We will prob­a­bly never fully under­stand just why Jared Loughner decided to do what he did1 on that day in Tucson. This should actu­ally make us feel bet­ter about our­selves, when you think about it. I’d far rather be baf­fled by a spate of irra­tional killings than have a clue as to the rea­son­ing behind them.2

This hasn’t stopped an imme­di­ate and intense response from quite a lot of peo­ple, in quite a few cor­ners, each appar­ently try­ing to simul­ta­ne­ously absolve them­selves of guilt while assign­ing it to oth­ers. Ironically, the argu­ment about incen­di­ary lan­guage in polit­i­cal dis­course has itself become quite incen­di­ary. So it goes.

Rather than seek to attach blame to one “side” or another,3 I’d like to dis­cuss the lan­guage we use reg­u­larly in dis­cus­sion of any kind, which is fre­quently over-​​the-​​top and improper for our pur­poses. By “improper” I do not nec­es­sar­ily mean insult­ing, offen­sive, and so on; instead, I sim­ply mean the wrong set of words.

For exam­ple, many years ago, Hostess adver­tised their Twinkies and other baked can­dies as being “whole­some”. I believe I know what whole­some means, and it is not a word that I would apply to some­thing made almost entirely of sugar and so pumped with preser­v­a­tives that, assum­ing its pack­ag­ing remains undam­aged, it has an essen­tially infi­nite shelf life. Usage of the word whole­some is, here, improper. We might call Twinkies fla­vor­ful; we might call them con­ve­nient; we might call them tasty. We would be hard-​​pressed to defend call­ing them whole­some.

This is a good exam­ple of decep­tive label­ing. It could be argued that, since Twinkies do not con­tain cyanide, they are tech­ni­cally whole­some; how­ever, whole­some is not a syn­onym for non­lethal. Using a word that is con­ven­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with healthy cheap­ens the value of that word, and robs it of effec­tive mean­ing — par­tic­u­larly if that word is being used to describe some­thing that, eaten in any­thing but extreme mod­er­a­tion, is in no way healthy at all.

And lest you think I’m pick­ing on Hostess, Slim-​​Fast used to describe their diet shakes as “deli­cious”. McDonald’s used to describe their break­fast hot­cakes and sausages as “yummy”. Many health foods call them­selves “deli­cious” as well. Miller Light described its taste as “great”. More than a few sub­par come­dies have been called “hilar­i­ous”. Kronik calls itself an “unre­lent­ing energy sup­ple­ment”. (I don’t think it’s any of those things.) The list goes on. It’s not much of a sur­prise that younger gen­er­a­tions are cyn­i­cal toward the claims of adver­tis­ing. We all should be.

This cheap­en­ing of lan­guage for the sake of adver­tis­ing is of spe­cial inter­est to me, since I work in adver­tis­ing, was an English major, and fancy myself an accept­able writer. Of course, it’s not lim­ited to adver­tis­ing. The fre­quent and gen­er­ally improper use of the word “awe­some” sets my teeth on edge. Wow, have you tasted this cof­fee? It’s awe­some. Really? A mass-​​marketed and –man­u­fac­tured prod­uct, avail­able every­where in any super­mar­ket, fills you with a sense of awe? Heavens, get a life. Or at the very least, a thesaurus.

Why should we care, though? Isn’t this just nit­pick­ing? I don’t believe so. For most of us, lan­guage is the pri­mary means we use to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers, to take in infor­ma­tion from them, and to describe our expe­ri­ences. Sloppy gram­mar is obnox­ious to some, but that’s just mechan­ics. The real intent of our words is not in the struc­ture; it’s in the words we use, par­tic­u­larly the adjectives.

Incendiary lan­guage is used to stim­u­late, to draw atten­tion, to empha­size a point. Sometimes it’s used to demo­nize some­one, and other times it’s used to cast an entire school of thought in doubt. The same is true of fear-​​inspiring lan­guage. How many tele­vi­sion news “mag­a­zines” tell us that we should be alarmed by this, wor­ried by that, con­cerned with the other thing? If it’s an after­noon show, I’d wager it’s all of them. To lis­ten to their lead-​​ins, you’d think the world was a ter­ri­fy­ing, hor­ri­ble place, a ver­i­ta­ble deathtrap.

This kind of lan­guage is used because it grabs atten­tion; how­ever, it appeals to emo­tion. It does not con­sti­tute ratio­nal argu­ment, and is not based in rea­son. Where we get into trou­ble is when we fail to parse that lan­guage, when we for­get to look for the under­ly­ing ratio­nale, respond­ing instead to the phys­i­cal ten­sion inspired by those words. When any­one begins using an emotionally-​​based approach to an argu­ment, it’s cer­tain that he’s got an agenda. At least part of that agenda is served by mak­ing us turn off our ratio­nal judg­ment and work solely from the somatic response, that sense of ten­sion, be it anger or fear.

This super­fi­cial­ity is an ancient means of stir­ring the masses. It’s been used to manip­u­late entire pop­u­la­tions to war, whether just or unjust. It’s used to con­trol think­ing, to per­suade with the heart rather than the mind, to effec­tively hyp­no­tize intel­li­gence. Sometimes we can be moved to heroic deeds, though more often such lan­guage appeals to our baser selves.

One of the more pop­u­lar American col­le­giate com­pe­ti­tions, in decades past, was debate. Teams would be given one “side” or another on an arbi­trary topic, then have to develop argu­ments to defend that side — whether it was agree­able to them or not. Topics might have included Resolved: Communism is a poten­tially destruc­tive force in the world, or Resolved: Usage of alco­hol is a harm­less pas­time, or Resolved: The American Revolution was a desta­bi­liz­ing force. However the team mem­bers might have felt on these issues, they had to argue for or against the resolution.

The key was that they had to do it ratio­nally. They had to use per­sua­sion, facts, and evi­dence in sup­port of those views. Falling back on an emo­tional argu­ment was coun­tered as such, and didn’t fac­tor into the dis­cus­sion.4

We’ve lost the tal­ent for that. The abil­ity to form ratio­nal opin­ions is no longer taught to stu­dents; at best, they may be shown how a given set of facts was arrived at, but there isn’t any sense of how those facts were estab­lished. This reduces edu­ca­tion to a decant­ing of received truth, rather than an exposé of the means used to find those truths.

Partly, I think this is because we’ve got an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that isn’t about teach­ing, so much as it’s about pro­duc­ing a uni­form prod­uct. In recent years this has become so thor­oughly empha­sized that most schools are lim­ited to teach­ing stu­dents what’s required to pass a nation­ally man­dated test, rather than find mean­ing behind the teachings.

For exam­ple, his­tory is reduced to a dry recita­tion of dates, places, and events, with lit­tle or no mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion of how those events came to pass. That the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 is a fact — but does any­one know why it was fought? Not among most high school stu­dents, I believe.5 This is not a good trend; his­tory pro­vides us with two things: a sense of con­text, and a way to ana­lyze (and ide­ally avoid) mak­ing the same mis­take twice. However, there isn’t a par­tic­u­larly good way to judge how well a stu­dent has absorbed that con­text sim­ply by fill­ing in a bub­ble form, so the quan­tifi­able facts — place, date, event — are all we’ve got left to measure.

That is not edu­ca­tion. It’s play­ing back a tape recording.

Added to the effec­tive gut­ting of mean­ing in edu­ca­tion is an appar­ent grow­ing mis­trust of edu­ca­tion itself. Those who pre­fer poly­syl­labic phrase­ol­ogy are mocked as “elit­ists”, and of course it’s rou­tine in American schools to bully the “nerds”, most of whom are con­sid­er­ably brighter than their peers. Intelligence is, in this milieu, a deficit.6

This trend seems out of place in a nation that prides itself on indus­try, tech­nol­ogy, and achieve­ment. The tran­sis­tor was invented by an American; tran­sis­tors are what your com­puter uses to process all the infor­ma­tion you give them. The heli­cal struc­ture of DNA was co-​​discovered by an Englishman and an American; DNA is the key to all known life.

These devel­op­ments engen­dered rev­o­lu­tions in sci­ence, med­i­cine, biol­ogy, and engi­neer­ing; yet the edu­ca­tion required to make them is some­thing that most American stu­dents today don’t have — and those who do are vil­i­fied. Where once we empha­sized the sci­ences in order to outdo the Soviets, now we often regard signs of learn­ing with open hostility.

As for phi­los­o­phy — good luck find­ing that one even mentioned.

Maybe we could reex­am­ine, yet again, what our goals actu­ally are in teach­ing. Do we want our chil­dren to be hap­pier, health­ier, and gen­er­ally bet­ter off than we are our­selves? What are we doing to make that hap­pen? And what are we doing to pre­vent it?

This isn’t to say that life fifty years ago was bet­ter than it is today, or that there weren’t bizarre and hor­ri­ble acts of vio­lence being per­pe­trated when schools still sought to edu­cate rather than embed. A con­stant real­ity in our world seems to be strife, but so much of it is, in the end, unnecessary.

In Buddhism, we have the eight­fold path, a plan of action that, while not nec­es­sar­ily a direct route to enlight­en­ment, can at least reduce the strife in one’s own life. I don’t have any­where near the space required to dis­cuss all eight ele­ments, but right now a dis­cus­sion of the third part, Proper Speech, seems justified.

As I said above, lan­guage is usu­ally how we inter­act with the world. As such, it reflects our thoughts, and it can influ­ence the thoughts of oth­ers, just as their lan­guage influ­ences us. Language is a direct means to know what’s hap­pen­ing in our heads, but what we might not see is that it also lim­its us. If we don’t have a word for an idea, we prob­a­bly don’t have the idea either.

A num­ber of years back, I came to a sur­pris­ing real­iza­tion. There aren’t any nouns. No, I haven’t gone off the deep end. I mean the con­cept of a noun, as applied to lan­guage, does not match our actual expe­ri­ence. Grossly, a noun is any­thing that exists and can be pointed to. People are nouns. Trees are nouns. Cars and cities are nouns. Right?


The word tree is assuredly a noun, but the tree itself is not a fixed thing. Trees are part of a process. They take in car­bon diox­ide from every­thing that breathes, and we breathe the oxy­gen they make. They take in rain, which comes from clouds that formed over lakes and oceans, and they take in nutri­ents from the ground that used to be other liv­ing things. They use sun­light to grow, and the earth we all live on was made around that sun. Anything that every­thing is made out of came from other stars that blew up. And when a tree dies its water goes back into a river, and that goes into the ocean, and the wood turns into dirt and then more trees. The whole world is in a tree. The whole uni­verse. Just like us. All of us.

Thus, while trees def­i­nitely exist, they rep­re­sent both the tree itself and the con­cept of a tree. Deeper down, we see just how fun­da­men­tally inter­re­lated trees are to every­thing else.

We get into trou­ble when we con­fuse the word tree (the word is a noun) with the tree itself, which has no inde­pen­dent exis­tence. Our lan­guage forces us to refer to trees as per­ma­nent, fixed things, when in real­ity they are not.

We do this all the time, and that mis­un­der­stand­ing leads us down a lot of sad, ter­ri­ble paths. We become so wrapped up in what we’ve con­vinced our­selves to be per­ma­nent that we end up miss­ing the larger con­text, the one that binds us all, deeply and inex­tri­ca­bly, to one another. I think it would be a mis­take to blame all of our prob­lems on speech, but as a great teacher once said, “As a man thin­keth in his heart, so is he.” I would add, as a man speaketh, so he thin­keth.

It’s my wish for all of us that we can pon­der what this might mean, and come to some con­clu­sions of our own about the words we use, how we use them, and what we think about them. Maybe we can even do it while pon­der­ing under a tree.


1. The jour­nal­is­tic con­ven­tion is to use alleged and accused when writ­ing news sto­ries about pur­ported crim­i­nals; how­ever, I am not a jour­nal­ist. This is an opin­ion piece. Furthermore, to argue that Loughner did not, in fact, shoot a num­ber of peo­ple (which is what “allegedly” means) is to argue against all observ­able real­ity, and san­ity. ^

2. And there was a rea­son, with­out a doubt, but that does not mean that the rea­son made any sense to any­one but Loughner. Generally, peo­ple do things that make sense to them at the time. One of the pit­falls of think­ing is that we’re trapped inside it; we have no way to step beyond our­selves for an objec­tive look at our thoughts. The best we can do is com­pare our own moti­va­tions to the behav­ior of oth­ers, and see if we’re more or less on the same plane as they are. ^

3. Describing it in terms of “sides” is divi­sive, and doesn’t fur­ther the dis­cus­sion. We’d do well to try to see past arbitrarily-​​imposed polar­iza­tion. ^

4. Ideally. ^

5. It had to do with acces­sion to the English throne. One claimant for suc­ces­sion believed he had the right by birth; the other believed he had it by dint of exten­sive prior expe­ri­ence. ^

6. I know. I went over the top with the lan­guage in that graf on pur­pose. ^


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