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Words always matter

Oxford University Press Blog: “The run-up to the recent mid-term elections saw commentators across the political spectrum claiming that “words matter.” Much of this was in response to violent acts – in particular the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre and the pipe bombs sent to Democrats – that some argued was a consequence of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Words always matter of course. But due to the timing and the stakes – in this instance, an upcoming mid-term election of considerable consequence – it turned into a literal war of words. Language was weaponized to an extent not seen before.  But how do words matter? The White House claims President Trump bears no responsibility for the violent actions of the Pittsburgh shooter or the Florida pipe-bomber, even though both appear to have been followers of the president. It is true that Trump has never directly issued a command, or even a request, for his followers to perform a violent act, although he has sometimes come close, such as when he told a crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that they should knock the crap out of anyone planning to throw tomatoes and that he’d pay their legal fees.

But as advertisers, attorneys and other professional persuaders are aware, language can be used to influence the actions of others in more subtle ways. The relationship between language and reality is multi-faceted. For example, people can use their words to alter reality by explicitly directing the actions of others (e.g., “Send pipe bombs to my critics”). In speech act theory these expressions are referred to as directives, and the speaker is on-record for having made such a command or request. But the relationship between language and reality is more complex than this. Sometimes, for example, words by their very nature can alter reality, such as when a minister pronounces a couple man and wife, or when an umpire declares a pitch to have been a strike. In speech act theory these expressions are termed declaratives and their use is tightly governed (e.g., not everyone can perform a marriage)…”

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