The Cleansing

Certain words convey meanings that dictionary definitions do not adequately express. One such word , in my humble opinion, is “boisterous.”

A group of pre-school children might be called boisterous. But the word is inappropriate to describe a gang of violent narco-traffickers in the throes of cleansing a neighborhood of members of an opposing cartel. But why? Both groups are “rough and noisy;” both groups are “clamorous.” Both are “unrestrained.” What is it about “boisterous” that describes one but not the other?

Now, let’s apply another word to the same two groups: “violent.” I do not object to applying the term to our narco-traffickers. These guys can, indeed, be said to be “acting with or characterized by uncontrolled, strong, rough force.” Well, the same can be said about the children, right? So, why is “violent” an apt word to describe the apes with the guns but not the apes on the jungle gyms?

Here’s my assessment. Some adjectives imply behavioral motives. “Imply” may not be the best word here; perhaps “carry” is a better term. Or maybe not. Regardless, I think some adjectives are thicker and heavier than the letters that comprise them. We learn to weigh them and take their measure without realizing the lesson we are learning. Another term for such an outcome is “brain-washing,” the generally accepted definition of which is: “a method for systematically changing attitudes or altering beliefs, originated in totalitarian countries, especially through the use of torture, drugs, or psychological-stress techniques.”

Perhaps by now you’ve begun to see where I’m going with this. If not, let me lay it out. Language can be used, whether subtly or forthrightly, as a tool to manipulate attitudes and beliefs. In this ugly political season, I think our future hinges on our collective ability to recognize and counter such manipulation. Incidentally, one antonym of “subtle” is “stupid.”

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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