Words, Words, Words

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I’ve always been fascinated by words, meaning, and nuances. Editing honors theses and my work; I would get lost in finding just the right word to describe something or evoke an emotion which is why I found Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words so intriguing treatment. Although on the surface, it is an account of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, the better story is the subject of excluded or ‘lost’ words and why some terms are acceptable and some are not.

As a graduate student, one of my required readings was Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, in which he talks about language’s purpose is confusion and control and not communication. I was also introduced to what at the time was a new theory – constructivism. Many contemporaries in grad school (this was in the mid ‘90s) did not think much of the theory. However, I found the argument that words have multiple meanings and the interpretation has a political impact intriguing. For example, Alexander Wendt famously wrote that “Anarchy is What States Make of It.” In IR, anarchy or the absence of government is a significant concept. Saying that it did not have an agreed-upon definition undercuts critical concepts and theories.

This is the heart of Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words story. The connection of words and power. Williams’ ‘lost’ words are excluded because they are used by lower classes and women and therefore not ‘proper’ speech. By declaring them not ‘proper,’ it delegitimizes the speakers and dismisses them as members of the decision-making classes.

My point is that we are seeing this with the rise of rules about acceptable speech in the public sphere. Limits are established by ‘hate speech’ rules, tech company exclusions of ‘fake news,’ and the American government’s recent establishment of a Disinformation Governance Board. Unfortunately, the name has shades of the Soviet Union and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Unfortunately, this narrowing of speech is most evident in academia, where we are taught that defining what we are studying is the first step of an investigation. The rise of speech codes has limited discussion of important topics because students and nontenured faculty (over 50% of all undergraduate teachers) know that they will be penalized for using those words. Therefore, discussions of topics such as abortion, group versus individual rights, and policy issues such as COVID and Climate Change are absent or constrained.

In teaching and researching decision-making and public policy, I always highlight the influence of agenda-setting (what is important) and framing (how to talk about it) on the outcome. Prospect theory is based on how the framing of risk changes its perception. By restricting speech in academia and the public sphere, we end questions about the validity of policy and the possible solutions.

The fight for free speech is essential to our existence. As Wittgenstein said —

Mental Health and the Monkey

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If you have not heard, May is mental health awareness month and after the last few months, I think we can all use spending time thinking about our own mental health.

Although I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental health issue, I have also never seen a professional for a diagnosis. This could have been from avoidance or it could be that I just don’t like doctors, dentists and lawyers. However, I did realize that I was having issues and did what any academic would do — I researched depression, anxiety and other issues along with philosophy, especially the Stoics (although this was more about how to deal with life).

As any medical professional will tell you, this is not a great approach because you will assume that you have whatever diagnosis you are studying. That is why there are so many stories of interns having strange tropical diseases. In my case, I was convinced that I suffered from each of these – depression, anxiety disorder, asocial personality – and a few others that I tripped over in my research. In the end, my self-diagnosis was that I probably suffered from mild PTSD (not all related to my time and service) leading to dysthymia.

But, being the asocial self-reliant type, I chose to ‘cure’ myself by meditation and mindfulness training. After trying lots of apps (this being the 2020s), I started to use Insight Timer to track my moods and provide meditations (it provides options based on your self-reported mood). During one of the meditations, the counselor/coach talked about the monkey mind, the part of your brain that is constantly talking and creating confusion. Think of it as having social media constantly as background. In my case, I added my focus on ‘To Do’ lists, contingencies and all those little things that I want or think I should do (Duty is a big thing for me).

My solution was simple – Tell the monkey to SHUT UP!

And it seems to be working. I am not stressed and have been able to start writing again after not producing anything original (including blog posts) in months. And by that, I mean more than just this post. I’ve started revisions of a novella and a new story in my World War 1 series.

So, take time to identify your own monkey’s voice and learn not to listen.