American Language

This story represents the best of what this blog was founded for.

On NPR today, a discussion aired about the findings of a study that measured the responses of Americans asked to think about independence or the greater good. Fascinatingly, there were statistically significant differences between ethnically diverse Americans based on whether they were primed for “independence” or “community.”

European-Americans did markedly better on tasks when primed for independence, suggesting that this group either works harder when imagining themselves as free from the influence of others or that they slack off when thinking of their interdependence with others.

This effect was not observed to the same degree in other groups, most notably Asian-Americans, who are more likely to have a background that values both individual effort and community reliance. (I wasn’t able to find if any groups did better when primed for community.)

The kicker? The experiment was done in such a way that the priming was entirely linguistic – the policies behind the study were the exact same. When the same policy was framed as benefiting “independence,” European-Americans found it better – and seemingly imagined themselves as better people – than when it was framed as benefiting the community.

My takeaway: In the United States, independence and liberty have become gateway words or shibboleths. We live in a country with constant reference to these concepts. As I’ve said before, though, the danger of over-reliance on phrasing is that the words we value will lose meaning.

This study suggests that this is the case. It doesn’t really matter what policy is on the table; for an idea to gain acceptance it merely needs to invoke the concept of liberty or independence. Since different political segments have different conceptions of what liberty is (does liberty require that you can own a gun? Marry whatever adult you choose? Be able to buy large sizes of sodas?), there’s no consensus on what those rhetorical movements really mean.

At best, they’re hearkening to a shared history and a shared hope. At worst, they’re meaningless, or else dog whistles sending coded messages to elements of a political movement. In this particular case, I think it’s worth lamenting that the language of the United States can no longer agree on what it means to be free – but that we all have to pay obeisance to an idea that is rapidly losing its meaning.



One comment

  1. I think the more loudly we spout on about independence and freedom, the less likely we have a clue as to what that means. It is a smokescreen in front of the increasing reliance on corporations and corrupt politics to determine public policy.
    I like the phrase “gateway words”. Whenever I hear a politician go on about independence and freedom, I think he/she is about to ask for an increase in military spending, gets support from the NRA or is just about to vote on starting a war. Gateway, indeed.

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