Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Language of Change: General-Semantics and Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point"

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Language of Change: General-Semantics and Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point"

Article excerpt

    "You cannot step into the same river twice; for other and yet other
    waters are ever flowing on."
    --Heraclitus, c. 500 B.C.

To Wendell Johnson, Heraclitus was 2,000 years ahead of his time. Johnson, a general semantics scholar, emphasized the fluid nature of reality and stressed the importance of the way people handle change. "No other fact so unrelentingly shapes and reshapes our lives as this: that reality, in the broadest sense, continually changes, like the river of Heraclitus," he wrote. "But change, however all-pervading and rapid, need not be terrifying." (1)

And yet change, in many situations, can be both frightening and difficult to understand. How people deal with change has been the subject of many authors, ranging from philosophers and social scientists to popular psychologists. The bases of these works are the same: change is inevitable, so people must learn how to adapt. But exactly how people have adapted in the past, and how they could do a better job of adapting in the future, is open to the broadest interpretations, and the widest use of language. Thomas Kuhn, one of the most widely recognized philosophers of change, used some of the political language of "revolution" to frame the shifting paradigms of scientific change and rethink the scientific method in his masterpiece The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (2)

General semanticists suggest that change, like any other situation, should be handled rationally and scientifically. Johnson urged that people should see reality as a process and be ready to adapt to our ever-changing world. People must subject "(t)he Word to the test of experience and to revis(e) it accordingly, no matter how old The Word may be or who defends it," he wrote. (3)

But in spite of science, society often shows a resistance to change. S. I. Hayakawa called this a "cultural lag," which can be caused by many factors, including ignorance and fear. (4) These make humans' ability to adapt to an ever-changing world a struggle. Viewing such changes through the lens of general semantics, though, makes it easier for people to avoid two-valued debate and the status quo and come to a new understanding of things that more accurately reflects the changing world around them. (5)

Those who study change are drawing maps to make it easier to navigate the past and possible future of our understanding of change. But those maps aren't the territory--change may not be so easy to understand, and the symbols, metaphors and abstractions used by those who set out to explain change are certain to alter the way people view changes in their own world.

In modern business, change has proven to be a best-selling topic. But how can authors writing about change, applicable to both business and personal life, avoid easily falling into the traps that general semantics would have them avoid? For one recent best-selling book--The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell--the time is ripe for a general-semantics analysis.

Origins of The Tipping Point

Gladwell, now a staff writer for The New Yorker after years of business and science reporting for The Washington Post, was a freelance writer when he came across the basis for The Tipping Point in 1996. In an article Gladwell wrote that ran in The New Yorker that year, also entitled "The Tipping Point," he tackled the issue of what it was that caused a dramatic drop in crime rates in New York City in the mid-1990s. (6)

Gladwell suggested a new way of thinking about crime that "has begun to attract serious attention in the social sciences: the idea that social problems behave like infectious agents and "move through populations like the flu." (7) He used the language of epidemiology, studying the patterns of a flu outbreak during Christmas time in Manhattan and the growth of AIDS in the United States since the late 1980s. "Every epidemic has its tipping point, and to fight an epidemic you need to understand what that point is. …

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