Recently, Sam Harris proclaimed with some profundity that our language has a very important consequence to our actions. During a Q&A he acknowledged that his presence on a talk show had the backlash (like it usually does) of people proclaiming that he was a Xenophobe, a bigot, a racist, and a Nazi. The importance of this escapes most people, as Sam explained if you think that he is of that sort simply because you disagree with his opinion, then what language do you reserve to describe the actual threat that is fascism, racism, or heaven forbid a Nazi regime?
This isn’t a political rant, what Sam brought to light is a problem that we have with vocabulary. We as a 21st century people have given into the placid numbness that high stimulus media and word fatigue can cause. In our effort to be noticed individually, to gather attention, whether, in likes, views, or even just recognition, we have found that we have to sensationalize our language, we have to have a call to arms, a reason for people to listen, even if it is to only bring attention to a picture of our lunch, or we might otherwise be left to the swipe of a thumb and the blur of a scroll - lost forever in the infinite abyss of 0s and 1s.
The above example can even be plainly seen in most news outlets as an attempt to gather clicks and momentum within social media, with it comes a very real backlash effect - but we know this. The boy who cried wolf might have never happened, but the effect of the fable is most definitely present today, as we see an abundance of shiny words seeking our attention. We now don’t know what reaction to have, when to be aghast, when to take up a healthy public discourse, or when to resort to bearing arms and defending everything we know and love. What we didn’t learn in a clichéd lesson that most of our parents tried to program into us for crying too often as children, we will almost certainly reap the consequences of through a divided in-group, if not an entire civilization.
Receiving language is one way our brain interprets information; it then can detect a threat based on the inflection of those words. The intent can describe and assign importance, what words we choose to use or NOT choose and how we say them have the power to motivate our actions, comfort our indiscretions, and possibly burn every relationship we have to the ground. In the age of the smartphone, we all have most certainly felt the consequence of poor language choice by way of improperly inflected text messages, the simplest sentences can wreak havoc on the strongest of relationships. It is why as a rule of thumb my wife and I agreed to settle debates through face-to-face confrontation, or at the very least through the use of Skype or FaceTime, but never text messaging, because the written word when undertaken carelessly has the power to do more harm than good, it breaks before it fixes; it is a master-less power, made more powerful through our own naivety and carelessness.
It is of little to no coicidence that the use of emoji's have yet to settle a debate.
Language isn’t always negative and doesn't have to be in order to generate the problems associated with word fatigue. Positive language can also cause fatigue, and a weariness to take people serious these days. For one, companies, businesses, and the sort need to stop using the term “family” when describing their employees, customers, or communities. Perhaps people can derive different meanings or levels of importance given the word, but taking a dramatically useful term and relegating it to that of common marketing speech will again displace what terms we use when something is of actual importance.
Family – to me - is a time-honored traditional term referring to a specific member that beholds value that money and all but the worst disagreements or betrayal can separate. To call someone family means that I put my own finances, health, and safety on the line when called upon, because I know they would do the same, and I also know they would do everything possible to avoid asking me to do such a thing in the first place. I would also return the honor by not requesting it of them unless absolutely necessary. Someone is not "family" because you like the same music, you play the same sport, or you have matching T-shirts, you can certainly call on these people when the situation arises, but don't be disappointed with the word when these people fail you, be disappointed in yourself for misidentifying such people because of your disregard for the meaning in language. Sometimes, even blood relation doesn’t reflect what the term family actually means. There is a dull thud I feel when someone aggrandizes the use of a term to emphasize a relationship that doesn’t exist, it lets me know just what that individual or company really perceives as a family, which is usually a bond of the monetary sort and not the one respected by a code of ethical value. The use of the term is strategic from a marketing standpoint, it lowers our defenses, much like a call to action might raise them. Friend, brother, buddy, and mate all have these same consequential values, but so do the terms enemy, foe, and hate.
Language is befitting to how we decide to use it, but it is useful only in the context of how much truth and meaning are insinuated by its use. If words become meaningless and warnings start to lose their frequency, then communication becomes impossible. The fuse that gets lit upon our desire to embellish our words and attract attention is in fact attached to an explosive nature of truth, the fact of which is just our inability to correctly use language. An accusation or a rallying cry may very well bring men with guns to your door, it is our inflection and purposeful language that will decide whether they are friends or foes.