Words and Deeds: Entanglements of Hope and Doom

Many years ago, I read an article by Irwin Deutscher titled, “Words and Deeds: Social Science and Social Policy.” It was his 1965 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), published in 1966 in the journal, Social Problems. Deutscher was alluding to the fact that most of the data collected by sociologists were verbal or written responses to questions in interviews. That is, words are not necessarily equivalent to behavior.

The point, of course, is that “…what we obtain from such methods are statements of attitude, opinion, norms, values, anticipation, or recall.” Interview and questionnaire data consist of words, not deeds. They reflect the interpretations the ‘respondent’ wants the interviewer to hear; the connection to actual behavior may be quite tenuous.

How Do You Know?

The dilemma of interpreting words, not deeds, which Deutscher describes, is just as much a problem in everyday life as it is for the social researcher. How do we know whether what someone says reflects to what s/he may do, has done, or merely thinks or emotes about? In these days of hyper-extreme social media silos of inflammatory talk, law enforcement officials have to deal with the relations between violent rhetoric and potential acts of terrorism. The line between ‘free speech’ and the rapid fire of an AR-15 aimed at schoolchildren is often blurry.

In communicating with others, everyone engages in “the presentation of self,” a concept that Erving Goffman developed in 1959. We present to the world a concept of who we are, based on a complex of elements that express who we think we are, or who we want others to see us as. Some call that impression management.

Something else happens with the near anonymity of social media. The widespread use of social media involves images of self and the world that may contain many distortions of fact and triggers fantasy in how people understand observed facts, predictions, forecasts, and even outcomes in the world as we experience it. And, of course, the way we interpret claims of fact, motive, trends, and outcomes is influenced by what we already believe and especially what we may fear.

The framework of knowledge from which we view the world may depend more on our fears, especially when reinforced by the fears of our peers, than on facts as presented by political authorities or even in peer-reviewed scientific reports. When the world as one believes it should be is already turned upside down, particularly when it involves personal loss of standing in society, including loss of economic security, people tend to look for a cause in the motives and actions of others who are untrusted. “They did this to us.” Fear and loathing rise.

Such conditions are ripe for conspiracy theories, totally unrelated to any established fact. Trust is the glue that holds society together, which is sometimes applied only to those with whom one has close relations and the same values and beliefs. Some easily see those outside the circle of trust as enemies who plot conspiracies against us. As individuals become increasingly isolated from the sources of material support and cultural affirmation in the destabilizing dregs of industrial civilization, fear, anger, and hatred continue to grow, eventually leading to violence.

Trust, Suspicion, and Fear of Impending Doom

Things look bad today from many angles. By simply reflecting on the basic trends in climate instability, ecological damage, or the politics of negation, one finds it difficult to see a way out of what some call a spiral of doom.  No conventional policy change seems more than trivial. This generates fear and mistrust of those in charge of our present and future, some of it with good reason. Fear and trembling multiply mistrust. Whom do you trust? Some demagogues exploit such fear and mistrust to scapegoat ‘others,’ the outsiders who are easily mistrusted and targeted for blame. The stress drives many to seek a villain and some look in all the wrong places.

“The immigrants are coming to take your jobs and rape your daughters.” When we look for facts to support such allegations, they are hard to find. “Jews will not replace us!” is a current reflection of a longstanding target of scapegoating. However, to the fearfully vulnerable mind such statements can operate as an explanation for what they do not understand. With sufficient fear and anger, such words are more and more likely to become deeds.

Hope is an Action

Greta Thunberg, the high school girl turned international climate-action hero, has spoken eloquently about the institutionalized hypocrisy of international ‘leaders’ of corporate and governmental organizations, who speak comforting words while taking no meaningful action. One of her statements that I favor is “Hope is an action.”

Words are ‘verbal behavior,’ not actual actions in the world outside of language. We have experienced decades of inaction under the guise of words meant to placate those who demand actual changes in behavior of the world’s largest institutions. The hypocrisy of ‘world leaders’ in attempting to instill hope (and take the heat off them) by claims of setting goals of reducing carbon emissions by so much be a certain date, or setting global average temperature ‘targets’ of 1.5ᴼ or 2.0ᴼ Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, results from the fact that no specific actions (deeds) are attached to such claims. It is easy to feel a sense of doom when one sees how hope cannot survive the continuation of such hypocrisy.

“Hope is an action” is a specific admonition that you can make all the claims about intentions that you want, but if they do not involve specific commitments to deeds that achieve those intentions, then your words have no meaning and thereby portend doom.

One thought on “Words and Deeds: Entanglements of Hope and Doom

  1. At this point in the self inflicted demise of our species, not enough are concerned with the viability of the other. Each is exclusively concerned with a hunger and thirst to maintain one’s own immediate turf, on our way to a real Hollywood- like zombie apocalypse.


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