Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Language and Power


Society is unfair. Society discriminates in good and bad ways. Society is made up of criss-crossing groups that each have their own power structure. A societal elite is a group – visible or invisible – that is top dog, whether by money, sex, or power, one that tends to control society as a whole and dictate the rules of admission and exclusion. Access to any group is restricted. “Losers” are those who don’t get into the club they want.

Your language determines your success sphere in life.

Your language determines the group you belong to and also determines the group (or club) you want to be a part of… If you can’t speak a certain language, you can’t get through a certain door… You must be able to speak a certain language before you can get into a certain club… There are very specialized audiences out there… geared to listen to very different things… Groups only hear things communicated in a certain way.

“Power” is the ability to use one or more of these languages well and effectively, i.e. to have access to and be accepted into a particular club, with its unique set of rewards.

There are, in the main, 5 types of languages, 5 primary clubs:

n everyday life, informal, colloquial, family and friends, highly elliptical and often unconsciously poetic… anything goes…
n the professions: specialized languages and procedures, often very precise and exacting as part of the delivery of services or the disciplines of learning
n the elite power or wealth club: special winks and access codes; exclusive networks provided by big money and/or highly influential contacts
n the language of the citizen: critical thinking and action to achieve a publicly desired effect – like trying to influence a change in some major organization or institution (as with a governmental policy or a school board decision)
n the language of religion, a spiritual path, or deep personal practice: scriptural or ritual observances; the practices of silent awareness; the cultivation of virtues -- integral attitudes like openness, consideration, respect and reverence; dedicated action and/or deep human/social engagement

(Conceivably one could add the language of art (and sports as well?): putting things in unusual contexts (poetry, painting, photography, film and theater), or strenuously participating in games that have no social consequences other than enjoyment; the appreciation of excellent and emotionally charged arrangement or performance.)


“Language” in the most general sense includes the gestures we call manners. Knowing what to do in an acceptable sense, e.g. knowing when not to speak, and when and how to speak, is part of the communicative behavior that tells people, and especially the group (club) that is significant to you -- whether the street corner or the university or the board of business trustees or the backroom corridors of power – who you are and what you want. Most importantly, your demeanor -- the conduct of your language/manners – will ordinarily determine whether your request(s) are listened to, seriously considered, and finally granted.

Scholarship, or the citation format used in specialized academic language, is the use of research procedures and protocols like APA and MLA. Scholarly format is basically simple courtesy, being considerate of your reader. Such form/format is a set of agreed upon manners that will enable you to especially impress the readers you want to impress.

There are three kinds of readers: friendly, hostile, and neutral. There are friendly critics who are indeed interested in what you have to say and who strive to help you make your presentation (or paper or report or whatever) stronger and more persuasive. There are, however, hostile critics who will do anything to find fault with what you saying or asking for. There is no pretext is too small for them to criticize and find an excuse for your whole presentation to fail or not be taken seriously. And then there are those who are neutral, in the sense of being indifferent. That is, they are not particularly interested, involved or invested in what you have to say. They can be persuaded, but you have to show them why what you are saying is interesting, important or has useful consequences.

Good scholarship or research is simply the courtesy of clearly showing some special someone(s) how you came to your conclusions, why you came to believe what you believe, and letting them know clearly the sources you used in arriving there.

Good scholarly dress includes references to good, reliable and/or authoritative sources, how to quote, use or cite such sources in your paper, and finally listing them at the end. In other words, you leave a good and clear trail so that, if your paper is good, others can follow up on it. Or maybe you will in the future. Confused, muddy stuff won’t help you or anyone else.

Good form, manners in the best sense, is consideration for the other.

Making a presentation or writing a paper that has poor form is like going to an interview with non-matching, inappropriate, sloppy and/or dirty clothes. It’s like going to a job interview and not having any information about the job and its requirements.


Most teachers, bosses, colleagues or committees have huge responsibilities and a tremendous workload. They look for external clues that tell them quickly or right away whether the paper they are looking at contains anything of value. Rightly or wrongly they look at appearance first. If a paper is riddled with spelling errors and poor English construction or is utterly disorganized (maybe how you go from one thought to another is totally unclear), they don’t want to go any further. They don’t want to waste their time. The student doesn’t have it together. Poor content, even poorer form.

Then there are many internal (form, format) clues that tell an experienced reader a lot about a paper, presentation or performance ……



A GOOD PRODUCT satisfies a series of task demands and rigorous (club) requirements… the form or packaging of the end product or outcome is a result of quality control, and satisfies the customer or audience for whom it is intended…
GOOD PROCESS is anything that helps you become aware of what you are doing (especially your habitual way of doing projects) and ways of doing your work better… Thus, knowing when you are starting off with a question, interest, irritation and/or fascination… ask yourself what your personal stages (5? – the I Ching has 64!) are of doing any project productively (e.g. what do you do to get out of being stuck?), being open to tips, helpful strategies and rules of thumb… above all, openness to sharing with peers and getting constructive feedback from mentors…