General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
Power over Word Power

by Milton Dawes

A human society with its diversity of activities, interrelationships, interactions, rules, regulations, laws, and so on, as far as I know could not survive without communication among its members. This communication is usually achieved through words, sounds, gestures, signs, movements, symbols, etc. Words are used to formulate our policies, and rules, and so on; and they constitute one of our chief means of communication.

We have had many discussions as to whether words have power or not. I would like to propose that words do indeed have power. I would say as far as we know, everything in Universe has power – and words are no exception. In mechanics we have potential energy and kinetic energy. Analogously I would offer that words can also be evaluated in terms of potential and kinetic energy. A word unseen and unheard could be considered in terms of psycho-biological potential energy and when seen or heard – as psycho-biological kinetic energy. I am using “power” here as applied to words following Webster’s “the ability to produce an effect”. I propose that “words do produce effects”. Now I caution you: Be careful. if you attempt to disagree with this proposal – I suggest you will be illustrating my point. You will be reacting to words. How you react is another matter.

Words have the power (to produce effects) to affect our nervous systems and stimulate interpretations, ‘thoughts’, meanings, ‘feelings’, images, memory, fears, anxieties, actions. Of course, the kind of ‘thought’ or ‘feeling’ or action depends on how you and I interpret the words we see or hear. But once heard or seen, words do have “some degree of effect” on our systems. And this happens before we as aware subjects can intervene. (Remember the old joke? Try not to ‘think’ about a pink elephant.) There are also effects even when one simply remembers some words. Depending on one’s attentiveness, training, experience, and so on, patterns of neural firings are modified in some way at neurological levels. And at psycho-physiological levels, symbol reactions might reign over signal reactions. So instead of reacting violently when someone calls me an “x”, I am able to summon a wide range of alternative responses.

The word as a ‘thing’ (words can sometimes be referred to as ‘things’. Here, written “words” are the ‘things’ I am writing about”) can be considered as a particular configuration, or pattern of light waves which impacts our retinas, triggering particular patterns of neural firings in neural circuits. (This includes words represented through gestures and signs.) With “heard words”, we have particular patterns of sound waves. When these patterns of sound waves impact certain structures in our ears, this impact triggers certain patterns of neural firings. A look at spectrographs of various words illustrates this factor that words spoken, constitute actual physical structures. And with written words, one simply have to look at words in this message to see that they have different visual and physical structures.

Words often have long lasting effects. I believe that therapists, counselors, psychologists – and you and me – can attest to that factor. Dictators, priests, politicians, teachers, advertisers – and you and me – are quite aware of the power of words. We have the power to supervise to some degree, the power words have on us. We can be conscious that a word is not the thing referred to. And we can take responsibility for the meanings we give to what we read, or hear.

Remember: I am not saying that this is so. I am proposing that we can evaluate words along these lines. And I am suggesting that “Sticks and stones can hurt our bones”. But without an awareness of the potential power of words, and without training in ways to use our power over words – words can be just as hurtful to our nervous system, and to the many interacting nervous systems we call “society”.

The words below were given in a presentation at a High School in Vermont.

We are presently going through a period of great concern regarding our pollution of our physical environments. Many of us are doing our part to keep the land and waters clean. What we have not included in our cleanup programs is the way words can pollute our inner environments.We have not as yet, to any significant degree, recognized language as a very important part of both our outer and inner environments. As a consequence, we have very little awareness of the ways our inner environments have been polluted by words from the day we were born, and the part words play in determining our thoughts’ and feelings’ and the related attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors. Without such awareness, we have little chance of improving ourselves. A formula you can apply here is this one. “Self-improvement depends on self-correction, which depends on self-awareness”. In other words, to do better at any thing, we have to be aware of what we are doing, and how we are doing what we are doing.

Words will have power over us – unless we use our powers first. Unfortunately, our education system and our societies values have not yet evolved to encourage us to recognize and develop our personal powers – which are already there. Now I am not saying words are “bad things”. I am saying they will have power over us if we are not trained to recognize their potential polluting powers along with their powers to move us to become better humans.

With a show of hands, please indicate if you have ever felt insulted, praised, ridiculed, put down, criticized, encouraged, made fun of, encouraged, consoled, and so on. [Almost all students and teachers raised their hands.] From what I see, it seems to me you will have little difficulty recognizing for yourself the power words can have over us. Note I didn’t say “If you were ever insulted…” I would like you to realize that there is a big difference between “believing” that you were insulted and “feeling” insulted. I am proposing to you that “You cannot be insulted unless you interpret the words you hear as “insult”: The insult you ‘feel’, is not in the words. [This was very difficult for students to accept and I had much discussion on this when I visited some classes during the rest of the day. Students would ask for instance, “Well what if you knew that this person really meant to insult you?]

Here are some of the powers you have over the power of words.

You have the power to see for yourself that a word, or name, is not the thing or situation or person it is used to represent. A sale sign on a store does not necessarily mean lower prices. A manufacturer advertising that their product is “safe” does not make it safe. No one can predict whether something is safe or not. Someone calling you a jerk, or any other entity, does not change you into one such thing.

Right now you are using the power we all have, to interpret what you hear or read or see or experience. The power that we all have but are not taught and encouraged to use, is the power you have, to change your interpretations and understanding and beliefs, when you see and hear and experience other things.

You have the power to learn from yourself, and about yourself, by paying close attention to what you ‘think’, ‘feel’, say and believe. You use that power when you ask yourself “How do I know that it’s so? How could I show someone that it’s so?” You have the power to learn from others through their written and taped words, and through their works and discoveries, even though they might have passed away long, long, ago. Let’s take a few moments to remember parents, and teachers, friends and acquaintances; the individuals who founded this Academy; the individuals who built this auditorium; the individuals who take out the garbage; and all those many individuals who have contributed to improving our lives; most of whom are not here and whom we don’t even know. And let’s say a silent “Thank you.” [We then did this silent “Thanks.” I found this a very moving experience, and a new way to represent the higher order abstraction “time-binding” with the lower order experience of saying “Thanks”.]

You have the power of imagination and creativity which you are using right now, listening to these words, and ‘thinking’ about them. You have the power to use your imagination and creativity to improve yourself and improve your world. You have the power to ‘think’, and to ‘think’ about your ‘thinking’. This involves what you might know as “critical thinking”. We need to become more critical ‘thinkers’ if we are to better understand ourselves and others, and what’s going on in our world. More critical ‘thinking’, by extending our understanding, and awareness, will help us to get along better with each other.

You have the power to mislead others with your words. And you also have the power to encourage and help others by being more attentive to what you say and how you say what you say.

You have the power to use your intelligence more intelligently. You have the power to choose and decide whether words will have power over you, or you will have power over words. You have the power to reflect on what you say and how this might affect not only someone else, but also your own self. We do a great deal of talking to ourselves – probably more than we talk to others. You have the power to improve yourself by paying more attention to what you say to yourself and how you talk to yourself.

You have the power to realize for yourself that no matter how well you understand something or someone, or something you might have read or heard, that you have not understood all you could. You have the power to realize for yourself that no matter what is said or written, no matter how knowledgeable the expert or authority, there is always more than can be said or written. One of the most important words in the system I am talking about, known as “general semantics” is the word et cetera. You have the power to remember that there is always more to anything, including all I have said this morning – and including yourself.

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