Semantic Distortions: How Words Can Betray Rational Thinking

In this week’s spotlight I wish to discuss semantic distortions, how word meanings are distorted by our beliefs and emotions. Our world, to use the words of Alfred Korzybski, has now become, perhaps more often than any sane person would like to admit, false to fact and therefore necessarily distorted. It is precisely the mechanism of semantic distortions that underlies thinking processes that are or become neurotic or psychotic. It is also this same mechanism that gives rise to self-sabotaging behavior and self-limiting beliefs. This very same mechanism—and mechanism is a good word because the process becomes so automatic that it operates without conscious awareness—martials our defenses to action whenever our semantic processes are challenged. In fact, the unconscious pervasiveness of the mechanistic nature of these semantic processes is such that even the most knowledgeable of specialists on the matter must maintain a constant vigil to guard against them.

Semantics is all about the meaning of words. However, these meanings are not necessarily constant and it is quite possible for the same word to mean different things to different people.

Blinding Rationality

Our language usage, the value and meaning we attach to words, can blind rational thinking. Our world not only assigns values to words but also insists on a sort of “is-ness” property that somehow gives the word an existential propriety. The label, the noun, becomes the thing. The noun often holds verb like characteristics—giving rise to strong emotional feeling. For example, a noun used often today that illustrates this might be “illegal alien.” Immediately a visceral reaction may follow from the mention of this noun.

A semantic distortion occurs when a word produces a psycho-physiological response. This response demonstrates the anchoring of a word to a meaning and unfortunately, the meaning is not an agreed to Webster like definition among those who use the word.

It’s easy to forget the nature of personal truth when it masquerades in an argument of reason. Logic and linguistics make assertions about many things that are simply false to facts. For example, logic asserts that a gallon is equal to a gallon. This is simply not true from many perspectives, including the most obvious. A gallon of water added to a gallon of alcohol does not equal two gallons of combined fluid. No two things are alike in every way. Additionally, it is not possible to know the so-called total of anything. Words are not the things they represent, and what they are supposed to represent is much more, and much less, than could ever be written. Indeed, as has been said many times, probably in its most noteworthy form by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Whatever we say about something, it is also not that.” Words are not things, and word things, such as a griffin, do not necessarily exist.

Disabling Ourselves

So if our words trick us, then that “stream of consciousness,” in the words of William James, also tricks us. All those inner conversations with ourselves, all the self-talk, trick us just as assuredly. Further, our semantic anchors undergird our semantic reactions and when they become so defined as to include a hotly charged emotional basis, they themselves become semantic distortions that literally disable our rational abilities.

I would argue that today many of the disagreements held in and about our public officials are as a matter of fact semantic distortions. Both sides have defined an issue or individual differently and their semantic anchors are distortions of the facts but they both fail to acknowledge this fact, and therefore have no hope of ever reconciling, and that is just sad!

As always, thanks for the read and I'd love your thoughts on this one.


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