In Whose Changing the Meaning?, Dana Pope explains in striking clarity the importance of integrity in language and its relationship to what is at stake in western civilization. While meanings do expand and multiply over time through normal transitions, today our language is undergoing revision by many whose primary purpose is not to communicate honestly, but to spin and manipulate!
The contemporary focus on external change, constructing language and platforms to accomplish self serving or ignoble agendas, often handicaps internal growth, trust, and the capacity for quality bonding with others. We must be more aware that entire industries are organized and led by extremely intelligent ‘masters of manipulation’ willing to teach their craft to others.
Today, we can find numerous sites and platforms such as Changing Minds governed by an ethos of changing others. “Welcome to ChangingMinds.org, the largest site in the world on all aspects of how we change what others think, believe, feel and do.” Assuming that the potential for some good may be present in these objectives, they never-the-less signal a dire need to be wary and to question the ends and means of major catalysts and calls to action. Dana has consequently written a book to address the issues of language manipulation by unscrupulous actors in virtually all walks of life.
Put simply, Dana is motivated to expose what has happened to our language and communication — and continues unabated at an alarming rate. Believing that our most basic moral compass and capacity to communicate authentically requires thoughtful re-calibration, she cites Webster to underscore the virtue of prudence as necessary to avoid further abuse and erosion. Noah Webster (1758-1843) was profoundly in tune with the ethos of the founders of our country. “Webster states that prudence is, “more in foreseeing and avoiding evil than in devising and executing that which is good” (Chapter 8).
From a linguistic or epistemological perspective Dana tends to be a strict foundationalist. From the onset of the book, she hold firmly to this construct, often taking absolute positions about preserving early frames of meaning. She advances with the assumption that such pristine references often contain a higher level of implicit morality. While there may be limitations in application, there is no question that reference to such a paradigm is very needed for reform in education and so many other venues that extend from it – and more critically — back into it.
The book routinely points out trends of thought and behavior narrating the perilous times we live in — where the self serving habitually orchestrate public communication containing all manner of malfeasance. Their focus is to frame agendas in such as way that the “sheeple” just go along to get along. They utilize the powers of societal pressure and much more. To perk our powers of observation and defense, Dana cites Nathaniel Hawthorne to call our attention to the power of “Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them” (Chapter 4).
While reading this book it is virtually impossible to escape from the poignant realization for which there is abundant evidence: Our basic foundations for adequate and holistic communication, and indeed our basic freedoms are often imperceptibly threatened by the questionable wordsmiths (lawyers, politicians, advertisers and promoters) who so often serve the corrupt objectives of public, nonprofit and private sectors — without batting an eye.
From corporations wanting to foist harmful products to government agencies and officials seeking to illegitimately (unlawfully) empower themselves at the expense of the people, we find actors pushing agendas that are not at all in keeping with sacred principles regarding the dignity of the human person, the best interest of humanity and its inalienable rights. Dana is acutely aware that the favorite targets of most nefarious target freedom to live out Christian teachings protected by God, our Constitution, Bill of Rights and related documents. The remaining list of countless works inspired by these catalysts make up the great good in our culture — with the potential to truly enhance and benefit so many people of good will around the globe — and YET, also subject to considerable risk of suppression, misrepresentation and misalignment.
Certainly life within the Church and its mission are threatened by misapplications of language. While I cannot agree with Dana’s interpretation of Martin Luther’s interaction with the Church and the essential variables that pertain, she has many other sections with really helpful insights pertaining to Scripture, relativism in the Church, and more foundational definitions of critical words such as “hate” and “meek” that we do well to examine.
Dana submits early on in Chapter 2:
“Of all the words in the dictionary, Webster was known to have only coined one. The word was demoralize, meaning, “to corrupt or undermine the moral of; to destroy or lessen the effect of moral principles; to render corrupt in morals.” Noah used the word in the context of the demoralization of the language. Even at that time, the language and the meaning of many words were changing. Webster questioned that if there was not a standard of reference, how will students be able to study America’s history and literature? This was an important focal point for Noah Webster. So sure of himself, on June 4, 1800 he placed an ad in a Connecticut newspaper stating his intention of creating a Dictionary of the American Language. Never-the-less, People spoke out against this.
By the end of book, Dana suggests a new agenda. Having routinely demonstrated a penchant for analyzing historical changes or compounding meaning of various pivotal words in our language, she ends the book with a section: “New Words Needed”. The outgrowth of strict foundationalism in a developing society is constructionism. Rather than load up multiple meanings in one word, let’s create a new word for every meaning. While such a black and white approach may have drawbacks, it is something to weigh in many situations where precise meaning and epistemology is unduly compromised. There is more this challenge than can be explained in this book review.
If nothing else, Dana has established herself as a premier contemporary foundationalist, a virtually unrivaled textbook example. Such a frame may warrant critical notice of philosophers and certain textbook writers in various fields. The typical reader will not walk away without noticing limitations, but few readers can work through this publication without learning many new things and thinking through some very critical and pivotal issues in education, linguistics, political messaging, epistemology, public and private life and commerce.
In the end, its about communicating within constructs that both motivate and are wide enough and perhaps even fuzzy enough for multiple interpretations… and hence we must accept that the tools of language are much more about intent than their construction per se. Still, there is something about a good construction that tends to move individuals, groups and societies in the right direction. Of course the opposite is also demonstrably true.
The bottom line is more publications, scripts and public communicators need to be held to account. If we regularly allow those with questionable or nefarious agendas to abuse the system, we won’t trust enough to have optimal communications. Functional teams in think tanks, education and advertising will appreciate reminders and reorientation towards foundational structures as well as opportunities to serve as reputable constructionists… in this way the best of the old and new meet and shake hands and the imposing imposters are set at bay… how about those apples for a new day?
A good read for the educator, business leader, social thinker and more! [Updated 9.9.18]
Pope, Dana Lynn (2017-05-05). Who’s Changing the Meaning? Dana Lynn Pope, LLC. Kindle Edition.