Plastic Words are Hollow Shells for Rigid Ideas: The Ever-Expanding Language of Tyranny

Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of “plastic words“. What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book “Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur” (literal translation into English: “Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship“) in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen’s use of “plastic” refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen’s key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.

lego-crowd

 

Here are some examples of “plastic words”(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:

exchange (Austausch)

information (Information)

communication (Kommunikation)

process (Prozess)

resource (Ressource)

strategy (Strategie)

structure (Struktur)

relationship (Beziehung)

substance (Substanz)

progress (Fortschritt)

model (Modell)

development (Entwicklung)

value (Wert)

system (System)

function (Funktion)

growth (Wachstum)

supply (Versorgung)

quality (Qualität)

welfare (Wohlfahrt)

planning (Planung)

Even though these words are very difficult to pin down in terms of their actual meaning, they are used with a sense of authority that mandates their acceptance and necessity. They are abstract expressions that imply the need for expertise to understand and implement their connotation. Their implicit authority dissuades us from questioning the appropriateness of their usage and displaces more precise or meaningful synonyms. They have a modular lego-like nature so that they can be strung together with each other or with additional words to expand their authority; for example, “resource development“, “information society“, “strategic relationship” or “communication process“.

How about the word “love”? Love is also very difficult to define but when we use it, we are quite aware of the fact that it carries many different nuances. We tend to ask questions such as “What kind of love? Erotic, parental, romantic, spiritual? Who is in love and is it truly love?” On the other hand, when we hear “resource development’, we may just nod our heads in agreement. Of course resources need to be developed!

lego-blocks

Pörksen published his book during the pre-internet, Cold War era and there have been new families of plastic words that could perhaps be added to the list in the 21st century. For one, there is the jargon of Silicon Valley that used by proponents of internet-centrism. Words such as digital, cyber, internet, online, data or web have entered everyday language but we rarely think about their actual meaning. The word internet, for example, technically refers to a bunch of servers and input devices and screen connected by cables and routers but it has taken on a much broader cultural and societal significance. An expression such as internet economy should elicit the important question of who is part of the “internet economy” and who is left out? The elderly and the poor have limited access to the internet in many countries of the world but we may gloss over this fact when we speak of the internet. The words innovation, integration, global and security/safety have also become key plastic words in the 21st century.

How do these plastic words become vehicles for the imposition of rigid views and tyranny? Two recent examples exemplify this danger.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May justified Britain’s decision to leave the European Union after a campaign characterized by anti-immigrant prejudice and nationalism in a speech by invoking Britain’s new global role:

I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.

It is difficult to argue with the positive connotation of a Global Britain. Global evokes images of the whole planet Earth, and why shouldn’t Britain forge new relationships with all the people and countries on our planet? However, the nationalist and racist sentiments that prompted the vote to leave the European Union surely did not mean that Britain would welcome people from all over the globe. In fact, the plastic words global and relationships allow the British government to arbitrarily define the precise nature of these relationships, likely focused on maximizing trade and profits for British corporations while ignoring the poorer nations of our globe.

Similarly, an executive order issued by the new American president Donald Trump within a week of his inauguration banned the entry of all foreigners heralding from a selected list of Muslim-majority countries into the USA citing concerns about security, safety and welfare of the American people. As with many plastic words, achieving security, safety and welfare sound like important and laudable goals but they also allow the US government to arbitrarily define what exactly constitutes security, safety and welfare of the American people. One of the leading enforcement agencies of the totalitarian East German state was the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – Ministry for State Security). It allowed the East German government to arrest and imprison any citizen deemed to threaten the state’s security – as defined by the Stasi.

How do we respond to the expanding use of plastic words? We should be aware of the danger inherent in using these words because they allow people in power – corporations, authorities or government agencies – to define their meanings. When we hear plastic words, we need to ask about the context of how and why they are used, and replace them with more precise synonyms. Resist the tyranny of plastic words by asking critical questions.

Reference:

Pörksen, U. (1988). Plastikwörter: die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur. Klett-Cotta.

English translation:

Poerksen, U. (1995). Plastic words: The tyranny of a modular language. Penn State Press.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

 

The Long Shadow of Nazi Indoctrination: Persistence of Anti-Semitism in Germany

Anti-Semitism and the holocaust are among the central themes in the modern German secondary school curriculum. During history lessons in middle school, we learned about anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe during the middle ages and early modernity. Our history curriculum in the ninth and tenth grades focused on the virulent growth of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe, how Hitler and the Nazi party used anti-Semitism as a means to rally support and gain power, and how the Nazi apparatus implemented the systematic genocide of millions of Jews.

Image of a Hitler Youth meeting from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia
Image of a Hitler Youth meeting from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia

In grades 11 to 13, the educational focus shifts to a discussion of the broader moral and political context of anti-Semitism and Nazism. How could the Nazis enlist the active and passive help of millions of “upstanding” citizens to participate in this devastating genocide? Were all Germans who did not actively resist the Nazis morally culpable or at least morally responsible for the Nazi horrors? Did Germans born after the Second World War inherit some degree of moral responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazis? How can German society ever redeem itself after being party to the atrocities of the Nazis? Anti-Semitism and Nazism were also important topics in our German literature and art classes because the Nazis persecuted and murdered German Jewish intellectuals and artists, and because the shame and guilt experienced by Germans after 1945 featured so prominently in German art and literature.

One purpose of extensively educating Germany school-children about  this dark and shameful period of German history is the hope that if they are ever faced with the reemergence of prejudice directed against Jews or any other ethnic or religious group, they will have the courage to stand up for those who are being persecuted and make the right moral choices. As such, it is part of the broader Vergangenheitsbewältigung (wrestling with one’s past) in post-war German society which takes place not only in schools but in various public venues. The good news, according to recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, is that Germans who attended school after the Second World War have shown a steady decline in anti-Semitism. The bad news: Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a bigger challenge for Germans who attended school under the Nazis because a significant proportion of them continue to exhibit high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes more than half a century after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Voigtländer and Voth examined the results of the large General Social Survey for Germany (ALLBUS) in which several thousand Germans were asked about their values and beliefs. The survey took place in 1996 and 2006, and the researchers combined the results of both surveys with a total of 5,300 participants from 264 German towns and cities. The researchers were specifically interested in anti-Semitic attitudes and focused on three survey questions specifically related to anti-Semitism. Survey participants were asked to respond on a scale of 1 to 7 and indicate whether they thought Jews had too much influence in the world, whether Jews were responsible for their own persecution and whether Jews should have equal rights. The researchers categorized participants as “committed anti-Semites” if they revealed anti-Semitic attitudes to all three questions. The overall rate of committed anti-Semites was 4% in Germany but there was significant variation depending on the geographical region and the age of the participants.

Germans born in the 1970s and 1980s had only 2%-3% committed anti-Semites whereas the rate was nearly double for Germans born in the 1920s (6%). However, the researchers noted one exception: Germans born in the 1930s. Those citizens had the highest fraction of anti-Semites: 10%. The surveys were conducted in 1996 and 2006 when the participants born in in the 1930s were 60-75 years old. In other words, one out of ten Germans of that generation did not think that Jews deserved equal rights!

The researchers attributed this to the fact that people born in the 1930s were exposed to the full force of systematic Nazi indoctrination with anti-Semitic views which started as early as in elementary school and also took place during extracurricular activities such as the Hitler Youth programs. The Nazis came to power in 1933 and immediately began implementing a whole-scale propaganda program in all schools. A child born in 1932, for example, would have attended elementary school and middle school as well as Hitler Youth programs from age six onwards till the end of the war in 1945 and become inculcated with anti-Semitic propaganda.

The researchers also found that the large geographic variation in anti-Semitic prejudices today was in part due to the pre-Nazi history of anti-Semitism in any given town. The Nazis were not the only and not the first openly anti-Semitic political movement in Germany. There were German political parties with primarily anti-Jewish agendas which ran for election in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Voigtländer and Voth analyzed the votes that these anti-Semitic parties received more than a century ago, from 1890 to 1912. Towns and cities with the highest support for anti-Semitic parties in this pre-Nazi era are also the ones with the highest levels of anti-Semitic prejudice today. When children were exposed to anti-Semitic indoctrination in schools under the Nazis, the success of these hateful messages depended on how “fertile” the ground was. If the children were growing up in towns and cities where family members or public figures had supported anti-Jewish agenda during prior decades then there was a much greater likelihood that the children would internalize the Nazi propaganda. The researchers cite the memoir of the former Hitler Youth member Alfons Heck:

“We who were born into Nazism never had a chance unless our parents were brave enough to resist the tide and transmit their opposition to their children. There were few of those.”

                                    – Alfons Heck in “The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy

The researchers then address the puzzling low levels of anti-Semitic prejudices among Germans born in the 1920s. If the theory of the researcher were correct that anti-Semitic prejudices persist today because Nazi school indoctrination then why aren’t Germans born in the 1920s more anti-Semitic? A child born in 1925 would have been exposed to Nazi propaganda throughout secondary school. Oddly enough, women born in the 1920s did show high levels of anti-Semitism when surveyed in 1996 and 2006 but men did not. Voigtländer and Voth solve this mystery by reviewing wartime fatality rates. The most zealous male Nazi supporters with strong anti-Semitic prejudices were more likely to volunteer for the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi party. Some SS divisions had an average age of 18 and these SS-divisions had some of the highest fatality rates. This means that German men born in the 1920s weren’t somehow immune to Nazi propaganda. Instead, most of them perished because they bought into it and this is why we now see lower levels of anti-Semitism than expected in Germans born during that decade.

A major limitation of this study is its correlational nature and the lack of data on individual exposure to Nazism. The researchers base their conclusions on birth years and historical votes for anti-Semitic parties of towns but did not track how much individuals were exposed to anti-Semitic propaganda in their schools or their families. Such a correlational study cannot establish a cause-effect relationship between propaganda and the persistence of prejudice today. One factor not considered by the researchers, for example, is that Germans born in the 1930s are also among those who grew up as children in post-war Germany, often under conditions of extreme poverty and even starvation.

Even without being able to establish a clear cause-effect relationship, the findings of the study raise important questions about the long-term effects of racial propaganda. It appears that a decade of indoctrination may give rise to a lifetime of hatred. Our world continues to be plagued by prejudice against fellow humans based on their race or ethnicity, religion, political views, gender or sexual orientation. Children today are not subject to the systematic indoctrination implemented by the Nazis but they are probably still exposed to more subtle forms of prejudice and we do not know much about its long-term effects. We need to recognize the important role of public education in shaping the moral character of individuals and ensure that our schools help our children become critical thinkers with intact moral reasoning, citizens who can resist indoctrination and prejudice.

 

 

Reference:

Voigtländer N and Voth HJ. “Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414822112
ResearchBlogging.org

Voigtländer N, & Voth HJ (2015). Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 26080394

 

 

 

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily Blog.

Is Kindness Key to Happiness and Acceptance for Children?

The study “Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being” published by Layous and colleagues in the journal PLOS One on December 26, 2012 was cited by multiple websites as proof of how important it is to teach children to be kind. NPR commented on the study in the blog post “Random Acts Of Kindness Can Make Kids More Popular“, and the study was also discussed in ScienceDaily in “Kindness Key to Happiness and Acceptance for Children“, Fox News in “No bullies: Kind kids are most popular” and the Huffington Post in “Kind Kids Are Happier And More Popular (STUDY)“.

According to most of these news reports, the design of the study was rather straightforward. Schoolchildren ages 9 to 11 in a Vancouver school district were randomly assigned to two groups for a four week intervention: Half of the children were asked to perform kind acts, while the other half were asked to keep track of pleasant places they visited. Happiness and acceptance by their peers was assessed at the beginning and the end of the four week intervention period. The children were allowed to choose the “acts of kindness” or the “pleasant places”. The “acts of kindness” group chose acts such as sharing their lunch or giving their mothers a hug. The “pleasant places” group chose to visit places such as the playground or a grandparent’s house.

At the end of the four week intervention, both groups of children showed increased signs of happiness, but the news reports differed in terms of the impact of the intervention on the acceptance of the children.

 

The NPR blog reported:

… the children who performed acts of kindness were much more likely to be accepting of their peers, naming more classmates as children they’d like to spend time with.

This would mean that the children performing the “acts of kindness” were the ones that became more accepting of others.

 

The conclusion in the Huffington Post was quite different:

 

The students were asked to report how happy they were and identify classmates they would like to work with in school activities. After four weeks, both groups said they were happier, but the kids who had performed acts of kindness reported experiencing greater acceptance from their peers  –  they were chosen most often by other students as children the other students wanted to work with.

The Huffington Post interpretation (a re-post from Livescience) was that the children performing the “acts of kindness” became more accepted by others, i.e. more popular.

 

Which of the two interpretations was the correct one? Furthermore, how significant were the improvements in happiness and acceptance?

 

I decided to read the original PLOS One paper and I was quite surprised by what I found:

The manuscript (in its published form, as of December 27, 2012) had no figures and no tables in the “Results” section. The entire “Results” section consisted of just two short paragraphs. The first paragraph described the affect and happiness scores:

 

Consistent with previous research, overall, students in both the kindness and whereabouts groups showed significant increases in positive affect (γ00 = 0.15, S.E. = 0.04, t(17) = 3.66, p<.001) and marginally significant increases in life satisfaction (γ00 = 0.09, S.E. = 0.05, t(17) = 1.73, p = .08) and happiness (γ00 = 0.11, S.E. = 0.08, t(17) = 1.50, p = .13). No significant differences were detected between the kindness and whereabouts groups on any of these variables (all ps>.18). Results of t-tests mirrored these analyses, with both groups independently demonstrating increases in positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction (all ts>1.67, all ps<.10).

 

There are no actual values given, so it is difficult to know how big the changes are. If a starting score is 15, then a change of 1.5 is only a 10% change. On the other hand, if the starting score is 3, then a change of 1.5 represents a 50% change. The Methods section of the paper also does not describe the statistics employed to analyze the data. Just relying on arbitrary p-value thresholds is problematic, but if one were to use the infamous p-value threshold of 0.05 for significance, one can assume that there was a significant change in the affect or mood of children (p-value <0.001), a marginally significant trend of increased life satisfaction (p-value of 0.08) and no really significant change in happiness (p-value of 0.13).

It is surprising that the authors do not show the actual scores for each of the two groups. After all, one of the goals of the study was to test whether performing “acts of kindness” has a bigger impact on happiness and acceptance than the visiting “pleasant places” (“whereabouts” group). There is a generic statement “ No significant differences were detected between the kindness and whereabouts groups on any of these variables (all ps>.18).”, but what were the actual happiness and satisfaction scores for each of the groups? The next sentence is also cryptic: “Results of t-tests mirrored these analyses, with both groups independently demonstrating increases in positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction (all ts>1.67, all ps<.10).” Does this mean that p<0.1 was the threshold of significance? Do these p-values refer to the post-intervention versus pre-intervention analysis for each tested variable in each of the two groups? If yes, why not show the actual data for both groups?

 

The second (and final) paragraph of the Results section described acceptance of the children by their peers. Children were asked who they would like to “would like to be in school activities [i.e., spend time] with’’:

 

All students increased in the raw number of peer nominations they received from classmates (γ00 = 0.68, S.E. = 0.27, t(17) = 2.37, p = .02), but those who performed kind acts (M = +1.57; SD = 1.90) increased significantly more than those who visited places (M = +0.71; SD = 2.17), γ01 = 0.83, S.E. = 0.39, t(17) = 2.10, p = .05, gaining an average of 1.5 friends. The model excluded a nonsignificant term controlling for classroom size (p = .12), which did not affect the significance of the kindness term. The effects of changes in life satisfaction, happiness, and positive affect on peer acceptance were tested in subsequent models and all found to be nonsignificant (all ps>.54). When controlling for changes in well-being, the effect of the kindness condition on peer acceptance remained significant. Hence, changes in well-being did not predict changes in peer acceptance, and the effect of performing acts of kindness on peer acceptance was over and above the effect of changes in well-being.

 

This is again just a summary of the data, and not the actual data itself. Going to “pleasant places” increased the average number of “friends” (I am not sure I would use “friend” to describe someone who nominates me as a potential partner in a school activity) by 0.71, performing “acts of kindness” increased the average number of friends by 1.57. It did answer the question that was raised by the conflicting news reports. According to the presented data, the “acts of kindness” kids were more accepted by others and there was no data on whether they also became more accepting of others. I then looked at the Methods section to understand the statistics and models used for the analysis and found that there were no details included in the paper. The Methods section just ended with the following sentences:

 

Pre-post changes in self-reports and peer nominations were analyzed using multilevel modeling to account for students’ nesting within classrooms. No baseline condition differences were found on any outcome variables. Further details about method and results are available from the first author.

 

Based on reviewing the actual paper, I am quite surprised that PLOS One accepted it for publication. There are minimal data presented in the paper, no actual baseline scores regarding peer acceptance or happiness, incomplete methods and the rather grand title of “Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being” considering the marginally significant data. One is left with many unanswered questions:

1) What if kids had not been asked to perform additional “acts of kindness” or additional visits to “pleasant places” and had instead merely logged these positive activities that they usually performed as part of their routine? This would have been a very important control group.

2) Why did the authors only show brief summaries of the analyses and omit to show all of the actual affect, happiness, satisfaction and peer acceptance data?

3) Did the kids in both groups also become more accepting of their peers?

 

It is quite remarkable that going to places one likes, such as a shopping mall is just as effective pro-social behavior (performing “acts of kindness”) in terms of improving happiness and well-being. The visits to pleasant places also helped gain peer acceptance, just not quite as much as performing acts of kindness. However, the somewhat selfish sounding headline “Hanging out at the mall makes kids happier and a bit more popular” is not as attractive as the warm and fuzzy headline “Random acts of kindness can make kids more popular“. This may be the reason why the “prosocial” or “kindness” aspect of this study was emphasized so strongly by the news media.

 

In summary, the limited data in this published paper suggests that children who are asked to intentionally hang out at places they like and keep track of these for four weeks seem to become happier, similar to kids who make an effort to perform additional acts of kindness. Both groups of children gain acceptance by their peers, but the children who perform acts of kindness fare slightly better. There are no clear descriptions of the statistical methods, no actual scores for the two groups (only the changes in scores are shown) and important control groups (such as children who keep track of their positive activities, without increasing them) are missing. Therefore, definitive conclusions cannot be drawn from these limited data. Unfortunately, none of the above-mentioned news reports highlighted the weaknesses, and instead jumped on the bandwagon of interpreting this study as scientific evidence for the importance of kindness. Some of the titles of the news reports even made references to bullying, even though bullying was not at all assessed in the study.

This does not mean that we should discourage our children from being kind. On the contrary, there are many moral reasons to encourage our children to be kind, and there is no need for a scientific justification for kindness. However, if one does invoke science as a reason for kindness, it should be based on scientifically rigorous and comprehensive data.