The Power of the Word
by Jan Baughman

July 18, 1999 - Note from the Editor: Swans has always been about thinking. Always will. Please read on...

The notion of disseminating ideas and influencing thinking is daunting for this ordinary individual. Were I to run for President, I would develop my platform and then repeat it at every opportunity. (Just how many times over the next 17 months will we have to hear "it is conservative is compassionate to..."?!?) But repetition works. In marketing a new product companies utilize advertising to establish a perceived need, to develop name recognition, to create a new vocabulary. They know that words and images are powerful, and that they must be repeated and repeated and repeated in order to change consumer behavior.

I recall a time when catching the largest ashes blown in from the monthly garbage burning at the local dump was a much-anticipated game. I also remember the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign and its television commercials showing a tear running down the face of Iron Eyes Cody as garbage thrown from a passing car lands at his feet. Throwing trash on the street was once common place. Now, it's almost unthinkable. But changing our behavior took massive will and advertising campaigns (not to mention the implementation of fines.) Attitudes and behaviors can change.

When society as a whole agrees on the order of things -- personal comfort, entitlements, God-given rights, individualism -- can the power of words from one individual make a difference? For an idea to move from the periphery, or the "fringe", to common acceptance takes tremendous force. We are hundreds of millions of rugged individuals, aligning ourselves with small groups of like-minded, and without a broad, common institution to influence our thinking. The notion of family values has not caught on and impacted gun laws or health care or education. It seems an innocuous notion, but what to make of it, when we don't even value the individual? And yet it will be on the agenda of every presidential candidate. Still, the government, local and federal, does not have a unified stance on simple concepts, such as children should not be poor and starving, and one should not have to "afford" good health.

It is humbling, and often intimidating, to take on issues when one appears to just be complaining, and not offering solutions to elicit change in the face of vast econonic infrastructures and deep-seeded beliefs. But continuously putting forth issues that mainstream media typically ignores is a start. Repetition is a tactic.

Here are a some facts and ideas that you have read here before and you will read again:

Cutting through ideology takes critical thinking -- something we are not taught in this country. Professor John Lye of Brock University in Canada provides the following guidelines for ideological analysis (see Think about the media's coverage on the war in Serbia when you read it.

1. What are the assumptions about what is natural, just and right?

2. What (and who) do these assumptions distort or obscure?

3. What are the power relations? How are they made to appear as if they are normal or good? What negative aspects are excluded?

4. Look for binaries, oppositions (good/evil, natural/unnatural, tame/wild, young/old). Which term of the binary is privileged, what is repressed or devalued by this privileging of one term over the other?

5. What people, classes, areas of life, experiences, are 'left out', silenced?

6. What cultural assumptions and what 'myths' shape experience and evaluation? What is mystified?

7. What enthymemes can you see in the 'logic' fo the text? In a general sense, enthymemes are statements which exclude the expression of key assumptions which ground conclusions - e.g. "Karen studies really hard. She'll ace this exam for sure". Unspoken assumption: What it takes (all it takes) to 'ace' an examination is hard study.

8. How does the style of presentation contribute to the meaning of the text? Style always contains meaning

9. What 'utopic kernel', that is, vision of human possibility, appears to lie at the heart of the understanding of the ideology? The assumption is that there will be some vision of the good that drives that ideological perspective's imagination of the world.

In the meantime, keep reading and thinking. And do not despair the power of the word.


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published August 15, 1999
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