Saturday, January 22, 2011

Manipulate the Words, Manipulate the Mind

During the civil rights movements of the 50's, 60's and 70's, the American Academy decided that they would participate in the fight in some unusual ways.

Language controls thought, they surmised, so the best way to change the way Americans thought about race was to change the way they talked about it.  The academy was the perfect place for such an effort since, in their roles as teachers they had a great deal of control over how children learned to speak and express themselves.

At the forefront of their efforts was a move to change the words we used to describe race.  Out were words like nigger, negro and white, in were words and phrases like Caucasian and African-American.  There were even efforts to re-write dictionaries to omit words like "nigger".

Had this been an effort to use chemistry to resolve a disease, the academy would have used the scientific method to strenuously test the new idea before deploying it, but since it was a linguistic solution to a sociological ill, there was no testing at all, although there was a great deal of discussion about the effort as it was underway.

A curious thing happened along the way.  Although the nations urban poor were the intended beneficiary of the effort, their low participation rates in the academy due to high drop-out rates and low entry rates into college-level education, they were often the least exposed to the effort and and they became the people most likely to use the old word patterns and expressions, including the use of "nigger".

Although noted early on, the academics didn't consider this phenomenon very important since their main effort was to change the behavior of the oppressors, not the oppressed.  The oversight would come back to haunt them though as urban black music grew in popularity, constantly reintroducing the word to colloquial use.

Since this effort was considered successful, the same people began trying to expand their influence on the culture by controlling even more words.  Considered an unassailable good within the Academy, many in the culture began to resent this type of obvious effort at mind control and began calling the technique "political correctness".

It seems the academy was so impressed that they could control the social mind by controlling words, that they forgot to consider whether they should. 

The effort was having a practical impact as well.  In the trial of O.J. Simpson, defense attorneys were able to convince the jury to doubt all the physical evidence collected against Simpson by having witnesses testify they heard one of the policemen in the case use the words "nigger" prior to coming to working on the case.  Logically there was no link between the words the policeman used prior to the case and the actual evidence in that case, but the jury was so conditioned to think people shouldn't use these words that it was a significant factor in diminishing the state's case against Simpson.

The academy assumed that all reasonable people would agree with them that these words should not be used, but they never predicted the word's return via the volume of anonymous use of the internet where people use the word with an almost perverted glee knowing there would be no repercussions.


  1. Stumbled across your Blog today.
    I have met you before on SL a number of times and you may recall my avatars as being of inanimate objects????

    This 'Nigger' word is an interesting subject, falls along with 'Gay, Homophobe, etc'. worthy of future discussion.

    Hope to see you soon.

  2. I think a lot of people would be surprised at how often the word is used on the internet. It's always been interesting to me since most of the people on the internet are socially placed to be prime targets for the effort to change the language.

    It may simply be a matter of them taking full advantage of being in an environment where nobody can tell them what to say to the fullest extent.


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