more.
This technique can be used for good too though. A change in context can highlight a blind spot that emotional conjugation might otherwise have obscured. This tactic was used to wonderful effect by “Rev. Phil Snider, a Pastor from Missouri whilst speaking in defence of a rule which would add LGBT people to the list of minorities protected from discrimination. After about two minutes spent declaring that allowing gay people these rights would be a violation of God’s laws and an assault on the values of decent Americans, Snider pretends to stumble over his words, before delivering this beautiful mic drop:
…I’m sorry, I’ve brought the wrong notes with me this evening. Uh, I’ve borrowed my argument from the wrong century. It turns out what I’ve been reading to you this whole time are direct quotes from white preachers from the 1950s and the 1960s, all in support of racial segregation. All I have done is simply take out the phrase “racial integration” and substituted it with the phrase “gay rights”.
I guess the arguments I’ve been hearing around Springfield lately sound so similar to these, that I got them confused. I hope you will not make the same mistake. I hope you will stand on the right side of history.
I wonder how many people were contentedly nodding along with him before they realised that the words they were agreeing with had been used to defend racial segregation. Because the emotional content of what he was saying lined up with what the homophobes in the room were feeling, the revelation that the arguments he was using had been used to support something so offensive was especially powerful.
Still, if you’re thinking that racial segregation was so clearly abhorrent that emotive conjugation couldn’t possibly influence our thinking about it, you’d be wrong. When we think about segregation, we tend to think of black people being denied access to “white areas” in a way that enforces the separation of the two. But even though this is functionally identical to white people being denied access to “black areas”, the latter practice appears to be far more accepted. Worse still, it’s being done in the name of anti-racism.
The dangers of double-think.
Whether it’s “black only” spaces being enforced by white people, or “whites not allowed” spaces being confidently demanded by black people, it seems that we’re willing to give a pass to this behaviour. At the very least, we seem willing to laugh it off, rather than condemn it as we might if black people were being denied access to white spaces. The emotional impact of the two is different enough to make this obvious contradiction possible. Perhaps you even believe that segregation is okay if it’s done for “good” reasons. Or that race can be a defining characteristic for white people but shouldn’t be for black people. But that’s the problem. These things naturally include their opposites. They are like two sides of a single coin, or black and white…so to speak.
When we miss this fact or believe ourselves too virtuous to fall foul of it, we arrive at exactly the point we been trying to fight against; albeit from a different direction. The consequences of this are satirised perfectly in the video below (I’m embedding it instead of linking to it because it’s just too good).
Wokeness is supposed to be the polar opposite of racism. The intentions of most of the people who subscribe to its philosophy are undoubtedly good. Yet by focusing so singularly on race, judging different races by different standards, and judging people’s character based solely on racial lines, they become almost indistinguishable from the most ardent racists. Black people are taught to think of themselves as victims. Incapable even of racism because “racism is privilege plus power” and they have neither.
Meanwhile, white people are taught to think of themselves as oppressors. Racists by birth whose skin gives them such power that they must deliberately and continuously subjugate themselves just to level the playing field.
This is not progress.
Cause and unintended effects.
This point is perhaps made nowhere better than in John McWhorter’s edifying review of Robin Di’Angelo’s “White Fragility” (the book du jour of wokeness). McWhorter points out that the ”advice” being offered in “White Fragility” does little to change perceptions or fix the racism that continues to afflict societies. In fact, if a racist were to read Di’Angelo’s book and take its words seriously, they certainly wouldn’t come away thinking of black people as equals, they’d simply have discovered a new lens through which to see them as inferior.
“…In 2020 — as opposed to 1920 — I neither need nor want anyone to muse on how whiteness privileges them over me. Nor do I need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive about my feelings. I see no connection between DiAngelo’s brand of reeducation and vigorous, constructive activism in the real world on issues of import to the Black community. And I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength. Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome…
…White Fragility is, in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves. DiAngelo’s outlook rests upon a depiction of Black people as endlessly delicate poster children within this self-gratifying fantasy about how white America needs to think — or, better, stop thinking. Her answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people. The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught, by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor, how to be racist in a whole new way.”
Wokeness, to once again borrow from McWhorter, “diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying [them]”. Where Martin Luther King dreamed that his “four little children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”, too many people who claim to be fighting to end racism seem to be entirely focused on doing the opposite. Equality, by definition, isn’t something that can be enjoyed only by some. Segregation, by definition, cannot heal rifts in societies. Racism, by definition, cannot be prevented by reducing people to their race. At least that’s true of the literal definitions. The emotive conjugations can take us in completely opposite directions.