One of my first encounters with the manipulative power of language was in Mario Pei’s, Weasel Words. His book, alongside a library of other work on propaganda, persuasion, advertising, shows how labelling something can be used to change our perception of things, deceive, lie, mislead. Indeed, today’s coverage of the refugee crisis (or is it?) is a good example of how people and events are constructed. But I remember how in 1980 the Communist authorities in Poland were at pains to tell news viewers that people didn’t really go ‘on strike’, they didn’t even simply stop working, in fact, there were ‘work stoppages’. Or that Lech Wałęsa was a ‘private citizen’. And so, the regime media were full of work stoppages instead of strikes. Yet, no one was really fooled. ‘We’ all knew what was happening in Gdansk: strikes! But at the time, I didn’t know anything about social constructionism and things like that.
I am telling this story because I recently attended a discussion on ‘incentivising’ live organ donation and here is an account of it. It happened at the 4th Congress of ELPAT (Ethical, Legal and Psychological Aspects of organ Transplantation). The discussion was about paying people to donate their kidneys for money. Except our Western sensitivities are stretched too much when we talk about paying a living person a fee (an honorarium?) for their organs, so part of the discussion was an attempt to hide it. No money would change hands, we could just pay for the donor’s children’s school, or housing, or medical insurance. But that still didn’t feel exactly right, so one of the most vocal proponents of, shall I say, ‘paying which is not paying’, started saying that it is all about ‘helping the poor people’. And at some point he actually challenged the people with the question “Who is against helping the poor people?”.
This is precisely what Mario Pei called the ‘weasel words’. All of a sudden, we stopped talking about paying for a kidney (maybe a cornea as well – what is blindness, if you can be ‘helped’), admittedly, something quite unsavoury, but we started talking about something good. After all, who could be against ‘helping the poor people’?
Except, and that’s my main point, the ‘nature’ of what we talked about did not change. What no one was discussing, was that there is a material reality beyond all these labels, whether we call it ‘extortion’ (someone did use this label), ‘incentives’ or ‘helping the poor people’, the material reality does not really change. In other words, there is a kidney which someone will cut out from one body (I imagine it is significantly more complicated than just ‘cutting out’) and put it into another body. Call it what you will, but there will be two people with battered bodies, requiring significant effort to make them better. And no matter how many times you repeat ‘helping the poor people’, it still does not change the fact that the proposal was to extort organs from desperate people who become new slaves as they offer spare body parts for those with enough cash to afford it. Yes, the last sentence can also be seen as ‘weasel’.
In introductions to my publications I write something like:
….social reality is constructed through and within language. Every language use designed to represent reality necessarily entails decisions as to which fragments of reality to include, and how to arrange and represent them. Each of these selections, both in content and the lexico-grammatical form, carries its share of implicit assumptions, so that the reality represented is ideologically constructed…
And sometimes I think – what have I (and those like me) done? As I heard doctors, psychologists, healthcare professionals, advocates, nurses and others argue about labelling and the need (as one of the discussants put it) to ‘change the vocabulary’, I was wondering whether they stopped to consider that there was an actual kidney to be taken out of a live body and put into an other. As I realise that organs, donation and transplantation are understood and made sense of within the society’s (dominant) discourses, still you can use scores of labels (arguing which is the best of the best), but they will never make the wounds heal faster, or immusuppressive medication work better.
I am reminded of a Twitter exchange I had with Trisha Greenhalgh some time ago. She challenged me with a proposition that ‘everything is in the text’ (or something similar – I cannot remember). I said no, but I didn’t explain. And here it is. No, not everything is in the text. There is also a kidney that is (hopefully) happily sitting in my body, then a surgeon ‘cuts it out’, takes it to another body and puts it in. Yes, I am writing about it (it’s a text), it might only be accessible trough a text, while the surgeon’s actions might be a result of semiosis, but it all does not boil down to a label, or even a text. You know, it’s a kidney!
I am not entirely certain what reality is and, gosh, do I not want to engage with the question! I am, however, pretty certain that reality is not only about changing the label!!
And so, as I was listening to those talking about ‘paying’, those talking about ‘incentivising’ and those talking about ‘helping the poor’, I wanted them to stop and consider the fact that you can narrate all you want, but, again, it does not change the fact there is a wound in the body that needs to heal etc.. In not so many words, and less eloquently, I made this point in the discussion.
Here comes the irony of it all, though. I was a linguist (later I was even referred to at the conference as ‘the linguist’) who was asking the non-linguists to stop talking about language and focus also on the kidney. I mean – it is funny. But the really funny bit is that they ignored me completely, happily defining phrases, labels, concepts. But I also met a nurse and a transplant surgeon. It was quite refreshing to listen to them. They didn’t talk about labels or ‘helping the poor people’. We tried to understand each other’s worlds. Hopefully, we did. Thank you, Lisa and Frank!