Language and Power

Logan’s last post, which, alas, makes me feel embarrassed about my own ignorance of the political system, ended with a really great point that just happened to sync up with some more of my reading as I re-familiarized myself with Orwell’s famous essay: Politics and the English Language. Logan’s article ended with the quote “citizens cannot understand the language used by policy-makers until they have the basic core knowledge which policy makers share”.

I’d like to emphasize this point because it happens to be one of my many specialties: How language works and the power it wields. Let me start with one analogy.

Every semester I teach classes to college students who are first time college students. They come in the first day of class and I introduce them to writing and introduce them to the course. Usually, part of this first day is a review of the course syllabus, which contains all of my policies and explains how grades are calculated. I then, throughout the course of the semester, do what every teacher does and constantly refer my students to the syllabus.

“How much is this worth?”

“When is our final?”

“How do I turn in a revision?”

“Can I email this to you?”

It’s endless and fun and repetitive. But also, every semester, I have students who do not understand why they made the grade that they make at the end of the semester. And, once again, I have to explain how “as you will see on my syllabus. . .”

Part of the problem, I’m sure, is not that students are stupid or don’t know how to read or think it’s not important. Part of the problem, especially for new college students, is that they are suddenly expected to know a whole lot of new vocabulary—not just what the words mean, but how they actually affect the events of the real world. Most of my students know what Attendance means, but they only know what it means in high school. In high school it means I bring a doctor’s note or my parents call the teacher or I make up a funny excuse and the teacher will give me some make-up work and explain to me what I’ve missed. It means that sports and other life events, as long as they have the correct documentation, almost always trump class time. In my class, Attendance means that you are responsible for the material that is presented in class and that the college strongly encourages me to withdraw you if you miss more than a set number of meetings. I don’t care at all about excuses or other life events. It’s a much more  concept.

The point of this rather long example is that a lot of what Logan (and others) are saying about politics works the same way. If the people understand a word in one sense and the policy makers (the people in power) understand the world in another, there is going to be wailing and gnashing of teeth at the end of the semester.

Let’s take another, more universal example: what is the one lie that everyone has told?

“I have read and agree to these terms and conditions.”

Why don’t we read End User License Agreements? Because we don’t know the language. We all aren’t lawyers, and those are made up of legal language that sounds funny to everyone but lawyers (I assume so, at least; maybe even lawyers are confounded by it).

I’ve tried before, and I’m a pretty good reader. I can muddle my way through an EULA, but it’s technical and super-precise and less interesting than just about every other form of writing I can imagine. But it’s a great example of people who know the power of language using it to get what they want. Sure 99% of the things never actually affect the real world, but if you misuse the product or program, and misuse it publicly enough, suddenly that thing you clicked through can have some serious repercussions. And the Lawyers will suddenly have their day.

So language does have power, especially in situations like syllabuses and EULAs when an individual agrees to written policies by participating in a specific action. The reason that we educate students to read literature and write essays is so that they can wield and understand the potency of language. It is subtle, but absolutely necessary for living in the real world because it shapes and defines and influences the real world.


About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
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