How Language Tricks Our Feelings, Shrouds Our Thoughts

“Become you own magician, and show others how these tricks are performed.”

Continuing discussion about how we think and talk about matters of ultimate concern in home education, from the Snook post Homeschool Freedom Fighting: It’s SO Not About the UN . . .

We’d communicate so much better if it weren’t for the darned words! 😉

I prefaced a teasing comment last night with the words “mischievous grin” in brackets. As I quick-checked my spelling on Google, I saw four meanings, only the third of which was the meaning I had in mind. The other three were qualitatively different and would have been trouble if anyone had taken my usage those ways:

1. maliciously or playfully annoying.
2. causing annoyance, harm, or trouble.
3. roguishly or slyly teasing, as a glance.
4. harmful or injurious.

So I used the word anyway but not without thinking to myself (for the millionth time) that our beautifully powerful words are being turned against us on purpose, as in 1984’s Newspeak, as when I listen to Sarah Palin channeling nonsense as presidential-level utterance, as Meg Ryan said to an insulting French concierge in the movie French Kiss:

Kate: Hi there. C’est moi.
Concierge: [coolly] Welcome back, Madame, to the Georges V.
Kate: Huh… it’s incredible how you do that. The words come out – “Welcome back” – but the meaning is completely different. What’s the deal, is that a French thing or a concierge thing?
Concierge: As Madame wishes.
Kate: You did it again. Tell me something, because I just… I don’t get it. Do you enjoy being that rude? Because when you do that, it just gets underneath my skin, and it makes me… completely… INSANE!


. . .One character says admiringly of the shrinking volume of the new dictionary: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

. . .[In Orwell’s] essay “Politics and the English Language”. . . he laments the quality of the English of his day, citing examples of dying metaphors, pretentious diction or rhetoric, and meaningless words – all of which contribute to fuzzy ideas and a lack of logical thinking. . .

Orwell said that political prose was formed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell believed that, because this writing was intended to hide the truth rather than express it, the language used was necessarily vague or meaningless. This unclear prose was a “contagion” which had spread even to those who had no intent to hide the truth, and it concealed a writer’s thoughts from himself and others.

I see this in home education both online and IRL, that even good intent and real effort to think and speak truth have been infected, and we’re all suffering for it. Highly contagious, maybe on its way to pandemic. I found this long essay by an interfaith ministry student, thinking and communicating clearly about how the words we hear and use, either help or hurt clear thinking and communicating.

Unfortunately, one of the main culprits that we face in this process is actually language itself. Language is an extraordinary tool. We would not be where we are as a species without it. But because, as a species, we are so hardwired to respond to language with belief, because so much of what constitutes how we experience reality is the result of linguistic constructions, language can become a font of illusion as easily as it can be a tool for the enunciation of truth.

Often, hearing is believing. Thus, when you are around people who constantly talk about God, always within the context of the unstated assumption that of course God exists, this has a profound effect on you. .

It is the same thing with values. If you are around people who constantly talk as if something is wrong or is right, you will probably come to think both that values are objective and that the specific value judgments of that group are accurate, whatever they happen to be. Likewise, if you are around people who constantly talk from the assumption that God exists, you are likely to find this a reasonable proposition.

In contrast, if you are around people who either talk from the assumption that God does not exist or who merely do not reference God at all, you are likely to find the belief in God a ridiculous proposition.

(I think this, by the way, is probably the primary reason why religious groups want the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer to take place in school. The more instances something is mentioned in a positive context, the more taken for granted it will be. In contrast, having children spend the majority of their time at school in which the belief in God is not assumed is highly threatening to the indoctrination process.)

The less you go to church or other faith activities to have your programming updated, the less sure about the existence of God you will probably become.

Language allows for these sorts of magic tricks, cognitive illusions, to be performed on you. From different perspectives, different things will “feel” true . . . This is especially useful when listening to politicians. Those that seek to manipulate you are able to do so in large part because of language. The masses are more powerful than the elite, and the elite know this. But the elite also know how to manipulate the masses through the use of words.

Become you own magician, and show others how these tricks are performed.”

See this essay as originally posted for the in-depth conversation with scads of news connections that followed, on how our own words are giving us chronic indigestion even though we could swear we didn’t eat any of them in the first place. . .

3 responses

25 05 2011

Wrapping one’s mind around unschooling is easier with [negative soul-sucking schoolish experiences that make kids cry] kept front and center. . .

But it’s really, really hard to do. Dale McGowan at Meming of Life has written about “confirmation bias”* in trying to enlighten ourselves about religious doctrine, where even a tough, serious and motivated mind may have embedded scripts below the level of consciousness that sabotage objective inquiry in decision-making of all kinds.

It feels so risky to stop believing the party line of either church or school, that our own minds and emotions are on the other side working against us! — to talk us out of it or if that fails, TRICK us out of it, for our own good of course, because conformity feels safer to the lizard brain.

The primitive fear is the same in either case, that if you reject either school or church teachings, you will be cast out into the darkness and damned, your life will lose all meaning and you’ll eat out your own liver for eternity. Talk about high stakes tests! 🙂

JJ’s Hypothesis: Adults determined to study and test their own embedded beliefs about either church or school, are likely to have similar personal experiences with both.

Some people get to unschooling more with their feelings, often after being so monstrously mistreated by schooling that the mind finally will accept almost anything as being safer than a return to that. Same with church. Maybe think about “church” conventions as a parallel to “school” conventions — how the culture indoctrinates us that both are some sort of universal human truth and resistance is futile. As children we receive church AND school dogma as “written on our hearts” to the point that as adults, daring to break with belief inside our own hearts and minds, can feel like falling into an abyss.

Others of us get there with our thinking more than our feelings, I guess. Like me. 🙂

But even as we think we’re being so analytical and rational, and we try consciously to challenge the cultural scripts about church (and school) all around us, they keep playing on a loop INSIDE us all during our inquiry, under the level of rationality, and it’s very hard to resist; I imagine it must be something like how addiction feels? When the mind has doubts about embedded scripts of school and church, even a well-educated and scientific mind tends to rationalize away the doubt to resolve the dissonance, and usually that means the embedded idea is not only not removed, it’s actually reinforced and harder than ever to think away the next time. This is not logical but very human.

I read and researched for years, tried several belief systems and thought I had a couple of transformative spiritual experiences even, before I could finally set aside my lizard brain scripts of church — and then I had to start all over again with school. Studied it all, tried it all, thought I believed and embraced it all, until I had my own children. (That should be the picture in the dictionary next to the word “epiphany!”)

So then I addressed my growing doubts with years of gorging on cognitive and education psychology, and that eventually became my own mind’s way of accepting that any risk in unschooling was better than the known system failures of schooling.

*Confirmation bias 1

Confirmation bias 2

Confirmation bias 3

Confirmation bias 4

Confirmation bias 5

“We ALL do it. The trick isn’t to lead our children into a magical life free of confirmation bias, but to get them to fall so deeply in love with reality that they work hard to fight this tendency in themselves and others — precisely because it deludes us and blinds us to reality more than any other error.”

26 05 2011

Slick Ads Implant False Memory We Feel Sure Is True:

“It turns out that vivid commercials are incredibly good at tricking the hippocampus (a center of long-term memory in the brain) into believing that the scene we just watched on television actually happened. And it happened to us.”

. . .The answer returns us to a troubling recent theory known as memory reconsolidation. In essence, reconsolidation is rooted in the fact that every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details. Although we like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them, they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. What’s disturbing, of course, is that we can’t help but borrow many of our memories from elsewhere, so that the ad we watched on television becomes our own, part of that personal narrative we repeat and retell.

This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory. It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember.

26 05 2011

. . .every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details. Although we like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions . . . they aren’t.

This explains something else disturbing — there are factual and emotional value twists in the shared memories of my younger siblings. (Some are downright warped.) This was true even when our parents were alive, but more so since they passed away.

Have you had that shock, reminiscing with a sibling or other family member only to find they’ve completely rewritten reality, like a Texas textbook rewrites history?

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