Please repeat the word "word" until "word" no longer seems like a word.
Word word word word word word word... word word word? Word? Word, word word word word word. Word word word, word word word word word word word word word. Word, word word word word word word word word word word word word, word word word word word word word, word, word word word word word word:
WORD = WORD.
So it seems like words have meaning... until they don't? What? Like, how is that even possible. For whatever reason, this has been on my mind a lot recently. Finally, I think the following metaphor not only helps me resolve this dilemma, but also point to how we activists, artists, and educators can better reach people:
WORDS = MONEY.
And talk isn't cheap.
Money doesn't have any inherent value. It certainly takes a lot more effort and raw material to create a bicycle, than to print Benjamin Franklins on two green pieces of paper. Yet, you can buy a hipster fixie bike for $200, a fact I know now after moving to Portland.
Words don't have any inherent value. When we see these three shapes -- a semicircle, a wonky triangle, and a half-cross -- we think of a furry purry murry animal. That's only because enough people have mutually agreed that's what those shapes, CAT, means.
Money doesn't have any fixed value. A penny in the 1920's could buy a sweet candy, but today, peeps are rallying for the death of the penny, because it costs more than a penny to make a frikkin' penny. Death to pennies.
Words don't have any fixed value. "Queer" went from being a synonym for "strange", to becoming an insult, to becoming proudly reclaimed as an inclusive label, to becoming a boring standard descriptor.
Money isn't culture-independent. Try as I might, nobody will accept my Canadian cash here in America. They just look at me funny, and wonder why I'm trying to use Monopoly money in their store.
Words aren't culture-independent. There's the obvious example of different spoken languages, but also "theory" in an academic setting is totally different from "theory" in colloquial speak.
So, money/words have no inherent, fixed, or universal value.
Yet... money and words DO have value.
Try living in a complex society without money or language. You wouldn't last long. In fact, you couldn't even have a complex society without some medium of exchange, and one can't even do abstract thinking without a symbolic language. (For example: I write these posts not just to express an argument, but to actually figure out the argument!)
So how can words have meaning & money have value, yet at the same time, not really? Simple. The value doesn't come from the thing itself. It all comes from how it's used.
And in the case of language, a word IS its use.
That's all kind of abstract, so lemme give an example that hits close to home, when my peers and I got really hung up over a couple words, that is:
What is a "game"? What is "art"?
Years of useless debate later, my natural reserves of fucks had run dry, and so, I have no more fucks to give about those words. But it'd be too easy for me now, to look down on peeps arguing over those words. Coz remember - words DO have value, it's just that the value comes entirely from how it's used.
And how is the word "game" used? I don't mean definition-wise, I mean socially. "Game" comes loaded with different expectations from different communities, because again: not culture-independent. And "game" as a marketing label gets you access to a wide audience and economic platforms. With all that at stake, no wonder people viciously fight over that single word.
As for "art", well, forget that word. It's pretty much only used for prestige.
Of course, I'm a hypocrite, because I describe my own work as "interactive art", and me as an "artist" -- I'm deliberately trying to piggyback off the prestige of that word. Maybe this is just the lie I tell myself, but it's more than just superficiality. By making the interactive medium more prestigious, I can help get more bright minds into this field, and for schools, storytellers, and big organizations to seriously consider this medium!
I abandoned the word "game" a long time ago, though. I can't work within the current expectations and economics of the game industry. But that brings me to my main point here today, what I'm trying to communicate to any of you whose job is to communicate:
BE AS GODDAMN CYNICAL ABOUT WORDS AS YOU CAN.
Words = money, so treat them like money. A word IS its use, nothing more. What can you buy with these words? How can you mint new words? Unlike money, words don't just have economic impact -- they also affect emotions, cultures, politics, and our very ability to think.
Okay, as soon as I wrote that, I felt disgusted at myself, to be honest.
Did I just recommend 1984's Newspeak? Did I just validate politicians who make up euphemisms to make atrocities more palatable? (And no, I refuse to use the standard BS excuse of "it's just a tool")
Wow. Okay, I really want to delete the entire previous section, because it just sounds sociopathic. Because, well, it is. It is sociopathic.
But I'm keeping it in for the sake of intellectual honesty. And besides, this demonstrates what I said before, that the act of writing words helps me figure out my own argument. Words are a tool for thought, and therefore, they shape thought.
Let me backtrack a bit. Think about the money metaphor. Money can be used cynically, to bribe politicians to give you a good deal... but money can also be used cooperatively, or altruistically, like supporting an independent artist or donating to a good cause.
Okay, so let me instead say this. What we activists, artists, and educators can do is to:
USE WORDS COOPERATIVELY.
That is, don't use words with the purpose to be fancy, ("utilize" vs "use") hide reality, ("collateral damage" vs "killed civilians") or be antagonistic. ("rednecks" vs "conservatives")
Also, it means when speaking, being mindful of how a word affects who's listening to you. Making people feel defensive will only solidify their current beliefs. ("you're wrong" vs "what you said was wrong") And intellectually, some words and phrases give people the wrong mental model. (e.g. "level the playing field" makes me think of an actual lever, like a seesaw, which means one side MUST go down in order for another to go UP. That's a zero-sum mindset, which is both wrong and nasty.)
And use words that enhance critical thinking. Words with intellectual nuance, rather than going for emotional hyperbole. Words that demonstrate your own uncertainty, so people can challenge you. And don't be afraid to teach your audience new words -- maybe invent new words or reclaim old words -- so they can work with bigger & better concepts in the future.
(Okay, I just realized saying "bigger & better" might have given the wrong mental model that ideas can be objectively measured on a single scale. I should have just said "new". Ack. This is hard.)
Yes, this is scary.
Yes, it'll mean using more words.
Yes, you will fail at it often, like I just did.
But maybe if we stopped thinking talk is cheap, and started being as careful with our words as we are with our money... maybe we can go from people talking at each other, to actually talking with each other.
P.S: I have just been informed that people are also not careful with their money either. Well. Whatever. Screw it.
P.P.S: Also no, despite all my love for intellectual dialogue, I'm not opening comments on this blog ever. I'm a hypocrite. Screw it.