“The Stuff of Thought” by Steven Pinker

AUTHOR: Steven Pinker

AUTHOR: Steven Pinker

When we think about diplomacy in layman’s term, we think about communication and the art of politeness. To be ‘diplomatic’ means having the skills to deal with people in a sensitive and tactful way so as to not offend or reproach. Therefore, how we use language also must be used diplomatically to ensure that our tone, intonation, emphasis and more importantly, our meaning does not misconstrued or cause unintentional upset.

To help us unravel the psychological interpretation of the use of language, we recommend the book “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature” by Steven Pinker, in support of Chapter 3 - “Enhancing Emotional Intelligence” of the Diplomatic Planner. Pinker’s analysis takes an in-depth look into language and what it can tell us about human nature and the complexities of the human mind. Anyone who has undertaken formal diplomatic training may have come across theories put across by German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who put across the idea that perpetual peace could be secured through international cooperation and democracy. Luckily, for those unfamiliar with Kant’s work, the author Pinker makes several references to this and at times picks it apart.

Pinker’s work is dense and detailed but with lots of interesting things to come away from it. There are interesting chapters about the relationship between language and intelligence, how time, causality and space are represented in language and how these representations affect our understanding. There are also some eye-opening work on names, profanity, indirect language, and metaphors that is worth diving into but these won’t be mentioned in this review.

Learning languages is a key part of our lives. We start when we are infants and pick up things from our surroundings. As such, many of us take languages for granted without really understanding how incredibly complex they are and can shed light on human thought and behaviour. However, Pinker makes an interesting argument to state that babies often cry because they are struggling to figure out verbal communication. All languages are full of hidden complexities but babies can learn these without direct imitation. Take the various verbs to hit, to cut, to touch, to break, these are similar but also clearly different from one another as they take on more central concepts like contact, effect and motion. For example, “to break” implies a particular outcome of an object without any motion required, whereas “to hit” alway implies motion which is why you could never use the verb to describe someone leaning against another person.

Pinker quotes that: “Saying that some concepts are basic and possibly innate, is not a slippery slope toward saying that all concepts are basic and innate.” This shows just how complex language can be when broken down and examined further, creating ambiguity.

Even the most tragic debates can spur on linguistic debates and words have practical importance that we, in the diplomatic field, should certainly pay more attention to. Some of these thinking have helped to form exercises in Chapter 4 of the Diplomatic Planner and we have Pinker to thank for this.

In his book, Pinker references the tragedy of 9/11 but looks at it from a linguistic lens. It is a common understanding the attack on the World Trade Center was a single and highly coordinated event. However, Pinker argues that the event can be viewed as two separate instances: one attack on the north tower and a second attack on the south tower. The significance here is that seeing the tragedy as a single or a dual attack holds a difference of $3.5 billion in the balance. Pinker states that Larry Silverstein, who was the leaseholder of the World Trade Center, was insured for a maximum of $3.5 billion per destructive event. Therefore, if the event was considered two separate events, he would have been compensated for both events. Such semantics is incredibly crucial from a legal point of view even if such a tragedy may not be comforted by words themselves.

Exploring intricacies of words in international relations and politics is incredibly important and Pinker illustrates this case study through the Monica Lewinsky and US President Bill Clinton scandal. At the time, Clinton’s lawyer gave a deposition stating that “there is no sex of any kind” between the President and his intern. When facts came to light that this was untrue, the prosecutor charged the President with perjury and obstruction of justice. Then Clinton’s lawyer corrected himself by saying that there no sexual activity took place during the deposition. Whatever the correction was, this did not help to restore Clinton’s reputation. Also, the word “intern” also started to gain a negative reputation as spun by the media and offered lowered opportunities for women wanting freedom in their personal life and career. In similar terms, when the US attacked Iraq in 2003, some described the event as an “invasion” while others called it “liberation”, which helped to change people’s opinion of this policy. This shows that language can easily manipulate us and frame our thinking to something differently. Subtle changes in language can have profound effects.

Words are dynamic, which means their social acceptability varies over time. Words have the power to upset someone who perceive them as insulting, unacceptable or taboo. Politeness is about speaking indirectly and they have become common in our speech. People are generally averse to rejection and we have grown into a society where we try our best to practice politeness when we want to avoid confrontation. Pinker refers to this phenomena as ‘whimperatives’ which transforms normal requests like, “please pass the salt”, into vagues desires like, “if you could pass me the salt, that would be fantastic.” Through our basic speech pattern, we imply that the passing of salt will please us without exaggerating that emotion through our words. In this way, politeness is a great way to state the obvious but can be ignored, depending on how normal or unusual the request is. Pinker goes into greater detail of such semantics throughout his book.

In short, language is largely taken for granted but a tremendous amount of information can be taken away from how humans perceive and interact with the world. Understanding language allows us to reflect on perception, identity, morality and etiquette that are important to the operations of international relations diplomacy, particularly when you are influencing and being disempowered through the use of words.

“The Stuff of Thought” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register