Talking bots, taboo words and political slogans

Does language control us? A linguist, psychologist, political scientist and speechwriter shared their perspectives at Sydney Ideas.

Audience in lecture theatre
Audience at Sydney Ideas event, ‘Does language control us?’
Nick Enfield
Professor Nick Enfield delivering his talk.
Speakers in conversation (left-right): Professor Nick Enfield, Associate Professor Joanne Arciuli, Dr Aim Sinpeng and Professor Marc Stears.

How language manipulates us

If you show a group of people a colour, those who called it ‘green’ will remember it as a being more green than it actually was. This is what Nick Enfield described as ‘verbal overshadowing.’

“In the very act of naming an experience, we erase information from our own memory of that experience,” said Enfield, a professor in Linguistics and Director of the Sydney Centre for Language Research at the University of Sydney.

“Language requires us to frame reality in a certain way. It gives us the power to do that. And with that power comes responsibility. It raises ethical questions about what we are doing with language when we describe things that we’ve seen and experienced.”

He spoke about news reporting on domestic violence and pointed to FixedIt, a project by journalist Jane Gilmore to push back on the media’s erasure of violent men, and blaming of victims.

Screengrab of new headline corrected on FixedIt

News headline corrected by Jane Gilmore for FixedIt [source]

“When you read somebody’s description of something, your interpretation is being controlled by their words and when you describe something, you control their interpretation – and not only that, you potentially overshadow and change your own beliefs about the things you’re talking about.”

“As users and as consumers of words we have a duty to use them both mindfully and ethically.”

Are bots limiting our ability to think?

Aim Sinpeng, who lectures in the Department of Government and International Relations, argued that bots control us in more ways than we think.

We think of bots as subservient to us – tools that perform a certain function. “They’re like the foot soldiers of the Internet and we are the generals. We command them… but actually, we don’t.”

For one, they’re not just helping us to make decisions – they’re making them for us.

“It’s not available in Australia yet, but Google Home Assistant in the US can tell you, hey it looks like you’re running out of milk tomorrow,” explained Sinpeng.

“I wasn’t even wanting to buy milk or peanut butter five minutes ago and that was bought. It’s paid for, is ready for pickup, and I haven’t had time to catch my breath.”

Second, bots can make us believe things that aren’t even true and change our perception of reality. Bots have been used to disseminate large amounts of information and most are benign, but some have been designed to deceive and manipulate opinion.

In the past year, there’s been a string of lynchings in India. “A number of rights groups and investigative journalists have argued that bots were actually partly behind this after being sent false information,” said Singpeng.

In another case, bots have also contributed to the “ongoing insidious incessant hate speech campaigns on Facebook against ethnic minorities.”

How did we get to a point where bots have become so influential in our lives?

“The answer is language, because bots and all robots are run on human languages. Basically, all advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning … They’re fed databases of all these words to learn so that they can better mimic our behaviour and act like us and talk like us and understand the emotions and the context in which words are used.”

“We can design brainier devices because we’re curious. But how far are we willing to let our curiosity goals go before they control us and limit our freedom to think?”

How do we deal with taboo words?

Jo Arciuli spoke about the powerful physical response we have to taboo words. What do we define as ‘taboo’? According to an American study published in 2015, the top 10 taboo words included ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’.

Arciuli, an Associate Professor working in the area of linguistics, psychology and disability, takes particular interest in words related to this context.

Ofcom [UK broadcast regulator] looked at mental health and disability related taboo words … Supposedly mildly offensive words in this category included ‘loony’, ‘nutter’ and ‘psycho’.

“I think you’ll agree that some of us use these words without even realising that they ostracise and diminish people with disabilities.”

“It’s true that taboo words are highly salient stimuli for our brains,” said Arciuli. “Can we in fact harness the power of these taboo words to suit our own purposes?”

For example, “Swearing seems to increase tolerance to pain. I don’t know if you do this but if I stub my toe or have some sort of minor physical accident I swear a lot. It seems to help and scientists have looked into this,” said Arciuli.

“Taboo words have sometimes been reclaimed by minority groups. Think of a word like ‘wog’ in the Australian context. This derogatory term was often applied to Italian and Greek immigrants and their families. The term has now been adopted by some Greek an Italian Australians is a positive marker of identity. If you’re on Twitter, check out the hashtag #CripTheVote. Despite ‘cripple’ being strongly offensive, disability advocates have reclaimed a variant of this word to highlight issues which affect disabled people during election campaigns.”

Arciuli suggested that “we can start working on increasing our awareness of the ways that these words can be used and perhaps start using them in more positive ways.”

The problem in our political discourse

Now, which sounds better? “‘A better plan for a better future’, or ‘a better future with a better plan’?

Marc Stears is a professor at the University and Director of Sydney Policy Lab. In a past life, he was a speechwriter for the UK Labor Party and he spoke about the consequences of politicians speaking in slogans and abstract terms.

Why do they do it? Because it works. “Time and time again, these slogans which seem so ridiculous and so bland actually poll extraordinarily well. So, when I was a speechwriter, I was constantly told ‘you’ve got to have those lines in because the science tells us they work’.

“Don’t talk about human beings. Talk about hard working families. Don’t talk about migration questions in the open.”

Why is this a problem? One reason, said Stears, is that “these slogans mask some really deeply unpleasant realities.

“Obviously the most extravagant example of this at the moment is the language of Donald Trump. What does ‘make America great again’ mean if you’re on the southern border of the United States at the moment?

“George Orwell back in the 1940s spotted this as one of the most fundamental dangers of political life. He said ‘When people speak blandly they’re probably hiding great evil. And if we don’t stop speaking in that grandiose empty language we won’t be able to detect the evils that are going on’.”

As a result, this language impacts on people’s ability to engage in issues and trust politicians.

“If the people who are meant to be our representatives and are meant to be making decisions for us … are thought of as fundamentally different from us, then we have a fundamental breach in the way our system is meant to work. Representative democracy is meant to be just that – when people govern, when they deliberate in parliament, they’re meant to be representing us. So, isn’t it time that they spoke like us?”

Listen to the conversation in full on the Sydney Ideas podcast, available on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts and wherever you listen.

The podcast was recorded at ‘Does language control us?‘ on Thursday 6 June, 2019.

Lead image and photography by Nicola Bailey.

/University Release. View in full here.