Welcome back to Spin Cycle! We’re not here to start a fight about health insurance, but we would like you to notice the words that are vying for your attention in the news — especially, in this case, if you are a U.S. citizen.
There is a new law about health insurance in the States. Its official name is “The Affordable Care Act” because the people who write the laws also get to name them. The story this name tells us is that, under the law, we will be able to afford care (notice: “care” — not “insurance” — because care sounds really nice, like a bowl of chicken noodle soup someone else made for you when you had a really bad cold, whereas “insurance” sounds like a guy in a very expensive suit explaining why you have to pay for your own ambulance ride).
The nickname some people have given to the law is “Obamacare.” This name tells a story, too, but the story you hear depends on what you already think about President Obama. Your bias will affect how the word makes you feel.
If you like him, the story you hear is: “Presidents have been trying to pass a law like this for decades, and our guy finally did it. He’s the best!”
If you don’t like him, the story you hear every time you hear “Obamacare” goes something more like: “Cults of personality are dangerous, and this guy is using his celebrity status to further his crazy political agenda.”
When something you see in the world seems to confirm something you already think, it’s a good idea to try to prove yourself wrong.
An accident is something that happens even though nobody intended for it to happen. It’s also a euphemism for “crash” — instead of saying “car crash,” we say “car accident.”
It’s easy to see why we like “accident” better than “crash.” A crash is very serious and scary. People can be hurt or killed, and cars — which usually seem stable and safe and strong and completely under our control — can be mangled beyond recognition.
We use euphemisms to avoid unpleasant thoughts. Everyone knows that “car accident” means “car crash,” but we say “accident” because it sounds nicer — more like knocking over a glass of water at dinner than the sound of a windshield shattering against the pavement.
This is important: With euphemisms, you don’t have to imagine how the thing you’re avoiding looks or feels or sounds. Some euphemisms are invented precisely to prevent you from imagining those things.
Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we watch/read/listen to the news and then spend at least three hours reading all the source material for the Wikipedia page on lobotomies.
Sometimes people in the news use words we wouldn’t use: vague or purposely misleading words. Other times, they don’t say enough words — they make something sound very simple when it isn’t or leave out important pieces of information that might change the way you feel about the words they did use.
Did you see this story? The headline is, “To Shape Young Palestinians, Hamas Creates Its Own Textbooks.”
Even before you read the story, you can probably guess what it says. A group of people that is best known in most of the world for being the violent, scary kind of religious is writing its own versions of history and politics and teaching that stuff to children.
Some words you won’t find in that story are: Every country does this. Every version of the past and present is rife with biases. There are varying degrees of accuracy, of course. And some authors try very hard to see things from more than one point of view. But a lot of them don’t.
Here is how textbooks work: We tell children to read the chapters, then answer the questions at the end. A better assignment would be: Fact-check the chapters, then come up with some questions of your own.
See if you can spot what all of these terms have in common: Big Government, Big Pharma, Big Oil.
That’s right. It’s the word “big.”
“Big Government” refers to the idea that when a government tries to do too many things, it gets carried away like an overbearing boss who can’t keep his nose out of your projects. Some people believe this idea is correct. “Big Pharma” refers to the pharmaceutical industry, which some people believe is responsible for horrors such as repressing information that might cure cancer so that it can sell more cancer-treatment drugs. “Big Oil” refers to the oil industry. Or lobbyists for the oil industry. It refers to a group of people for whom personal profit, even at great cost to others, is the most important thing in the world.
You’re very smart, so you’ve probably already spotted the other thing these terms have in common. They all suggest a single-minded conspiracy of powerful people who don’t care about you. They want your money or they want to control you. They are meeting in dark rooms and and smoking cigars.
It’s true that groups of people can do a lot of damage in the world if they work together, but it’s also very difficult to find any group of people wherein everyone is an evil genius. Most people are not cackling in the dark, looking for new ways to harm or oppress you. They have their own stuff going on.
A fundamentalist is a person who adheres strictly to a set of religious tenets. The people who made up the word meant for it to sound simple and true: Fundamentals. Back to basics. None of this newfangled loosey-goosey stuff.
Unfortunately for them, it has also come to mean “rigid, unreasonable people who are convinced they’re right all the time.”
So an updated definition of “fundamentalist” might be: a person who adheres strictly to ANY set of beliefs, religious or otherwise.
But if you pay attention to the way people actually use it, you may find that what they mean by “fundamentalist” is often: a person whose beliefs are very different from mine.
The Tea Party is a branch of the U.S. Republican Party. Its name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party.
This is the story of the Boston Tea Party, as told to American children:
Way back at the dawn of civilization (1773), the English government made
British colonists Americans pay taxes even though they didn’t have any say in how their tax money would be spent. Eventually the colonists Americans got sick of it, so they threw a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor before the English government had a chance to sell/tax it. The whole thing was very funny because English people love tea.
The people in the Tea Party have a lot of opinions about taxes. This is the story they want you to tell yourself every time you hear their name: They’re just like the scrappy pre-historic Americans, demanding a say in the national budget.
Here at Wordmonster, we are not experts in human behavior. We are not experts in anything. But we have noticed that people who tell flattering stories about themselves are often delusional or at least unbearably self-absorbed. Watch them closely.
Adolf Hitler was a genocidal dictator in the second world war. “Genocidal” means he killed a lot of people because he thought they were different from him.
If you’ve ever been in an argument or seen one, you’ve probably witnessed one person comparing another to Hitler even though neither of them has ever committed genocide. There are two reasons this can happen.
The first reason is: The accuser has made a mistake, an error in reasoning. She believes that just because her opponent has one thing in common with Hitler (like being a vegetarian or having a mustache), it means he is probably planning a genocide in his spare time.
The second reason is that no one likes to lose arguments.
Hitler was a terrifying person. It’s scary to think about the things he did. If we can get all the people listening to our argument to think about murderous hatred whenever they see our opponent’s face, they’re more likely to side with us.
Empathy is imagining what it feels like to be somebody else.
When we introduce children to this idea, it’s usually because one of them snatched a toy away from another one. We point out to the toy thief that she wouldn’t like it very much if someone came along and stole her toy. Then we explain that other children have feelings just like hers. The lesson is: Treat other people the way you want them to treat you.
If you’ve been out of kindergarten for a while, you may have noticed that not everyone likes the same things you like. There’s some overlap (nobody likes having their toys stolen), but people can have very different ideas about what it means to be treated well.
Empathy isn’t really about how you would feel if you were treated a certain way. It’s about how someone else actually does feel when treated that way. This can be a tricky distinction, even for adults. I’ll give you an example.
Say you have a friend who is very tall. He is so tall that complete strangers often announce to him that he is tall and demand to know his exact height. He says it’s sort of annoying, but you don’t believe him because you’ve always been self-conscious about your own height. You are short. You’d love it if you were so tall that people stopped you on the street to talk to you about it. You can’t imagine how this could ever annoy anyone.
But if you want to empathize with your friend, it doesn’t matter how you think you’d feel if you suddenly became a much taller person. You have to imagine being your friend, seeing things the way he does, surrounded constantly by tiny irritating people who won’t shut up about his height.
Angry people aren’t great company. They can be grouchy, aggressive, and loud. Everyone is angry sometimes.
You may have noticed that the word “angry” is sometimes applied to people who haven’t actually displayed any of the above qualities. Even worse, some people are fond of calling entire groups of (other) people angry, or accusing just one person who belongs to an “angry” group of being angry, even if they’re not.
The idea is, if you don’t like the look of somebody or the sound of the things they profess to believe (or not believe), if that person says anything that challenges you in any way, she is basically screaming and punching holes in your walls for no reason.
Why would you listen to a person like that?
Sometimes, when a really big thing happens — a big thing like a natural disaster, a scientific discovery, a terrorist attack, or a government shutdown — political commentators try to determine who the “winners and losers” of the Big Thing are.
This is a metaphor. In this metaphor, the Big Thing is a game and the people affected are the players. The “winners” are the people who benefited from the Big Thing and the “losers” are the people it inconvenienced or harmed.
In some ways, the metaphor is a good one. In both games and world affairs, people can be petty, vindictive, callous, and self-serving. Sometimes they’re lucky. Sometimes they cheat. Sometimes everybody follows the rules and nobody takes home the prize.
The main difference between an actual game and a political game is: Actual games don’t matter. Sure, a few egos are at stake — maybe the feelings of a few superfans — but nothing tangible hinges on the end the game. No matter who wins, thousands of people aren’t going to die or go hungry or lose their jobs as a result.
By contrast, political “games” really do affect people who aren’t wearing a uniform or a headset.
Talking about the “winners and losers” of these “games” makes it easy to forget about the actual humans whose actual lives are all tied up in the outcome. It also encourages the people holding the cards to score cheap points any way they can.