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May 2007 - Nr.


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Brighter Future for Germans
Bunker Attraction


by Dave McKague


My Dog Teaches
… The Power of Words

Hunny: "Throw the ball and I love you forever!"Hunny is such an obedient, friendly and playful dog that strangers often inquire about her. When asked her breed, I tell them she is "an American Staffordshire terrier". But when I add that she falls under the Ontario Government’s "pit bull" legislation, brave men quiver and fair maidens faint.

Of course, that is a slight exaggeration. But the truth is that there is often a very discernable reaction as soon as I use the words "pit bull", perhaps a touch of apprehension or fear when none was present earlier. The response is not to the situation – Hunny is still wagging her tail and being her friendly self – but only to the words. (If you read the first Petitorial, you may recall that I was not immune to a negative reaction when my son first mentioned that he wanted to get a "pit bull".)

Another owner I met prefers to introduce his gentle giant as a German cattle dog. It certainly avoids the negative stereotyping associated with the more commonly known name of "Rottweiler".

As the above examples show, words carry an emotive effect that we are often unaware of, but that can be used inadvertently or deliberately by ill-informed or unscrupulous people to shut off debate or to cause us not to look for ourselves. Why should we take the time and effort to learn facts when we already "know" through our lawmakers and the media that pit bulls are dangerous? Case (and mind) closed.

Why bother to argue the merits or flaws of a particular political policy when you can dismiss the other person’s viewpoint by simply labeling him "left-wing" or "right-wing"? If we really don’t like what he is saying, we can enhance our pejorative by adding words like "extreme" or "fanatic". Yet if we were completely honest with ourselves, do any of us know exactly what we mean when we use these terms?

A politician can promise us "fairness", "justice", "equality", "freedom", "prosperity". Because these are perceived as being desirable, we want to agree with his rhetoric. But since each one of us has his or her own concept of what is meant by these words, is it any wonder that we are constantly disappointed when our politician fails to deliver? What is fair for one may be unfair for another. What is good for the duck hunter is not necessarily good for the duck. Yet listen to almost any political speech and you will find it peppered with such intangible words – words that enable our politician to stir the emotions without really saying anything.

Why do we shut off thinking and react instead to the emotive power of words? If we have arrived at an opinion because we have unknowingly taken in false information, we may then find it difficult to admit that we have been duped. Likewise, if we have made a decision after only a cursory look at the facts, we may thereafter set about to prove that it is the correct one. It is unpleasant for any of us to have to admit that he or she has been wrong. In fact, we often find it easier to go further and further down a wrong road just to try to prove that we were right in the first place.

We also tend to label things and put them into compartments in order to make sense of this complicated world in which we live. The compartments are crude when we are dealing with something with which we have little experience, and become more and more refined as we gain knowledge. Those who have minimal contact with dogs may divide them according to "big dog – medium size dog – little dog" and have them all mentally filed away under "dangerous animals".

The problem with compartmentalizing is that it can lead to oversimplification that is simply not there in the real world. "Pit bulls are dangerous." "Blondes are dumb." "Politicians are liars." "Women are emotional." "Men are selfish."

There is considerable truth in the quotation "The pen is mightier than the sword", first coined in 1839 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his play Richelieu. Words can indeed be powerful weapons. When they are used to fight ignorance and expand our understanding, all is well. But we have to be alert to those who would use the emotive power of words to shut-off thinking and reason. And we would be wise to occasionally take stock and determine if our own understanding of the world could not be improved by a more thorough and complete look.


 Previous "Petitorial" articles by David McKague:

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