If ever general semantics has been needed, it’s now!

Before political correctness reared its ugly head, general semantics taught us “How man uses words — and how words use man!” Today, we have to say, “How people use words — and how words use people!”

Either way, you get the idea.

Oildale-born Gerald Haslam attended Standard School in Oildale alongside musician Merle Haggard. They were best buddies then and throughout life, but Haslam’s professional focus was not on country music. It was (and is) on education and writing. Most importantly, that focus includes general semantics.

Haslam worked with leaders within this discipline at San Francisco State. He served on the staff of the quarterly journal for General Semantics, appropriately called (intentionally uncapitalized) “etcetera.” The quarterly’s editor was S. I. Hayakawa, who was not only president of San Francisco State but later elected as a U.S. senator.

Haslam said in a recent email to me, “I employ general semantics principles constantly in the op-eds and other opinion pieces I now publish.” In 2011, Haslam co-edited with his wife, Janice, a 427-page book about Hayakawa. A reviewer said the Haslams “tell us a lot about the culture wars of the 20th Century – and of American identity itself.”

Someone said on TV news this past week, “We live in a world of words right now.” President Trump offers many (extraordinary) examples — but so does everyone else in the political arena and in every sector of our culture.

General semantics principles include tools and best practices intended to avoid communication problems and to facilitate sound thinking.

Examples include:

  • The map is not the territory
  • Avoid two-valued orientations
  • The word is not the thing.
  • Snarl words and purr words . . .

. . . to name but a few.

The latter principle is most pronounced today – especially snarl words. These terms were coined by Hayakawa to explain how an argument is not a fight. An argument, he said, “is a form of reasoning that demonstrates whether a statement is either true or false.”

Today, we see that the notion of rational argument has been almost totally obliterated by fights characterized by Hayakawa as “scaremongering and fact-free bluster, yelling, crying, and name calling — [with each having] taken the place of thoughtfully reasoned debate.”

Sound familiar to you today?

Hayakawa is being kind in terms of today’s harsh and provocative pronouncements – especially TV personalities who talk-over each other so no understanding is possible.

So, what’s the solution?

When we hear people using snarl words, Hayakawa recommends we ask questions that relate to their statements. Use simple “active listening” questions such as:

  • You sound really upset — what do you mean by that?
  • You sound really concerned — why do you say that?
  • You really sound angry — what’s your reason for saying that?

Hayakawa concluded, "After listening to their opinions and the reasons for them, we may leave the discussion slightly wiser, slightly better informed, and perhaps less one-sided than we were before the discussion began."

In other words, we may have converted an irrational fight into a reasoned argument — plus an understanding of what’s true and what’s false. Today, that really matters.

More universities (including CSUB) should add general semantics to their curricula; however, I suspect they fear the fallacies of their liberal thinking will be exposed.

This general semantics tool works. Try it! Then learn more about general semantics and its many other principles, tools and best practices. You can “Google” the Institute of General Semantics — plus many other websites. Then buy (or borrow from the library) Hayakawa’s book, "Language in Thought and Action."

With this overview, you will perceive the nonsense you see and hear in the media for what it all too often is — nonsense. Even better, you’ll be prepared to convert irrational “fights” into rational “arguments” — and win!

John Pryor, CPCU, ARM, is a management consultant with CSU Bakersfield’s Small Business Development Center.