Without a doubt, language is essential to the perception of an idea. Using two different words for the same idea is a surefire way of molding opinions about it. For example, let’s take a look at these two sentences.
- The obese man lounged in his armchair after a long, non-sedentary day at work, gorging on sugary pastries.
- The heavyset gentleman unwound in his chair following a long, active day at work, eating crullers.
Now, these two sentences have quite similar denotations, that is, the dictionary definitions. However, the connotations are in no way equal. Surely, the image of the second man is that of one in considerably better shape than the first. Connotation is a very useful rhetorical device, as it gives the user complete ability to mold the emotion that his or her words give off. Emotion, the undisputed king of political success, is a hugely useful tool to manipulate.
Connotation can take a number of forms. Most overtly, it comes by using one word in place of another, in the form of a synonym. Above examples include the use of “heavyset” in place of “obese” or “crullers” instead of “sweet pastries”. In politics, these substitutions are commonplace.
For instance, many officials of the Vietnam era referred to the war as an “armed conflict”. Though it is true that the U.S. never officially declared war, this is trivial. By calling it an armed conflict, they hoped to lessen the emotion behind it. Of the two, “war” carries a much stronger emotional impact, which is why nonviolence advocates called it a war.
Another key example occurs often, even today, down by the border. Proponents of tough border laws are quick to denounce the waves of “illegals” entering the U.S., whereas those who support more open borders are more apt to use the phrase “undocumented immigrants”. Of course, these mean the same thing, but that is no matter. They still are able to create two very different opinions of those who cross the border without following the law.
In addition to separate word choices, though, there is a more subtle yet also more powerful way that many use connotation. This comes through establishing the default form of a word, and giving the antonym of it a negative prefix or suffix.
In the above examples, the word that shows this, of course, is “non-sedentary” from the first sentence. Though the word merely means the same as “active”, inclusion of the word sedentary implies that activity is not the default. The obese man, likely perceived to be unhealthy, is not expected to live an active lifestyle. Thus, the break in being sedentary is different or surprising.
Politicians commonly do this exact same thing, and it is perhaps causes perhaps the most dangerous thing in America: violence.
In the U.S. today, there is not a lot of room to agree in politics. But, most people can come together on one thing: unprovoked violence is not a good thing. Though many have differing definitions of just what constitutes unprovoked violence, in our own, highly subjective ways, we can generally come to a consensus on this key issue.
So, that being said, why is violence perceived as the norm? When talking about a lack of violence, there are plenty of synonyms. Peace, equality, and understanding first come to mind. Yet, the chosen word is generally nonviolence.
Why do we describe nonviolence as something it isn’t, instead of something that it is? By using the term in a passive manner, instead of a proactive one, society implies that violence is in the mainstream, and let’s face it, it is. But, it would be quite interesting to see how that society might change their views if the language behind them changed. Would fewer people support a war, if the deaths were murders, not casualties? And, would they support nonviolence more fervently, if it was only known as inequality or anti-peace? How about the word “freedom”?
Would more people believe in the idea of it, if talks were about freedom growing, not government shrinking? A single, working class mother of four on welfare wants to hear nothing of her benefits shrinking. Why would she? Maybe they are helping her stay afloat through hard times. But, put in place the notion of her freedom increasing. That same working class woman probably does not feel as if she has a great degree of freedom under her crony capitalist oppression. Upon hearing of smaller government through the positive term, not the negative, her perception will change.
Language is a powerful tool. It has the ability to shape the minds of millions through the complex web of emotion. The way things stand today, though, it is shaping them all to view freedom and nonviolence as a second cousin that only comes around every few years. This pushes the very ideas into the dustbin of history and makes normal their opposites. Perhaps, by changing up the way words are used, and proactively describing ideals, the freedom movement will see increased success. Or perhaps, the very idea of freedom will never be more than an afterthought.
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