General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
All in All, That’s Not All

by Milton Dawes

Reprinted with permission from ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Summer 1993).

We might think of general-semantics principles and formulations as “semantic ABMs” – attitudinal and behavioral modifiers – based on an explicitly stated critical thinking frame of reference and generated from empirical data. Individuals who use these principles and formulations in their activities and interactions with others (and within themselves), provide themselves with a powerful and effective source of protection from confusion. Becoming more critical evaluators, they protect themselves against the constant semantic bombardment of propaganda, lies, misinformations, persuasions, advertisements, put ons, and put downs. These and other semantic barrages, without highly critical attentiveness, are usually very difficult to defend against. They are often disguised as helpful advice, accurate reporting, the voice of moral authorities, expert pronouncements, scientific findings, eternal verities, untouchable policies, cultural icons, news, and so on.(This is not to say that any of the above is not at sometimes well intended and well meant.)

Two of the fundamental general-semantics ABMs are the principle of “non-allness” and the principle of “non-identity.” (These principles, by the way, can be put to the test by anyone; no extraneural tools necessary.) The principle of non-allness states that “We cannot know, say, understand, experience, etc., all about anything.” To do this we would have to at least know at what stage of a process something existed; and we would also have to know all its past, present, and future relationships and possible evolution; and probably most important of all, we would need to know ourselves, as knowers (i.e., what are we knowing, when we claim we know).

The principle of non-identity could stand on its own, but follows logically from the principle of non-allness. Simply put, this principle states that “No two things are identical the same in every respect.” A logical relationship between these two principles can be stated as follows: “If we cannot know, experience, understand, etc., all of anything, then whatever we may think, know, believe, say, understand, etc., cannot be validly asserted to be identical with what is going on.” From an empirical perspective, the principle of non-identity stands on its own: If we can notice that there are two anythings they would have to be in two different places, no matter how close. Therefore, they could not be identical.

From a general-semantics perspective, attitudes and behaviors that are generated by the allness attitude contribute a great deal to our misunderstandings, disagreements, conflicts, and violence, with others and within ourselves.

The allness attitude tends to build communication barriers, strain relationships, and generate conflicts and bad feelings, when one individual or group, by the way they talk to others, dismiss or ignore others’ points of view, experiences, beliefs, and ways of thinking and talking. The allness attitude contributes to problems in human relationships when an individual or group asserts unqualified and unconditional totalities by not modifying their statements with references to time, place, context, frames of reference, standards, norms, premises, and so on.

We get clues to the allness attitude when we encounter statements that include without qualifications, such terms as “all, always, everybody, every time, everywhere, you are always doing this, and you do this all the time.” Defending ourselves against the allness barrage could be relatively easy if statements always came in a form that included these terms. But this is not usually the case. Allness statements come in a variety of forms. I call statements that do not explicitly include “all, never, always,” “ASID” – allness statements in disguise. We need a great deal of critical attentiveness and critical evaluating, based on a standard of non-allness and non-identity, to protect ourselves from the implied allness in ASID.

Here are some examples of ASID: “The fact of the matter is ….The question is …. The problem is …. There is only one solution to this …. The correct thing to do is …. The right thing to do is …. That’s not art …. That’s not music ….That’s not funny ….”

One way to protect ourselves from the effects of unconditional allness is to substitute the word “some” (when appropriate) where we find “all” and “every.” When we find “always,” we could substitute “sometimes.” We can do this quietly to ourselves. In many situations, for peace sake, we don’t have to challenge the speaker or writer. It may be helpful to remember that often in challenging another, we unwittingly introduce our own brand of allness. We say “It’s not ‘that’ (their brand) at all… it’s ‘this’ (our brand).”

In the above examples of ASID, problems in communication and relationships tend to arise mainly on account of the following factors: One person or group is understood by another to be saying that they have access to all the facts; that all other considerations and questions are irrelevant, and even non-existent; that they know all that matters in solving the problem. The person or group on the receiving end of this ASID test, and who has their own brand of facts, questions, and solutions, will react in various ways, depending on their relative power status, level of self-esteem, and their critical evaluating skills. The reactions could span a range from humor to violence depending on the following feeling-evaluations (among others). They may feel cowed, put down, shut out, shut off, unimportant, resentful, hurt, incompetent, amused, grateful, angry. For better relationships, we could practice talking with each other in ways that do not create incompatible totalities. We could make an effort to allow our conversation to be felt as accommodating other points of view, other ways of seeing things.

“Should/n’t, ought/not, must/n’t, never,” are other examples of ASID which when used and interpreted unconditionally, tend to create communication and relationship problems. When I hear, read, or use statements with these words, I usually put in my qualifiers: “except, unless, if, for what reasons? who made those rules?“, etc.

Here are a few more examples of ASID. See if you can formulate the allness implied in these statements.

“You/I are/am good for nothing.”
“You/I are/am a lazy no good.”
“You/I will never amount to anything.”
“You/I are/am a complete failure.”

Can you remember hearing any of the following phrases in conversations, debates, meetings, interviews, political speeches? Can you formulate the allness implications? And would it make a difference to you if you added to these statements, where appropriate, these modifiers:

to me,
as I see it,
to the best of my knowledge,
as far as I know,
in my/your opinion,
and so on?

Here are phrases requiring special attention:

What is important … It’s not important … The reality is … Nothing has changed … It’s all the same … What is really going on is … The truth of the matter is … There is no reason for this … What is the true meaning of this? … Is it because, or is it because? … It must be either one or the other … It must be either, or … You are absolutely right … This must be what is going on … What does this all mean? … There is no other explanation for this … It is quite obvious … Any intelligent person will agree that … That has nothing to do with anything … What this all means … What is at issue here is … There is no other way to see this … And that’s the end of the matter … As a matter of fact … The important thing is … That’s all there is to that … There’s nothing more to say ….

Now if you want to hear “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth after all is said and done,” that’s not all there is to the matter. Developing a non-allness approach involves, among other factors, constant critical attentiveness to the ways we use and interpret words. And since words, whether in silent conversations with ourselves or conversing with others, play a major role in our lives, constant critical attentiveness does not come easily. One source of the difficulty revolves around our concerns related to the impressions we are making on others our self-image. We think we do not sound as authoritative, knowledgeable, expert, confident, or forceful when we add modifiers such as “to me, as far as I know, in my opinion, etc.,” to our claims and pronouncements. Remembering that “we cannot fool all the people all the time” may alleviate some of those concerns. In time “actions speak louder than words.”

Another source of difficulty has to do with “habit.” Attempting to interrupt ingrained habits of thinking and talking requires constant self-monitoring. Not easy. “Trust me.” Developing a non-allness orientation involves more than just using or avoiding certain words and phrases. Probably among the most important factors in developing (I didn’t say “achieving”) a non-allness orientation include the following. (i) A strong interest in uncovering some of the root causes of poor human relationships. (ii) A deep concern to find ways to create healthier, more satisfying relationships. Allowing that allness and non-allness do not reside in words but has to do with our attitudes, intentions, and interpretations, the above interests and concerns could help us to become more vigilant, more critically attentive to our own ways of talking, and to our interpretations and evaluations of what others “say.”

Allness attitudes express themselves in many different forms. Some of us act at times as if our age, title, skills, profession, or education gives us a monopoly on intelligence. Sometimes we treat others as if they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to a discussion. To be more specific, there are some supervisors who at times act as if employees under their supervision have little or no sense; there are teachers who sometimes act as if they were repositories of knowledge, and see their students as empty vessels; there are doctors who sometimes act as if the only thing their patients can do to assist in their own healing is to say “ah”; there are mechanics who sometimes act as if you could not possibly have any idea as to what could be wrong with your car; there are politicians who sometimes profess to have all the answers to the society’s problems; and there are the religious leaders who preach that their system of belief is the one and only true path to righteousness and salvation. You may have heard these words: “You are not a … so what do you know about ….” You may find it a useful exercise to try and spot ASID the next time you are involved in a conflict. (Keep in mind that whether you are wrongish or rightish in your evaluation, it is your interpretation allness or non-allness does not reside in words.)

A non-allness orientation could benefit us much more than just improved communication, conflict management, and relationships. In a world of accelerating changes and increasing diversity of beliefs and interests, a non-allness approach can help us become more flexible. It can help us become more creative, (creative in the sense of recognizing that there are innumerable ways of thinking, talking about, experiencing, and doing things not just the traditional, the popular, the accepted ways). Becoming more creative (with a broader base of being, experiencing, knowing, and doing), can help us become more intelligent and effective problem solvers and decision makers. We will need “all” of the above and more, in meeting the challenges and demands that confront us each day when we are among family, friends, and co-workers. With critical attentiveness, we can avoid much of the corrosive effects of an allness attitude on our relationships.

I am not claiming that a non-allness orientation is “all that matters“; is “the one and only“; or is “the best solution” to our relationship problems. I am suggesting that “we could get along better with each other, if we stopped throwing so much ASID at each other.
Milton Dawes lives in Montreal, where he combines lectures, music, and dance in the training workshops he offers in “Personal and Professional Development through General Semantics.”

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