Language and images. These are two things that define so much in life. The words and images that are used to convey ideas are far more important than we could ever imagine. This is especially true when it comes to beliefs. That’s because beliefs are intangible. We attach words and images to beliefs in order to try to communicate the belief to others in the hope that others will either understand or adopt what we are conveying as their own.
There are many examples of this in society – with politics and religion being the biggest examples because they are so prevalent.
The neat thing about this is that if you pay attention to the words and images used, you can usually have a pretty good sense of knowing the end result of a debate over something controversial pretty early on.
Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean. First one – gay marriage. If you have followed the debate around gay marriage for any length of time, you would have noticed something very interesting. The opponents of gay marriage started to adopt the language of the proponents of gay marriage. Opponents even used the term gay marriage to describe what they opposed. They continued this by changing the terminology of what they supported to traditional marriage.
Here’s a rule you can live by. When one side of a debate adopts the language of the other side – the debate is over. The adopters have lost the debate. When you use the language of your opponent, you legitimize their language and their ideas. You have conceded something big – legitimacy. Legitimacy can only be transferred from an existing source. It’s only a matter of time then until the day-to-day catches up with the new reality.
Images work with words in the same manner. You can see how this changed over time as well. It used to be that the only images that were seen of gay people usually portrayed them in a very negative way – as sexual perverts or pedophiles or something else terrible.
But that started to change as the adoption of language changed. The most prevalent image change took place in the 90’s with the advent of gay characters on TV shows. These images changed the perception of gay people as dangerous outcasts to more normal people who are not a threat to anyone. That’s a big change and it matched the language in common use.
Here’s an opposite example – abortion in the US. Abortion in the US is at a standstill. You essentially have a 50/50 split – people who support it and people you oppose it. The numbers ebb and flow over time, but pretty much stay close to that 50/50 split – never enough to have a clear majority on the issue.
One of the reason I think this is so is because neither side of the debate is willing to adopt the language of the other side. In fact, each side has different names to describe their opposition and themselves. The side that opposes abortion refers to themselves as pro-life and their opponents as pro-abortion. The side that supports the legality of abortion refers to themselves as pro-choice and their opponents as anti-abortion.
This debate rages on and has since the 1970’s with no clear end in sight. The images associated with abortion haven’t changed either – they match the language and in many cases, there are no images at all. The only images that typically come up are images that support the language of each side. The side that opposes abortion have shown pictures of the aborted in one extreme to images of babies in the womb on the other to support their cause. Those that support the legality of abortion also use images to further their cause and support their use of language. They will typically show the worst protests at clinics that provide abortion services showing how inhumane protesters are as one extreme. On the other end of the spectrum will be images of a stressed pregnant woman who doesn’t know what to do about her pregnancy as a way to convey compassion.
The language and the imagery haven’t really changed that much in the 40-50 years that this have been debated.
Words and images matter a great deal. Here’s the lesson, if you want to win a debate, get your opponent to adopt your language in words and images. Even if they are using your language and imagery to attack your position, you should be smiling. Why, because in attacking your position, they are expressing the legitimacy of your ideas. Your position is a threat to the established order of things. And only threats are worthy of being attacked. The crazy thing is that in attacking their opponents, they bring about their own undoing eventually.