Cliches, information and metaphors: Overcoming prejudice with metahor hacking and getting it back again

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Professor Abhijit Banerjee

Professor Abhijit Banerjee (Photo credit: kalyan3)

“We have to use cliches,” said professor Abhijit Banerjee at the start of his LSE lecture on Poor Economics. “The world is just too complicated.” He continued. “Which is why it is all the more important, we choose the right cliches.” [I'm paraphrasing here.]

This is an insight at the very heart of linguistics. Every language act we are a part of is an act of categorization. There are no simple unitary terms in language. When I say, “pull up a chair”, I’m in fact referring to a vast category of objects we refer to as chairs. These objects are not identified by any one set of features like four legs, certain height, certain ways of using it. There is no minimal set of features that will describe all chairs and just chairs and not other kinds of objects like tables or pillows. But chairs don’t stand on their own. They are related to other concepts or categories (and they are really one and the same). There are subcategories like stools and armchairs, containing categories like furniture or man-made objects and related categories like houses and shops selling objects. All of these categories are linked in our minds through a complex set of images, stories and definitions. But these don’t just live in our minds. They also appear in our conversations. So we say things like, “What kind of a chair would you like to buy?”, “That’s not real chair”, “What’s the point of a chair if you can’t sit in it?”, “Stools are not chairs.”, “It’s more of a couch than a chair.”, “Sofas are really just big plush chairs, when it comes down to it.”, “I’m using a box for a chair.”, “Don’t sit on a table, it’s not a chair.” Etc. Categories are not stable and uniform across all people, so we continue having conversations about them. There are experts on chairs, historians of chairs, chair craftsmen, people who buy chairs for a living, people who study the word ‘chair’, and people who casually use chairs. Some more than others. And their sets of stories and images and definitions related to chairs will be slightly different. And they will have had different types of conversations with different people about chairs. All of that goes into a simple word like “chair”. It’s really very simple as long as we accept the complexity for what it is. Philosophers of language have made a right mess of things because they tried to find simplicity where none exists. And what’s more where none is necessary.

But let’s get back to cliches. Cliches are types of categories. Or better still, cliches are categories with a particular type of social salience. Like categories, cliches are sets of images, stories and definitions compressed into seemingly simpler concepts that are labelled by some sort of an expression. Most prominently, it is a linguistic expression like a word or a phrase. But it could just as easily be a way of talking, way of dressing, way of being. What makes us likely to call something a cliche is a socially negotiated sense of awareness that the compression is somewhat unsatisfactory and that it is overused by people in lieu of an insight into the phenomenon we are describing. But the power of the cliche is in its ability to help us make sense of a complex or challenging phenomenon. But the sense making is for our benefit of cognitive and emotional peace. Just because we can make sense of something, doesn’t mean, we get the right end of the stick. And we know that, which is why we are wary of cliches. But challenging every cliche would be like challenging ourselves every time we looked at a chair. It can’t be done. Which is why we have social and linguistic coping mechanisms like “I know it’s such a cliche.” “It’s a cliche but in a way it’s true.” “Just because it’s a cliche, doesn’t mean, it isn’t true.” Just try Googling: “it’s a cliche *”

So we are at once locked into cliches and struggling to overcome them. Like “chair” the concept of a “cliche” as we use it is not simple. We use it to label words, phrases, people. We have stories about how to rebel against cliches. We have other labels for similar phenomena with different connotations such as “proverbs”, “sayings”, “prejudices”, “stereotypes”. We have whole disciplines studying these like cognitive psychology, social psychology, political science, anthropology, etc. And these give us a whole lot of cliches about cliches. But also a lot of knowledge about cliches.

The first one is exactly what this post started with. We have to use cliches. It’s who we are. But they are not inherently bad.

Next, we challenge cliches as much as we use them. (Well, probably not as much, but a lot.) This is something I’m trying to show through my research into frame negotiation. We look at concepts (the compressed and labelled nebulas of knowledge) and decompress them in different ways and repackage them and compress them into new concepts. (Sometimes this is called conceptual integration or blending.) But we don’t just do this in our minds. We do it in public and during conversations about these concepts.

We also know that unwillingness to challenge a cliche can have bad outcomes. Cliches about certain things (like people or types of people) are called stereotypes and particular types of stereotypes are called prejudices. And prejudices by the right people against the right kind of other people can lead to discrimination and death. Prejudice, stereotype, cliche. They are the same kind of thing presented to us from different angles and at different magnitudes.

So it is worth our while to harness the cliche negotiation that goes on all the time anyway and see if we can use it for something good. That’s not a certain outcome. The medieaval inquistions, anti-heresies, racism, slavery, genocides are all outcomes of negotiations of concepts. We mostly only know about their outcomes but a closer look will always reveal dissent and a lot of soul searching. And at the heart of such soul searching is always a decompression and recompression of concepts (conceptual integration). But it does not work in a vacuum. Actual physical or economic power plays a role. Conformance to communcal expectations. Personal likes or dislikes. All of these play a role.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what chance have we of getting the right outcome? Do we even know what is the right outcome?

Well, we have to pick the right cliches says Abhijit Banerjee. Or we have to frame concepts better says George Lakoff. “We have to shine the light of truth” says a cliche.

“If you give people content, they’re willing to move away from their prejudices. Prejudices are partly sustained by the fact that the political system does not deliver much content.” says Banerjee. Prejudices matter in high stakes contexts. And they are a the result of us not challenging the right cliches in the right ways at the right time.

It is pretty clear from research in social psychology from Milgram on, that giving people information will challenge their cliches but only as long as you also give them sanction to challenge the cliches. Information on its own, does not seem to always be enough. Sometimes the contrary information even seems to reinforce the cliche (as we’re learning from newspaper corrections).

This is important. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Even if you can fool a lot of them a lot of the time. Information is a part of it. Social sanction of using that information in certain ways is another part of it. And this is not the province of the “elites”. People with the education and sufficient amount of idle time to worry about such things. There’s ample research to show that everybody is capable of this and engaged in these types of conceptual activities. More education seems to vaguely correlate with less prejudice but it’s not clear why. I also doubt that it does in a very straightforward and inevitable way (a post for another day). It’s more than likely that we’ve only studied the prejudices the educated people don’t like and therefore don’t have as much.

Bannerjee draws the following conclusion from his work uncovering cliches in development economics:

“Often we’re putting too much weight on a bunch of cliches. And if we actually look into what’s going on, it’s often much more mundane things. Things where people just start with the wrong presumption, design the wrong programme, they come in with their own ideology, they keep things going because there’s inertia, they don’t actually look at the facts and design programmes in ignorance. Bad things happen not because somebody wants bad things to happen but because we don’t do our homework. We don’t think hard enough. We’re not open minded enough.”

It sounds very appealing. But it’s also as if he forgot the point he started out with. We need cliches. And we need to remember that out of every challenge to a cliche arises a new cliche. We cannot go around the world with our concepts all decompressed and flapping about. We’d literally go crazy. So every challenge to a cliche (just like every paradigm-shifting Kuhnian revolution) is only the beginning phase of the formation of another cliche, stereotype, prejudice or paradigm (a process well described in Orwell’s Animal Farm which itself has in turn become a cliche of its own). It’s fun listening to Freakonomics radio to see how all the cliche busting has come to establish a new orthodoxy. The constant reminders that if you see things as an economist, you see things other people don’t don’t see. Kind of a new witchcraft. That’s not to say that Freakonomics hasn’t provided insights to challenge established wisdoms (a term arising from another perspective on a cliche). It most certainly has. But it hasn’t replaced them with “a truth”, just another necessary compression of a conceptual and social complex. During the moments of decompression and recompression, we have opportunities for change, however brief. And sometimes it’s just a memory of those events that lets us change later. It took over 150 years for us to remember the French revolution and make of it what we now think of as democracy with a tradition stretching back to ancient Athens. Another cliche. The best of a bad lot of systems. A whopper of a cliche.

So we need to be careful. Information is essential when there is none. A lot of prejudice (like some racism) is born simply of not having enough information. But soon there’s plenty of information to go around. Too much, in fact, for any one individual to sort through. So we resort to complex cliches. And the cliches we choose have to do with our in-groups, chains of trust, etc. as much as they do with some sort of rational deliberation. So we’re back where we started.

Humanity is engaged in a neverending struggle of personal and public negotiation of concepts. We’re taking them apart and putting them back together. Parts of the process happen in fractions of a second in individual minds, parts of the process happen over days, weeks, months, years and decades in conversations, pronouncements, articles, books, polemics, laws, public debates and even at the polling booths. Sometimes it looks like nothing is happening and sometimes it looks like everything is happening at once. But it’s always there.

So what does this have to do with metaphors and can a metaphor hacker do anything about it? Well, metaphors are part of the process. The same process that lets us make sense of metaphors, lets use negotiated cliches. Cliches are like little analogies and it takes a lot of cognition to understand them, take them apart and make them anew. I suspect most of that cognition (and it’s always discursive, social cognition) is very much the same that we know relatively well from metaphor studies.

But can we do anything about it? Can we hack into these processes? Yes and no. People have always hacked collective processes by inserting images and stories and definitions into the public debate through advertising, following talking points or even things like pushpolling. And people have manipulated individuals through social pressure, persuasion and lies. But none of it ever seems to have a lasting effect. There’re simply too many conceptual purchase points to lean on in any cliches to ever achieve a complete uniformity for ever (even in the most totalitarian regimes). In an election, you may only need to sway the outcome by a few percent. If you have military or some other power, you only need to get willing compliance from a sufficient number of people to keep the rest in line through a mix of conceptual and non-conceptual means. Some such social contracts last for centuries, others for decades and some for barely years or months. In such cases, even knowing how these processes work is not much better than knowing how continental drift works. You can use it to your advantage but you can’t really change it. You can and should engage in the process and try to nudge the conversation in a certain way. But there is no conceptual template for success.

But as individuals, we can certainly do quite a bit monitor our own cognition (in the broadest sense). But we need to choose our battles carefully. Use cliches but monitor what they are doing for us. And challenge the right ones at the right time. It requires a certain amount of disciplined attention and disciplined conversation.

This is not a pessimistic message, though. As I’ve said elsewhere, we can be masters of our own thoughts and feelings. And we have the power to change how we see the world and we can help others along with how they see the world. But it would be foolish to expect to world to be changed beyond all recognition just through the power of the mind. In one way or another, it will always look like our world. But we need to keep trying to make it look like the best possible version of our world. But this will not happen by following some pre-set epistemological route. Doing this is our human commitment. Our human duty. And perhaps our human inevitability. So, good luck to us.

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Pseudo-education as a weapon: Beyond the ridiculous in linguistic prescriptivism

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Teacher in primary school in northern Laos

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us are all too happy to repeat clichés about education to motivate ourselves and others to engage in this liminal ritual of mass socialization. One such phrase is “knowledge is power”. It is used to refer not just to education, of course, but to all sorts of intelligence gathering from business to politics. We tell many stories of how knowing something made the difference, from knowing a way of making something to work to knowing a secret only the hero or villain is privy to. But in education, in particular, it is not just knowing that matters to our tribe but also the display of knowing.

The more I look at education, the more I wonder how much of what is in the curriculum is about signaling rather than true need of knowledge. Signaling has been used in economics of education to indicate the complex value of a university degree but I think it goes much deeper. We make displays of knowledge through the curriculum to make the knowledge itself more valuable. Curriculum designers in all areas engage in complex dances to show how the content maps onto the real world. I have called this education voodoo, other people have spoken of cargo cult education, and yet others have talked about pseudo teaching. I wrote about pseudo teaching when I looked at Niall Ferguson‘s amusing, I think I called it cute, lesson plan of his own greatness. But pseudo teaching only describes the activities performed by teachers in the mistaken belief that they have real educational value. When pseudo teaching relies on pseudo content, I think we can talk more generally about “pseudo education”.

We were all pseudo-educated on a number of subjects. History, science, philosophy, etc. In history lessons, the most cherished “truths” of our past are distorted on a daily basis (see Lies My Teacher told me). From biology, we get to remember misinformation about the theory of evolution starting from attributing the very concept of evolution to Darwin or reducing natural selection to the nonsense of survival of the fittest. We may remember the names of a few philosophers but it rarely takes us any further than knowing winks at a Monty Python sketch or mouthing of unexamined platitudes like “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

That in itself is not a problem. Society, despite the omnipresent alarmist tropes, is coping quite well with pseudo-education. Perhaps, it even requires it to function because “it can’t handle the truth”. The problem is that we then judge people on how well they are able to replicate or respond to these pseudo-educated signals. Sometimes, these judgments are just a matter of petty prejudice but sometimes they could have an impact on somebody’s livelihood (and perhaps the former inevitably leads to the latter in aggregate).

Note: I have looked at some history and biology textbooks and they often offer a less distorted portrayal of their subject than what seems to be the outcome in public consciousness. Having the right curriculum and associated materials, then, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to avoid pseudo-education (if indeed avoiding it is desirable).

The one area where pseudo-education has received a lot of attention is language. Since time immemorial, our ways of speaking have served to identify us with one group or layer of society or another. And from its very beginning, education sought to play a role in slotting its charges into the linguistic groups with as high a prestige, as possible (or rather as appropriate). And even today, in academic literature we see references to the educated speaker as an analytic category. This is not a bad thing. Education correlates with exposure to certain types of language and engagement with certain kinds of speech communities. It is not the only way to achieve linguistic competence in those areas but it is the main way for the majority. But becoming “educated speaker” in this sense is mostly a by-product of education. Sufficient amount of the curriculum and classroom instruction is aimed in this direction to count for something but most students acquire the in-group ways of speaking without explicit instruction (disadvantaging those who would benefit from it). But probably a more salient output of language education is supposed knowledge about language (as opposed to knowledge of language).

Here students are expected not only to speak appropriately but also to know how this “appropriate language” works. And here is where most of what happens in schools can be called pseudo-education. Most teachers don’t really have any grasp of how language works (even those who took intro to linguistics classes). They are certainly not aware of the more complex issues around the social variability of language or its pragmatic dimension. But even in simple matters like grammar and usage, they are utterly clueless. This is often blamed on past deficiencies of the educational system where “grammar was not taught” to an entire generation. But judging by the behavior of previous generations who received ample instruction in grammar, that is not the problem. Their teachers were just as inept at teaching about language as they are today. They might have been better at labeling parts of speech and their tenses but that’s about it. It is possible that in the days of yore, people complaining about the use of the passive were actually more able to identify passive constructions in the text but it didn’t make that complaint any less inaccurate (Orwell made a right fool of himself when it turned out that he uses more passives than is the norm in English despite kvetching about their evil).

No matter what the content of school curriculum and method of instruction, “educated” people go about spouting nonsense when it comes to language. This nonsense seems to have its origins in half-remembered injunctions of their grade school teacher. And because the prime complainers are likely to either have been “good at language” or envied the teacher’s approbation of those who were described as being “good at language”, what we end up with in the typical language maven is a mishmash of linguistic prejudice and unjustified feeling smug superiority. Every little linguistic label that a person can remember, is then trotted out as a badge of honor regardless of how good that person is at deploying it.

And those who spout the loudest, get a reputation of being the “grammar experts” and everybody else who preemptively admits that they are “not good at grammar” defers to them and lets themselves be bullied by them. The most recent case of such bullying was a screed by an otherwise intelligent person in a position of power who decided that he will no longer hire people with bad grammar.

This prompted me to issue a rant on Google Plus, repeated below:

The trouble with pseudo educated blowhards complaining about grammar, like +Kyle Wien, is that they have no idea what grammar is. 90% of the things they complain about are spelling problems. The rest is a mishmash of half-remembered objections from their grade school teacher who got them from some other grammar bigot who doesn’t know their tense from their time.

I’ve got news for you Kyle! People who spell they’re, there and their interchangeably know the grammar of their use. They just don’t differentiate their spelling. It’s called homophony, dude, and English is chock full of it. Look it up. If your desire rose as you smelled a rose, you encountered homophony. Homophony is a ubiquitous feature of all languages. And equally all languages have some high profile homophones that cause trouble for spelling Nazis but almost never for actual understanding. Why? Because when you speak, there is no spelling.

Kyle thinks that what he calls “good grammar” is indicative of attention to detail. Hard to say since he, presumably always perfectly “grammatical”, failed to pay attention to the little detail of the difference between spelling and grammar. The other problem is, that I’m sure that Kyle and his ilk would be hard pressed to list more than a dozen or so of these “problems”. So his “attention to detail” should really be read as “attention to the few details of language use that annoy Kyle Wien”. He claims to have noticed a correlation in his practice but forgive me if I don’t take his word for it. Once you have developed a prejudice, no matter how outlandish, it is dead easy to find plenty of evidence in its support (not paying attention to any of the details that disconfirm it).

Sure there’s something to the argument that spelling mistakes in a news item, a blog post or a business newsletter will have an impact on its credibility. But hardly enough to worry about. Not that many people will notice and those who do will have plenty of other cues to make a better informed judgment. If a misplaced apostrophe is enough to sway them, then either they’re not convinced of the credibility of the source in the first place, or they’re not worth keeping as a customer. Journalists and bloggers engage in so many more significant pursuits that damage their credibility, like fatuous and unresearched claims about grammar, so that the odd it’s/its slip up can hardly make much more than (or is it then) a dent.

Note: I replaced ‘half-wit’ in the original with ‘blowhard’ because I don’t actually believe that Kyle Wien is a half-wit. He may not even be a blowhard. But, you can be a perfectly intelligent person, nice to kittens and beloved by co-workers, and be a blowhard when it comes to grammar. I also fixed a few typos, because I pay attention to detail.

My issue is not that I believe that linguistic purism and prescriptivism are in some way anomalous. In fact, I believe the exact opposite. I think, following a brilliant insight by my linguistics teacher, that we need to think of these phenomena as integral to our linguistic competence. I doubt that there is a linguistic community of any size above 3 that doesn’t enact some form of explicit linguistic normativity.

But when pseudo-knowledge about language is used as a n instrument of power, I think it is right to call out the perpetrators and try to shame them. Sure, linguists laugh at them, but I think we all need to follow the example of the Language Log and expose all such examples to public ridicule. Countermand the power.

Post Script: I have been similarly critical of the field of Critical Discourse Analysis which while based on an accurate insight about language and power, in my view, goes on to abuse the power that stems from the knowledge about language to clobber their opponents. My conclusion has been that if you want to study how people speak, study it for its own sake, and if you want to engage with the politics of what they say, do that on political terms not on linguistic ones. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t point out if you feel somebody is using language in a manipulative or misleading ways, but if you don’t need the apparatus of a whole academic discipline to do it, you’re doing something wrong.

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