We are constantly victims of semantic satiation. It’s a psychological phenomenon, a form of mental fatigue which occurs when a given stimuli, such as repetition of a specific word or phrase, continues to the point that it no longer makes sense.
I’m nowhere near smart enough to have any idea how or why this happens, only that it does. And that’s what the much-lambasted 24-hour news cycle does to you.
In an effort to digest difficult and complex news stories, we have to have current events broken down into the simplest, easiest forms.
Instead of looking at a nuanced story such as the ongoing civil war in Syria from a social, cultural, historical and economic lens, we’re reducing the potential for another military entanglement in the Middle East to strident, shrill headlines that read, “Is Syria another Iraq?”
There have been so many articles across the online news community about Syria in the past month alone, I wonder if we’re just running around in circles repeating the words “Syria,” “civil war” or “red line” until we forget what they mean.
The State Press has already published an opinion column about Syria, and here I am writing about it again, merely compounding the problem.
We do this with so many things. After the tragedies last August in Aurora, Colo., and Oak Creek, Wis., and then last December in Newtown, Conn., all anyone was writing about or talking about was gun control.
The phrase “gun control,” of course, comes with a specific connotation. But the phrase is a stand-in, representing an impossibly complex issue.
It’s similar to the literary device metonymy, “a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another,” which are in some way linked.
The classic example of metonymy is using the phrase, “the White House” to stand in for the president or the executive branch of the U.S., or “Detroit” to mean the Big Three American automakers.
But metonymy is a rhetorical device, not a lazy strategy to generate clicks and hits in the midst of a serious geopolitical crisis. Repeating the phrase “the White House” over and over again shouldn’t cause you to experience semantic satiation. Talking about Detroit or the executive branch as nouns is not as reductive as talking about “Syria.”
When we talk about “Syria,” are we talking about the humanitarian crisis brought about by so many refugees fleeing the conflict between the current regime and the rebel groups? Are we talking about our own potential military involvement? Are we talking about red lines (another example of semantic satiation) or the U.S. trying to uphold its self-selected title of world’s policeman without racking up immense body counts or threatening the well-being of its armed forces?
I don’t really know, but I do know that as author John Green says, “The truth resists simplicity.”
I want to be able to talk about things without equivocating. I want us to be able to reach out and grasp the full story.
I don’t want us to drown the world’s tragedies and turmoil in repeated words that have lost all tangible meaning.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @SavannahKThomas