The Shaping Power of Words

There’s a relationship of reciprocal shaping between our vocabulary and our perception of the world. This isn’t so extreme as to say that you can’t perceive something you don’t have a word for, but a lack of vocabulary does make it harder to notice, remember, classify, and integrate raw sensory data. And once you have a robust verbal system, it becomes harder to integrate experience that doesn’t conform to that system. Thus you ignore it.

The way how we talk tells a lot about our values and how we classify the world. It’s important to remember that what we often take for granted as neutral or just the way things are, is actually the product of being a human in a certain culture, time, and speaking a specific language. Similarly, the language that we hear and read affects how we perceive the world.

To take a mundane example:

I love you Gen Z, but you are wrecking your brain by labeling everything as mid, basic, cringe, problematic or sus & it will ultimately bite you in the butt, even if you are an Aquarius

I disagree with this being a Gen Z thing. I notice it when talking to people who are really plugged in to social media or the political rants as entertainment crowd (think John Oliver or Tucker Carlson). Everything gets a quick, simplistic, and irreversible label.

When the ultimate classification system is social media, the need to think of how to express every experience as a TikTok video starts to mediate sensory input. And once that filter overlays everything, it’s hard to step back from in.

The way how traditional media report events is more sinister. There’s been a lot criticism of how stories about drivers hitting pedestrians and cyclists are covered (nice example here).

Even more bizarre is how the New York Times has chosen to cover Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka Dam:

Breaking News: President Volodymyr Zelensky said he visited flood-hit southern Ukraine, where rescue efforts after a dam disaster entered a third day.

First of all, dam disaster?


This was a deliberate attack meant to terrorize Ukrainians, impede Ukraine from crossing the Dnipro river, and destroy Southern Ukrainian agriculture for years to come.

The New York Times doesn’t refer to 9/11 as an airplane disaster.

This is an intentional attempt to remove Russian agency from the discussion.

And then flood-hit southern Ukraine. No. After it rains, places are flood-hit. This is not a natural disaster that just randomly happened.

And the kicker for me: Zelensky said he visited.

We have zero reason to believe the Ukrainian president lied about this trip. Zero. In fact you could argue that he shouldn’t have made the trip because Russia dramatically increased shelling of the evacuation areas in an attempt to hit Zelensky.

Here’s how I would rewrite this:

Breaking News: President Volodymyr Zelensky visited southern Ukraine, where rescue efforts entered a third day after the flooding caused by Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka Dam.

This tells a very different story.

You might argue that the Times is simply trying to remain neutral. Yet here’s how the paper covered Putin’s visit to Mariupol:

Defiant Putin Visits Mariupol, a City Razed by Russian Forces

And that also tells a story.

The Times and other “liberal”, “neutral” outlets in West consistently chose to take Russian propaganda at face value and use language that undermines the very existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Some of it is deliberate — a lot of the “Russia” experts are old school lefties that miss the Soviet Union, there’s an over-reliance on Russian-language sources as most journalists covering the region speak Russian but not Ukrainian. But there’s also just a lot of inertia and status-quo bias.

For the die-hard Russian imperialists like Chomsky or the mere grifters like Tucker Carlson and Glen Greenwald, there’s no hope. Let them be.

But there are many who repeat such narratives accidentally, without really thinking about the weight of their words. I believe it’s possible to have a good faith conversation with them.

Stepping back from “dam disasters”, the larger point to be made here is that we, as humans, use language to convert raw sensory data into a narrative in an almost instantaneous process.

There are some ways to challenge this.

Simply noticing when what’s presented as “bare facts” is actually a constructed narrative is huge step.

Play with language, rewrite things to remove or change the narrative. A useful tool is E-Prime, dropping “to be” from sentences in order to detect bias.

Thus the sentence, “A useful tool is E-Prime…” becomes: “I find E-Prime, removing “to-be” from standard English, useful when trying to detect bias.” This forces an object into view and makes the subjectivity more obvious. This is just a tool to help clarify thinking, not some absolute dogma — notice I dropped out of E-Prime.

I also find it useful to enrich my vocabulary. It’s easier to avoid the trap of simplistic buckets when you have a lot more buckets to fill. The extra second of evaluation is sometimes just enough time to see depth and complexity that would otherwise be passed over.

And the more fiction I read, the easier it is to see how the best novels are permeated with timeless truths while the facts on the pages of the New York Times are filled with fictions.