So, I went to an event recently. A comics convention, to promote the online story Dadtown that I script. People came from all over the country to attend, including a couple of guys at the table next to ours who were up from London. One of them, having got up early to get to Nottingham, hadn't eaten breakfast and was experiencing a serious need for bacon.
We weren't in an area strong on greasy-spoon cafes, but there was a franchise coffee place in a nearby hotel. They had a variety of breakfast offerings in which bacon didn't feature, except once when ingredients like rocket were also implicated. I noticed that beyond the coffee area and in the hotel space was a kitchen serving a buffet breakfast. That wasn't the solution my new London friend needed - he was looking for bacon sandwiches for himself and his colleague, a different proposition. Or was it?
What I could see - and smell - was that the buffet had bacon. What stopped the London guy was the concept of a buffet, and its price, something like £9. Which meant he'd let an idea get in the way of the reality of the situation. I've done the same in other contexts - we all have. I just happened to see it in action with someone else on this occasion.
I pointed out the possibility, and within a couple of minutes he'd got one plate layered with rashers, and another piled high with slices of bread. He spent the next few minutes constructing bacon sandwiches, and the staff - amused - were happy to help by providing a bag to take them away. He constructed enough tasty looking bacon butties that the price per sandwich compared well with what he'd have paid in a cafe, which wasn't going to happen anywhere in the vicinity of hotel and convention.
What's interesting here is how language got in the way of intention. Desire - for bacon sandwiches - was thwarted temporarily by the word 'buffet'. Even though the buffet included bacon, there was implicit within 'buffet' the notion of sitting down to eat a variety of tastiness, which wasn't on the agenda given the desire to head back to the convention.
I like this example precisely because of its triviality. The subtle nuances of language are part of its power. A sign that says Whites Only is pretty blatant in what it expresses. The realities of prejudice are often more subtle. When I worked at an ad agency one of the directors told me, when I asked why targeted leaflet drops had been used to attract staff for one client rather than a newspaper ad, replied "We tried that, but the ethnic response was too high".
It took a minute to untangle the racism implicit in what he'd said, which was effectively that 'too many' non-white people had applied for the client's jobs. And I'm pretty sure that neither the ad agency guy or the client representative would have mentioned in their meeting that what they were doing could be considered racist. It's even possible that they had no awareness of the matter at all, their heads full of language about brand identity that tangentially supported the idea that a given company's employees should be white - which is why they'd targeted a leafy suburb with their leaflets.
Robert Anton Wilson, whose work has shaped me considerably, wrote "the words we use influence the thoughts we think more than the thoughts we think influence the language we use". I read that over 20 years ago, and the observation remains potent. Wilson himself was influenced by reading Alfred Korzybski, and if you want to really dig deep into how words and thinking and perception go together, contemplate this quote from his Science & Sanity. "We read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use."
Our ability to see through the constraints of language is instrumental to the ideas we conceive. Join us in exploring this and other themes in a Creativity & Innovation workshop on Tuesday November 10.