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Should language be a tool for communication or manipulation?

By MTremodian in Culture
Fri May 11, 2001 at 01:19:57 PM EST
Tags: Round Table (all tags)
Round Table

I found this link a little while ago and was struck by the implications of some of the statements made within. The article is about how the word "minority" does not really have a use or a meaning in a state like California where there is (as of the latest census) no majority. That is very interesting, but the people quoted in the article said some things which started me thinking about the implications of only holding on to words as long as they are useful.

Here is the quote that really got me thinking:

"I think passing a resolution to say that we can't use that word, I think it's ridiculous, personally," said Scott Gunderson Rosa, director of communications in the Washington headquarters of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "I was a minority and that helped me get scholarships to college, and there are a lot of other positive uses for the word."

One thing to note about this statement is that the word was not banned from use, rather it was only banned from future official government publications in San Diego (which does not even affect the speaker as he works in Washington), so Mr. Rosa is kind of blowing it out of proportion. However, that is beside my point.

My question is: why should we keep a word that is not used to communicate a concept, but is rather used only to manipulate the world for personal gain? For example, in this case it is pretty obvious (if one reads the article) that there is no clear concept being communicated by the word "minority." Furthermore, this speaker has just admitted that one of the reasons that he was able to attend college was because he was a part of this meaningless class called "minority." It seems disingenuous to use a word to describe yourself in a certain way in order not to communicate something about yourself, but rather just to gain the benefits of being in a given class.

Here is another quote that caught my eye:

"I wouldn't say I'm a minority and I'm oppressed or something," Flores said. "I'm a Latino, that's about it. I usually just consider myself human."

This seems like a much more honest use of language; there is no attempt to use meaningless words to confuse in this quote. However, my thoughts are even more generalised than all of this (this article just got me thinking): is language as a whole a tool to communicate or to manipulate? To which use do we apply language most frequently? To which use should we apply language?


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Should language be a tool for communication or manipulation? | 53 comments (39 topical, 14 editorial, 0 hidden)
Communication = Manipulation (3.40 / 5) (#1)
by joecool12321 on Wed May 09, 2001 at 07:47:51 PM EST

Well, seeing as how the majority is, "The greater number or part,"[1] I don't see why its use is invalid. Even if majority is invalid (i.e. "a number more than half of the total") minority is still valid by
  1. a. The smaller in number of two groups forming a whole.
    b. A group or party having fewer than a controlling number of votes.
  2. a. A racial, religious, political, national, or other group regarded as different from the larger group of which it is part. "
So I fail to see why the term "minority" is invalid to use. I can perhaps see the dissolution of "majority", but there is an apparent lack of understanding regarding "minority".

But getting to you broader question: is language as a whole a tool to communicate or to manipulate? I would argue that communication is manipulation. When I speak, I have a goal, an agenda. It might not be evil or malicious, but I want my memes in your head. And the very act of communication is an attempt to "win you over" to my side, no matter what my side is.


[1] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition

uncle tom cabin fever (3.66 / 3) (#2)
by eLuddite on Wed May 09, 2001 at 08:22:23 PM EST

My question is: why should we keep a word that is not used to communicate a concept, but is rather used only to manipulate the world for personal gain?

'Minority' has connotations beyond a mere head count. Usage of the word 'minority' also connotes attitudes, attitudes which can survive mere numbers. The existence of Uncle Toms are not in question, are they? It is quite possible for a minority to shame a majority into unwarranted beliefs about themselves. Furthermore, how legitimate is a California head count when the new majority is under-represented in its own government? You need to retain the word 'minority' in order to battle opponents of affirmative action and assorted anti-discrimination laws. Before you well meaning white people protest, consider this: when non-whites become a majority in elected government as well as in the citizenry, what shall we call the honkies? When non-whites become numerous and sufficiently represented to discriminate against white people, what word will be invented to mean what 'minority' means today? Neominority? Melaninchallenged? Minicaucasians? Thepeopleformerlyknownasmaster?

God hates human rights.

say again? (none / 0) (#37)
by cory on Fri May 11, 2001 at 04:51:40 PM EST

"You need to retain the word 'minority' in order to battle opponents of affirmative action and assorted anti-discrimination laws."

Maybe I'm not seeing your point, in which case I respectfully ask for you to explain a bit more. But, what the fuck are you talking about? We have to keep calling people something they are not, just so they can get preferential treatment by the government? At what point is it OK to expect people to stand on their own, if not when they have, if not a numerical advantage, no measurable disadvantage?

As for what we'll call the "honkies", probably the same thing we call niggers, spics, kikes, and whatnot. That is, "minority", not racist epithets.

(To anyone offended by the words above: I was attempting to demonstrate the point that "honky" is in a class of words that are not generally used in polite conversations. Apologies for any hurt feelings.)

(BTW, I don't see the irony in your .sig I assume you intended.)

[ Parent ]
better idea (3.40 / 5) (#3)
by Seumas on Wed May 09, 2001 at 08:23:35 PM EST

I have a better idea. Why don't they ban the word "tax" from future city relations and activities. Now that would be useful.
I just read K5 for the articles.
Or better yet (2.66 / 6) (#4)
by theboz on Wed May 09, 2001 at 08:32:32 PM EST

They should call it what it really is: extortion.

[ Parent ]

Communication is manipulation (4.33 / 6) (#9)
by turtleshadow on Wed May 09, 2001 at 11:34:35 PM EST

I think that your asking why humans are constantly required to process context.
Humanity has been influenced by our language and our language by our humanity.
Any form of "aware" communication takes 3 things
  • agreement on channel
  • agreement on response stimulus
  • agreement on closure
The channel is anything from a finger, nod, flailing arms to the full utterance "duck!" The response stimulus is culturally redefined upon each use. "Duck!" is a waterfowl or it could mean "bend down or be hit in the head". If I yell duck to a 12th century Samuri what's the use? The agreement on closure is the human behavior expected. Despite the best of intentions yelling "duck!" to a 12th century samuri may be interpreted by he as slice my head off with a very sharp sword.

Its your tribal culture that defines the how to deal with all 3 in real time and real life. When tribal cultures don't reach a comman ground they often "War" and every culture knows what that means.

Tory, Loyalist, Republican, republican, Church, church, Government, government, Fish, PHISH, VI, EMACs
These ideas are really cultural expressions and contextually interpreted by time, space and users.
In less than 15 minutes a U.S. President redefined what sexual relations is to a multiple generations and cultures.

Sucessfully living Life is tough when it's constantly growing alien.

And I think thats your concern. Without a common ground we're like Picard and Darmon sharing no common experience to form a contextual relationship around.

And that's the rub. Its taken 10 years for the phrase download to become common. I too am not sure how society can handle rapid redefinition of common contexts.
Im confused was the "Great War", WWI, WWII, U.S. Civil war, Desert Storm?

"Words are weapons, sharper than knives; we are strong -- heartache to heartache we stand....." Pat B.

Someone previously wrote something called a "book" about the matter where over generations humanity diverged not just in language; HMM... Time Machine by H.G. Wells AKA "Eloi taste just like chicken."


Be careful of what you wish for (4.00 / 4) (#10)
by Anonymous 242 on Wed May 09, 2001 at 11:35:49 PM EST

My question is: why should we keep a word that is not used to communicate a concept, but is rather used only to manipulate the world for personal gain?
If I take this statement at face value, it leads me to the conclusion that we must then eliminate every word found in the vocabulary of every person with an ideological libertarian bent, no?

Surely that wouldn't be useful.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that people use ideas to manipulate the world for personal gain. Given that words convey ideas, words are then used for puposes of manipulation.

Here would be a couple interesting experiments to try.

  1. Take a week (or even just a day) and don't say anything at all. Observe how people react, especially those whom you perceive as generally trying to manipulate you.
  2. Take a week and only vocalize statements that do not have any form or shape of self-interest.
Anyway, good stuff. Thanks for putting the time into this essay.

Semantics (4.00 / 2) (#12)
by delmoi on Thu May 10, 2001 at 12:46:16 AM EST

California where there is (as of the latest census) no majority. That is very interesting,

California obviously still has many majorities. Only the kind cut from ethnic lines are gone.

Also, You cannot have communication without manipulation. The only questions left are to the motives of the manipulator. And almost every human believes that what they are doing is right, regardless of what the rest of us might think.
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
semantics (none / 0) (#45)
by MTremodian on Sat May 12, 2001 at 02:31:40 AM EST

You said:

California where there is (as of the latest census) no majority. That is very interesting,

California obviously still has many majorities. Only the kind cut from ethnic lines are gone.

This is true, but only serves to illustrate my point. The problem with the word "minority" is that is not only means "a group that is unable to leverage enough votes to control a democracy," but also "any non-white ethnicity." Both are politically important concepts, but within the context of politics it is not clear which concept is being referred to, and therefore the word is not used to enlighten, but rather to confuse. Perhaps I should have titles my story "should language be used to enlighten or confuse?"

You said:

You cannot have communication without manipulation.
I'm giving that one a seperate post. Finally, you said:

almost every human believes that what they are doing is right, regardless of what the rest of us might think.
This is a very interesting idea that I have been considering for a while. There aren't that many people in the world who are consiously purposely bad in their own eyes. Most of us think we're doing the right thing. I've been trying to convince my rediculously conservative government teacher of this for quite some time, but it's like arguing with a brick wall.
...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]
Carlinism (4.50 / 6) (#14)
by Sikpup on Thu May 10, 2001 at 02:06:19 AM EST

"They've been bullshitted into beleiving that if you change the name of the condition, you change the condition."

What's really wrong with "minority" (4.00 / 1) (#15)
by streetlawyer on Thu May 10, 2001 at 04:39:04 AM EST

What's really wrong with the use of the term "minority" is that it lumps together Asians (largely descendants of immigrants), Latinos (partly descendants of immigrants, partly descendants of the victims of a particularly vicious colonisation) and blacks (mainly descendants of slaves). By pretending that "minority" is the social category of interest, we manage to conceal serious historical differences which still matter in the present. Plus, any term which has the effect of helping us to forget monstrous crimes is probably a term we should be doing without.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
It is a method of comunication. Period. (4.00 / 3) (#17)
by dragondm on Thu May 10, 2001 at 06:12:49 AM EST

Language is a method of communication. Period. You cannot manipulate me by talking to me. Only I can can manipulate me. If I do something, after you have said something to me, it is because I decided to do so. I have received information from you (communication) , evaluated it, and made a concious decision to act. I may decide I agree with you and act accordingly, I may decide yer full of baloney and act according to that. In either case I am the deciding factor. Words do not make my decisions for me, I do.

You cannot manipulate people with language. People have to decide to do anything, and you cannot make their decisions for them. Even someone who believes everything he hears still has to make a decision, namely, a decision not to decide. The only thing you can manipulate with language is a computer.

Even if you think you are manipulating someone with language, you are not. You are merely providing them with an opportunity to deceive themselves. Language is either communication, or it is meaningless noise. Note that "minority" is a rather vauge word. Even in it's basic meaning, without any connotations, what, exactly does it mean? Any group less than 50% or any group less than the largest group? The common useage makes it even vauger (How exactly, do you define a minority? After all everyone is a minority of one.) This, of course, is the attraction of the term, and others like it. It's a noise-word that carries no meaning, but simply serves as a verbal blank that the listener can fill with whatever they feel like. That's not manipulation, that's mutual self-delusion.

Finally, I find the number of "Communication = manipulation" posts here highly disturbing. Do these folks really have so little respect for other intelligent beings that they consider them to be like computers that can be programmed? Is this how they see the world, as some vast collection of robots all pushing each other's buttons?! I find the kind of mind that could think such a thing to be rather frightening to contemplate.

RE: It is a method of comunication. Period. (4.00 / 3) (#18)
by GiTm on Thu May 10, 2001 at 07:42:55 AM EST

You make some good points but I tend to disagree with you.

Language can be used for manipulation, and has been since we migrated beyond the grunting phase I'd imagine.

Language is used to transfer ideas and information from one person to another. By clever use of language I can make you agree to something you would never agree to if it was put in another context.

Language is imperfect - that's why so many paradoxes can be expressed in language which are easily proven false if expressed in a mathematical or logical context.

And all people are robots - we can be so easily programmed without realising it. It's only after taking the time to think back that we realise that we have been duped, or lead to agree to something we wouldn't normally.

The difference is time and thought. If we take the time to think about articles like this we might find that we don't agree with it. If you are being coerced or pressured into making an immediate decision (to sign a partition on the street while you are waiting for the lights to change for example) you might make a completely different decision based on the language employed by the person trying to get you to make the decision you want. Usually by the time you've thought about it it's too late to change - go back and take your name off the petition?

I don't know the solution - unfortunately it's unreasonable to take an appropriate amount of time to think about everything first, and skillful manipulators of language can (and will) do their best to get you at that moment

--- I have nothing funny to say here.
[ Parent ]
Imperfect languages... (none / 0) (#28)
by MTremodian on Thu May 10, 2001 at 06:43:49 PM EST

This is a little off topic, but you said:

Language is imperfect - that's why so many paradoxes can be expressed in language which are easily proven false if expressed in a mathematical or logical context.

That's only partially true; Kurt Godel proved that no complete, axiomatic system is consistent. In other words, it is possible to express paradoxes in the language of mathematics. It's not easy, but it's possible. I recommend you read Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter if you're interested in these ideas (or AI or the nature of intelligence or art or music or computers or philosophy...it's a very impressive book).

Anyway, thanks for posting with a thoughtful reply. I enjoy reading the discussion I have sparked.

...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]

Free Will (3.00 / 1) (#33)
by Solipsist on Fri May 11, 2001 at 01:22:05 PM EST

Before you tell me that you decide to do anything (in the sense of decide that you use), you have to prove to me that you have free will. This is a complex topic that I still do not fully understand myself, but let me list some of my objections to the idea of free will.

When you have choice to do something or not do something, why do you make the choice that you do? The only answers that I have heard to this question are :
  • The decision was made by some system, i.e. logic of some sort
  • The decision was random
  • The decision was made by gut instinct, or intuition, or feeling
If the decision was made by some system, then there is some type of reasoning process that goes on in your head to help you make a decision. I would argument this process is deterministic, or it is probabilistic/random in some sense. If it is deterministic, then free will is no where to be found except for the choice of the process itself. But this process must have been chosen in some manner so my argument then applies to this choice. If the process is in part random/probablilistic, then you do not have control over some part of the decision, and thus how can you claim to have made the choice?

If this decision is completely random, then this is really just a separate case of the first argument. For some reason you chose to make this random choice and thus my argument recurses on that meta-decision.

If you claim that your decision stemmed from a gut feeling, an instinct, or basically something within you that you did not decide to have, then what control do you have over this feeling? And thus, how can you claim to have control over the decision? I certainly understand that people have these urges that appear without reason. Hunger and sex drive are two good examples. Do you really have any choice to be hungery when you get hungery? or find erotic what you find erotic? Maybe you can decide to not act on these feelings or through some means attempt to alter then, but at this point you are again making a decision based on some system or some other instinct.

The best argument (not necessarily a good one) for free will that I have heard is that the choice to think (and make decisions) is axiomatic. This is the argument that I have heard from Objectivists, and I can't really refute it in any way, since it is not based on anything. I throw this into the "no point arguing" catagory.

I have to say that I am not completely satisfied with my argument against free will, but it is the best I have. It can be condensed as follows: Everything I do, I understand why I do it (in which case the decision is deterministic), or I do not completely understand why I do it (in which case I cannot claim to completely control my decision).

So how does this relate to the topic of discussion? Well, I would claim that all communication is at least an attempt at manipulation. As other people have stated already, when I say something to someone, I am doing it to alter the actions of that other person. Sometimes I attempt to alter the actions of others purely for my purposes. Other times, I alter the actions of others so that they will be happy (or at least as I perceive their happiness). Of course this is also for my purposes. There are many people in the world whose happiness is integral to my own. If I understand the other person well, and know how they make decisions, then I can structure my arguments to be more effective. Of course I really don't understand how a lot of people make their decisions, and thus my manipulation is inperfect and often ineffective. The act of communication is just manipulating someone so that they have some new knowledge that they trust and feel that they can act on. People should want to be manipulated by others, if they feel that they can trust the manipulations of that person. It is just impractical to gain all knowledge by direct experimentation, or the like. Thus we must trust some people to give us knowledge that is true. Yes you can decide whether or not to let someone manipulate you with language, but how do you decide that? This is not some special trait that we are born with (at least I wasn't), so someone must initially instill this decision process into us (usually the parents of a child). While this decision process does change over time, it does so by the addition of knowledge and understanding that come from other people (or possibly from your senses, but we learn to interpert that either from knowledge from other people or some innate internal mechanism, like time correlation of the different senses).

So yes, we can decide who to trust and how, but if someone is one step ahead of us and knows what to do to make us trust them, then they can manipulate us to their whim (for at least some amount of time).

[ Parent ]
It takes two to manipulate ... (4.80 / 5) (#20)
by kostya on Thu May 10, 2001 at 10:58:38 AM EST

I think we need to realize that while many people are skilled at manipulating, no one can be manipulated without their consent.

Yes, I said exactly that: no one can be manipulated without their consent.

It's communication. You can cease to listen. Walk away. Put your fingers in your ears and shout nanner-nanner. Even better, just start shouting "Infidel!" or "Bigot!" or "Racist!" or "Hate-monger!" at the person you feel is manipulating you ;-)

Now that being said, many times, we can be out foxed by someone who is very good at manipulation. But I would think on K5 that no one here would:

  1. want to admit that is possible for them (cuz we are all very brilliant <grin>)
  2. want to apply any kind of control to language
Think about the last one. Don't many of us here pride ourselves on our ability to manipulate, to persuade, to argue? Do you want people to respond to arguments with "You can't use that word! I feel it is manipulative!" I mean sheesh! We already have to put up with the moronic assertions of "Well, that's my opinion!" which somehow implies that the right to speak is also a right to be correct. Do we really want people starting to say, "Hey, I don't like that word!", when it really represents an inability on their part to put forth a counter argument?

Not that MTremodian's point. But the attempt to define how we should converse smacks of the same spirit of everyone having a right to their opinion and, therefore, the right to have their opinion considered valid and correct carte blanche. I'd think that K5 would be the last place where defining and limiting the scope of discourse would be considered a good idea :-)

Perhaps it just pressed one of my buttons :-)

Veritas otium parit. --Terence
Words and Meanings (4.75 / 4) (#21)
by Komodo321 on Thu May 10, 2001 at 12:21:39 PM EST

Segregation used to be a respectable word - it meant to seperation or becoming seperate. It could apply to the way that 5 year old boys and girls chose what groups to sit in, or how sediment would seperate in a river bed according to size and density. But it was used so often as Racial Segregation that segregation became RacialSegregation, and it isn't polite to use the term unless you are condemming racism.

Discrimination is another perfectly good word that has fallen into the same trap. Racial discrimination is wrong and illegal. But discrimination itself can be good - employers should discriminate (make distinctions) between qualified and unqualified candidates. But imagine the responses if you asked people if they were in favor of discrimination - I would bet 99% equate discrimination with racial discrimination.

Minority is the same way. A person can be a member of group that is a racial minority. They can also be in a political minority, a religious minority, or an operating system minority (hail Tux!!). It seems that a few people have become sensitive to one particular use of a word, and want to ban all uses of that word. Its unfortunate, but a predictable outcome of the racism in society.

People talk about a color-blind society. We have one! You've heard about people getting a 'Green Card'? It's pink. An airplane's black box? Its fluorescent orange! People that are pink or light brown are called white, while people that are darker brown are called black!

Maybe someday we won't have to engage in these discussions. Until then, keep thinking, keep questioning, and be polite.

Redefining terms (3.00 / 2) (#23)
by weirdling on Thu May 10, 2001 at 01:04:06 PM EST

Gay used to mean happy. However that isn't a special pleading case. My favorite new one is 'disadvantaged', which I guess replaces 'challenged'. The word 'disadvantaged' seems to imply that there are 'advantaged' who must somehow be responsible for the 'disadvantaged'. Back when I used to be a Christian, I used to rail at people who insisted that 'love is not an emotion'. The problem with redefining terms is that it is detrimental to meaningful discussion. If I, as a Libertarian, use a term exactly as I remember it being defined, but someone else, as a liberal or conservative, views the term as having a different meaning, then we can end up in a very long discussion, in which we may never find out we are using differing meanings for those terms.
I, personally, don't like the term 'minority' because it suggests I am somehow a majority. Well, there aren't that many of my branch in this country. We're a very small minority. We have never been rich. Perhaps we should receive the scholarships et. al. that other minorities receive?

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
Connotation gives language richness (3.50 / 2) (#24)
by Kellnerin on Thu May 10, 2001 at 02:48:14 PM EST

I was tempted to title this comment, "Are Minorities Art?" but that's just being facetious. The point is that there are plenty of words out there whose meanings are ambiguous, or up to interpretation (some of them big ones, like justice, equality, and merit) and we shouldn't just decide to stop using them because they may be confusing, or are used to convey things beyond their literal meaning.

When you pose your question there are parenthetical assumptions inherent in your choice of words. Should language be a tool for communication [of truth] or manipulation [of opinion]? In some ways there are problems with this phrasing, just as there are problems with speaking a minority that is not directly opposed to a majority. But it's really quite typical of the way we speak. That's partly because restricting ourselves to the literal meanings of words wouldn't allow us to say very interesting things. By and large, people don't use words to convey objective truth; they use them to share their opinions, perceptions, and ideas. Truth, along with the "meaning" of words, is determined by general consensus.

Language is a tool, as you say, and we should use it in whatever way is useful. We keep those strangely shifty words like "art" around because we find them useful, even though people do not always agree on what they mean when they use them. German philosophers sometimes aimed for lexical precision with Lengthycompoundwordupmaken, but people still didn't know what they were talking about until they explained themselves at length. So instead we can stretch existing words to convey our thoughts, and if we do it well enough, we extend the language a little bit, giving other people the vocabulary to express their own ideas. When the confusion arising from multiple meanings for a single word outweighs the greater ease of expression, the less useful meanings eventually fade into obscurity.

Aside from the quotes you highlighted, the bit from the linked article that struck me was "there is no consensus about what word or words could replace minority." Until such a consensus evolves, from of our everyday use of language itself, discarding a word's usage doesn't do much other than deprive the language of something that we could have used to express ourselves.

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--

Language 4 Communication 4 Manipulation (4.50 / 2) (#25)
by Blarney on Thu May 10, 2001 at 03:16:05 PM EST

This is a really deep topic, so I hope you'll forgive me for any errors or inconsistencies. However, it is my opinion that language is always used for communication - that is the only thing language can do. In turn, the communication is intended to alter the actions of the person to whom it is directed.

You seem to be drawing a line between "manipulative" and "nonmanipulative" communication. However, this line is not so sharp. If I try to convince somebody to invest $1000 in a penny stock scheme, that's "manipulative". Is it manipulative to suggest to a friend that we should smoke marijuana and play Worms Armageddon, or do I get to call it "nonmanipulative" because he often enjoys this activity? Is it manipulative to ask a cute girl out for lunch? Is it manipulative to yell for somebody to duck when a rogue baseball is flying at their head, or is it "nonmanipulative" because it is for their own good to obey?

You can't really draw a sharp distinction between manipulative and nonmanipulative communication. Perhaps you could say that a manipulative communication is one in which you are trying to get somebody to take an action which solely benefits you and not him/her? This is still ambigious - refer to the date example above. The "manipulative" or "nonmanipulative" element of my communication to the attractive female in question depends mostly upon how she feels about me and is not under my control at all. Perhaps if I make threats or promises, it becomes manipulative? In the baseball example, suppose that I am the one who has batted the baseball. I wish the person I am yelling at to get out of the way and avoid injury - but this also avoids a potential lawsuit against me. Does this make "Duck!" a manipulative use of language?

Like you, I object to this Orwellian redefinition of words like "minority", but not because it renders communications automatically "manipulative". Rather, I object because Newspeak is a rewriting of the language designed to make certain concepts unexpressible.

I have mentioned before here on K5 that at my school, some professors define "minority" as "an oppressed group" with no relationship to actual numerical size - the blacks of South Africa were/are a minority. This is objectionable, not because it manipulates people, but because it makes it impossible for me to say "Minorities are not always oppressed". This statement would be parsed as "Oppressed groups are not always oppressed" and would be prima facie a meaningless statement like "Blue is green".

The English language will compensate, though, it always does! Minority will end up meaning something completely different, possible "an oppressed racial group". For purposes of expressing a subgroup with less than half the members of the larger group, or less than a plurality of members, another word will appear. Just as the French "Arret/Arrest" doesn't mean "Stop" in English anymore, and the French "Demande/Demand" doesn't mean "Request" in English, the word "Minority" will end up meaning something new.

In my opinion, simply redefining words like "Minority" for political purposes is ultimately futile due to the flexibility of language. Orwell was probably wrong about that.

matter of style (2.00 / 2) (#29)
by anonymous cowerd on Thu May 10, 2001 at 10:44:30 PM EST

My first guess is San Diego hath banneth the word "minority" maybe partly because it misleads the ear so badly with regard to number. A real "minority," as we aged English speakers used once long ago to know the word, is an aggregate, a body of persons with something in common who are outnumbered by the others. One minority, like one team or one company or one nation or one crew, is a bunch of people. Whereas the justly proscribed "minority," in the usage that they banned there, is instead an atomic individual, happening to belong to a minority group.

Had I been language tsar in San Diego, I'd have done this long ago. Whenever those dumb bastards misuse a plural for the singular, it grates my ear and I fuckin' can't stand it, I jump up and down and go nuts; dammit you bet I'll never buy either a Nissan "Maxima" nor a Mazda "Millenia". (While conversely, were I buyer for a company, I could stomach ordering a whole fleet of "Millenia.")

For example, in this case it is pretty obvious (if one reads the article) that there is no clear concept being communicated by the word "minority."

How absurd! Everyone knows not just one but at least a half dozen well-understood and commonly accepted meanings and associations attached to the word "minority," in its (number-fractured) sense as an individual person. Surely you're not going to tell me I can't, as everyone has done forever, use the exact same word in two or a dozen different senses! provided, that is, the different senses are clearly distinguishable in context. The fatal weakness of a cliche, what ends up bringing a cliche down, is not that it is meaningless, far from that, nor merely that it is boring, but that its meaning, once so clear and vivid, has become blurry as well as bland due to overuse.

Yours WDK - WKiernan@concentric.net

breathe deep, breathe high, breathe life, don't breathe a lie

have you gone to University? (2.66 / 3) (#30)
by V1ct0r Ch4rl3y on Thu May 10, 2001 at 11:13:43 PM EST

I think a fundamental thing to learn in life is that language is a very powerful tool. You can enrage, delight, manipulate, etc... depending on what particular words in what particular order you use. At least with the english language anyway.

That is something I always suspected but never truly appreciated until University where I had more exposure to open debate with some insanely intelligent people. However, what I learned early on is that a lot of negotiation is in what isn't said.

So is the word 'minority' saying anything? To me the word means that the person using it feels they are not being heard and/or they are not given a fair chance and/or are allowed to participate and/or invloved in decision making. We live in a 'majority rules' society, so it makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Words are powerful, always choose them wisely. 'Minority Groups' have known this for some time, and I would suspect they are dreading the day they become the majority... they will lose the power that comes with being percieved as the oppressed under the title of 'minority.'

Of course on a global scale, white folks are the minorty.

'Me love you long time GI...'

It is about manipulation (2.50 / 2) (#31)
by Highlander on Fri May 11, 2001 at 06:50:18 AM EST

Language is always for manipulation, but sometimes it is for manipulation of language.

Actually "manipulation" is in itself a word that has no clear meaning, as it is usually used with a connotation of "bad manipulation", not neutrally.

By "manipulation of language", I mean for example that you can use it to pass knowledge to the next generation.

Even if you are the member of an evil cult(tm), you should use and encourage the use of language and the passing of communication, since in a world of conspiracy, it is very important that all parties have good knowledge what the other parties are doing.

Moderation in moderation is a good thing.

There's glory for you! (3.40 / 5) (#32)
by Kellnerin on Fri May 11, 2001 at 11:44:21 AM EST

`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs: they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

`Would you tell me please,' said Alice, `what that means?'

`Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

--Through the Looking Glass

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--
The definition's based on power, not demographics (3.00 / 2) (#34)
by sera on Fri May 11, 2001 at 03:20:13 PM EST

Merriam-Webster has three main definitions of minority:
  1. a : the period before attainment of majority. b : the state of being a legal minor
  2. the smaller in number of two groups constituting a whole; specifically : a group having less than the number of votes necessary for control
  3. a part of a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment b : a member of a minority group <an effort to hire more minorities>
Definition 1 seems to apply to issues of age -- as in, "Teenagers are minors" -- and is irrelevant in this context.

Definition 2 is correct for Latinos in California (32%) -- but it is also true for everybody else, including Asians (11%), blacks (7%), and white folks (47%). So it applies to everybody, and is a bit useless as a way to distinguish one group from another.

Definition 3 would, by traditional liberal thought, apply to non-whites, but not whites. The idea being that non-white people in U.S. society have to put up with a lot of discrimination, both subtle and overt, that white people don't have to deal with.

Assuming you believe that discrimination exists at all, definitions 2 & 3 are easy to confuse, because they tend to exist in the same place. But definition 3 is what's politically relevant.

You can make the argument that things have changed, and that now non-whites have as much opportunity in this country as whites do. (I personally don't agree with this opinion, but I can respect it.) But to act as if numbers are the only thing that matter is more than a little disingenuous.

firmament.to: Every text is an index.

What's politically relevant... (none / 0) (#41)
by MTremodian on Sat May 12, 2001 at 02:00:42 AM EST

Your definition three is no more politically relevent than your definition two, and perhaps even less so.

America was structured at its founding with a few basic principles, among which was that pure democracy does not work. There must be measures to protect the citizenry from the "Tyranny of the majority" (this is all over the Federalist papers). This is why America is (or at least started out as)a "federalist republic" (though the "federalist" part has pretty much disappeared from our regime). Anyway, whether this has been accomplished or not is another topic entirely that should not be discussed here. However, given that the government in America (i.e. politics in America) were structured to combat the tyranny of the majority (in terms of groups who have enough votes for control, unlike minorities, which according to your definition two are groups having less than the number of votes necessary for control), definition two is extremely politically relevant. Definition three is also politically relevant, and that's just my point. They are both relevant, and therefore there's no real way to tell which one you are using, even within the context of "politics."

Furthermore, even according to your definition two of a minority (a group having less than the number of votes necessary for control) all of the "groups" in california are minorities...even the whites. If they're all minorities, then what is the purpose of the word?

...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]

Constraint against free speech (3.33 / 3) (#35)
by sera on Fri May 11, 2001 at 03:24:41 PM EST

Am I the only one who finds this a little chilling? A mayor in California is telling city employees what words they can't use in city documents. What's next? Directives saying you can't use words like "immigrant" or "underprivileged" or "poor"?

And why does this story put the burden of proof on people who want to keep using the word "minority"? What about the people that want to restrict that speech? Shouldn't the burden of proof be on the censors, not on the censored?

firmament.to: Every text is an index.

No giants -> no midgets? (3.00 / 3) (#36)
by aralin on Fri May 11, 2001 at 03:50:40 PM EST

Well, since when the fact that there is no majority means that there is also no minority? In case there would be 59% black in lybia and 39% white people does not mean that these 0.8% of hispanic are not a minority. Or something important escapes me here?

Were all minorities... (none / 0) (#42)
by MTremodian on Sat May 12, 2001 at 02:05:39 AM EST

In California, there is NO majority as of the latest Census. That is to say, there is no one group who has the number of votes necessary for control. Therefore all of the groups in California ar minorities, or groups having less than the number of votes necessary for control. But if we're all minorities, then what does the work really mean? Andif no one knows what it means, then it can't be used for meaningful communication, but it CAN be used in emotionally charged arguments to manipulate.
...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]
You are possibly mistaken (2.00 / 5) (#38)
by SIGFPE on Fri May 11, 2001 at 05:10:32 PM EST

My question is: why should we keep a word that is not used to communicate a concept, but is rather used only to manipulate the world for personal gain?
Would you like to give an example of a word that isn't used for personal gain?

I think you are labouring under a misapprehension. We are all taught from a young age that language is about directly communicating representations of the world. But this is false - just like the other linguistics untruths that we are taught that are patently false (eg. that nouns are 'things' and verbs are 'actions' and so on.).

From the day language started being used by humans it will have been selected for because it provided a survival advantage to its users. If describing the world was useful for survival then that's just one use for language. There are many other ways to use language to maintain survival and gain access to members of the opposite sex for reproduction. Forming alliances, deceiving, displays of aggression, wooing, shaming, triggering religious experiences, showing allegiance to a group, showing one's status within a hierarchy and doubtless countless others. A language without words for manipulation would hardly be a language at all - it would be more like a computer language.

You ask whether language should be used for manipulation. Think about that word 'should'. Surely it's nothing other than a tool to manipulate others and get them to do what you would like them to do.

Manipulation (3.00 / 1) (#43)
by MTremodian on Sat May 12, 2001 at 02:13:51 AM EST

I did not try to manipulate my readers into adopting a certain viewpoint in my story. I did try to manipulate them into responding by choosing the obviously charged example of the word minority, instead of any one of the myriad other examples available. Interestingly, only one poster called me on it. The word should had no real manipulative value, I was just asking. The real manipulation comes not in my story, but in my posts afterwards. In the story I was not trying to convince anyone of anything, only to get them talking. Afterwards, I am trying to convince people of various things.
...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]
No manipulation? (none / 0) (#47)
by SIGFPE on Sat May 12, 2001 at 04:06:34 PM EST

You aren't looking hard enough. Not every manipulation is an attempt to get people to look at things from a particular point of view. Every post and story on K5 is probably an attempt at manipulation - getting kudos for a smart reply or a popular story. We are so blinkered about human behaviour - especially about linguistic behaviour - that we are able to convince ourselves that communication isn't a social manipulation tool.

PS I don't know if you're partly responsible but I generally leave 1/5 scores for things like mindless ranting.
[ Parent ]

stuff (none / 0) (#50)
by MTremodian on Sun May 13, 2001 at 03:10:16 AM EST

I don't rate posts.
...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]
What I said. (none / 0) (#51)
by MTremodian on Sun May 13, 2001 at 03:19:51 AM EST

I recommend that you re-read my post. I did not say that I did not attempt to manipulate you in my story, I said that I did not attempt to manipulate you into adopting a particular viewpoint in my story, and that I saved that manipulation for my subsequent posts. I freely admit that my post was manipulative in that I tried to manipulate you into replying to my story (which you did, showing my success).

However, this was not quite what I was questioning in my story, and I have subsequently in a post (like number forty-seven or something) attempted to clarify what I was questioning. In essence I was questioning deception more than manipulation, but I suggest that you also read that post, because I say it much more completely and eloquently there.

...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]

Question is worded badly (2.00 / 2) (#39)
by Daemin on Fri May 11, 2001 at 06:12:38 PM EST

Language is a tool for manipulating another persons mind.

That is inherent in the fact that it is a tool. Tools are used to manipulate objects. A hammer on a nail. A wrench on a nut. Language on someones ideas.

The question as to what it should be used for is non-sensical, because it isnt the type of thing that can be used for something other then what it does.

We can ask "What should a hammer be used for?" because we can do other things with it then hamme rin nails. Smash a window, or someones skull, etc. But any use of language is always done with the intent of changing the contents of the hearers mind. What language is used for is bound up in the way it is used, of nessescity. We cannot seperate how it is used and why it is used.

So the question "what should it be used for" makes no sense, because if we were able to use it in some other way, it would cease to be language. Anything that functions in a "language like way" is subject to the same restraints language is. I.e. its purpouse is bound up in its use. They cannot be seperated.

Hammers (none / 0) (#44)
by MTremodian on Sat May 12, 2001 at 02:20:20 AM EST

Hammers can be used for many things, not just driving nails. My fundamental question was should the tool of language be used for communication or manipulation. Implicit in that question was the assumption that communication and manipulation are two different things, and that language is an effective tool for both. I think we can all agree that language can be an effective tool for both communication and manipulation (whether they are the same or not), but obviously my assumption that communication and manipulation are separate was a somewhat hasty one. I shall defend this assumption in a post that is not tied to someone else's.

...speed overcomes the fear of death.
[ Parent ]

What are words (3.00 / 2) (#40)
by strlen on Fri May 11, 2001 at 08:00:08 PM EST

Why is it surprising that minority still means the same thing even though a minority is not a minority? There's a concept behind a word, and last time I checked asians/hispanics/blacks had not become white. Words do change their meaning over time. Look for instance, at the usage of the term literraly. Nowadays, its often used to mean figuratively, exactly the opposite. And no, I don't find the word minority offensive to me. The concept is not offensive, so the word is not. Yes, there is such thing as connotation, but generally it uses special terms, like dyke instead of woman or shorty instead of small. And creating special termd with planned conotation is exactly what PC crowd is trying to do. For instance, vertically challenged, already is an insult to short people, short is a much better way to say it.

[T]he strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone. - Henrik Ibsen.
The definition of "manipulation" (5.00 / 2) (#46)
by MTremodian on Sat May 12, 2001 at 03:10:52 AM EST

My fundamental question was should the tool of language be used for communication or manipulation. Implicit in that question was the assumption that communication and manipulation are two different things, and that language is an effective tool for both. I think we can all agree that language can be an effective tool for both communication and manipulation (whether they are the same or not), but obviously my assumption that communication and manipulation are separate was a somewhat hasty one.

I think that a lot of the posters here are construing "manipulation" far too broadly. If I say "Did you know that Sir Isaac Newton believed that the planets revolve around the sun in elliptical orbits?" then I am obviously manipulating you because I am trying to alter your thought processes by adding a fact to your memory, the posters say. But this is not what I meant by manipulation.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines Manipulation to be:

\Ma*nip`u*la"tion\, n. [Cf. F. manipulation.]

  1. The act or process of manipulating, or the state of being manipulated; the act of handling work by hand; use of the hands, in an artistic or skillful manner, in science or art.
  2. The use of the hands in mesmeric operations.
  3. Artful management; as, the manipulation of political bodies; sometimes, a management or treatment for purposes of deception or fraud.
This same dictionary defines the verb form of Influence to be:

\In"flu*ence\, v. t. [imp. & p. p. Influenced; p. pr. & vb. n. Influencing.]

  1. To control or move by power, physical or moral; to affect by gentle action; to exert an influence upon; to modify, bias, or sway; to move; to persuade; to induce.
The third definition of "manipulation" is what we are interested in here. The difference between the two words should be relatively obvious, but I will explicitly state what I mean: all language is used "to persuade" (influence), but NOT all language is used to commit deception (manipulate).

It was the opinion of the powers that be in San Diego that deception was not an acceptable goal of language used in their official documents, and that the word "minority" was essentially deceptive in nature given that its primary meaning (a group that is unable to leverage enough votes to control a democracy) meant everybody, and therefore had no meaning in California. IE if everybody is the meber of a minority, and you're championing minority rights, then you should (logically) be championing the rights of everybody, but you're not championing the right s of whight people, even though they are a minority too. You say minority, but you mean people with non-white skin color. If the whites actually do still owe the people who have different colored skin something (maybe they do, maybe they don't, that's not my point), then the people who are asking for it should say so plainly instead of cloaking it in the protection of the "minority."

My opinion is that language should be used to communicate ideas, and influence other people in rational ways to act in the best way possible, not to decieve people into thinking that what is good for me is actually just the good, and people should therefore just do what's good for me. That would be dishonest, and manipulative.

...speed overcomes the fear of death.

What Mr. George Orwell had to say on this subject (5.00 / 3) (#52)
by johnny on Sun May 13, 2001 at 10:57:37 AM EST

in 1946 and still right on the money.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.

Should language be a tool for communication or manipulation? | 53 comments (39 topical, 14 editorial, 0 hidden)
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