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Language That Denies Choice

by Scott Swain

Skip down to read about "Deserve"

Thinking & language that alienate us from one another:
Diagnoses, judgements, labels, analysis, criticism, comparisons, etc.
Deserve thinking (i.e. that certain behaviors merit punishment or rewards)
Demands (denial of other person's choice; intention to punish those who don't do it)
Denial of choice or responsibility (had to, should, supposed to, they made me do it, etc.)

Related Articles:
Does Gossip Have Benefits?
Compassion vs. "Nice Talk"

Evaluation and
Moral Judgement
Evaluations and moralistic judgements are when we judge another person [often as "wrong" or "bad" but also including terms like "good" and "awesome"] when they do things that are not in agreement with our values or that we don't understand.
If you say "You are selfish," "Good boy," "He is a lazy bum," "You are wonderful," "You are neurotic," "She did wrong," "You are too fat," you are making an evaluation / moralistic judgement. For efficiency-sake, I'm going to call them "evaluations" for now on. I also call them "Assumptions of Universal Truth".
Why? Because when you use this form of communication, the part of the listener's brain that interprets in literal fashion is taking your pronouncement as if it is truth from all perspectives. There is very little we can say that everyone at all times will agree with. If you want to "always be right," you will learn to shift your moral judgement into value judgement as shown below. OK now I'm going to call them "evaluations." Mostly. I promise!

Insults, put downs, labels, name calling, most compliments, criticisms, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of evaluation.

"But how do I express disgust, distrust, delight, praise, or many other valid feelings?"
We use value judgements. Instead of "You are selfish," we say, "my value for sharing is different than yours." "He is a lazy bum" becomes "His values for comfort and security are different than mine."
"How about positive evaluations?"
Those can be more difficult to do in a way that sounds natural. Primarily because most of us are so used to just firing off an evaluation. Again here, we shift to value judgements: Instead of "You rock!" we might say, "I appreciate working with you because I value intelligence and integrity." Or "You helped me save time. I'm relieved because I value efficiency." 
Another example:
Which sounds more effective? "That film was great!" vs "I enjoyed that film because I liked the amount of mental stimulation I got from it." or "I liked that film because I value mental stimulation."
We can accept "different" behavior or behavior we don't understand without condoning the behavior. 

"Why care? Why go through the time and effort to translate evaluations into value judgements?" 
When we practice shifting moral judgement to value judgement, there are numerous benefits, including:

We are practicing and getting better at identifying our own values, feelings, and values (needs). This leads to a greater understanding of self, which is the key to understanding others.
We are practicing being more authentic and courageous with guessing what is going on inside others as well as courageous in asking for what we want. This leads to increased trust, increased respect, deeper interactions, and getting more of what you want in life.
We are practicing (and spreading) acceptance of people having different values! This leads to more harmony, ease, and efficiency in your life. 
Every time you pronounce a value judgement, you are increasing your sense of personal responsibility by saying, "I have a personal taste or distaste for blah blah" instead of "Blah blah is wrong because other people think so." A byproduct of taking responsibility is that you are increasing your power potential.
We are going to be "right" more often. Moral judgements / evaluations are the same as pronouncing a "universal truth". For example: "You are selfish!" and the response, "Oh? You obviously didn't know I contributed a year of my life building a school in Nigeria. The kids in that village would disagree with you." There is always another point of view. No man or group of men is qualified to judge you. Only you truly know your worth.
"Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there." ~Rumi 

How did moralistic judgements become so widespread? It started out with our being taught to classify. In Nisbett's book, The Geography of Thought, there is an illustration: a drawing of a chicken which is labeled A, and a drawing of grass which is labeled B. Underneath the two drawings is a drawing of a cow, and the question asked is: "What goes with this: A or B. Researchers found that American children linked cow with chicken since they were both classifiable objects belonging to the same "taxonomic" category. The Chinese children said the cow and grass go together because "the cow eats the grass." In the Western tradition traceable back to the ancient Greeks, children are taught to classify objects according to rules, while in the Eastern tradition, children are taught that everything is connected to everything else, and so they look for relationships. The Orang Asli, a nonviolent aboriginal people of the Malay peninsula, do not have the word "to be" in their language and so they cannot even perform the classification act itself!

Alfred Korzybski also thought certain uses of the verb "to be" lead to errors in thought. His most famous line is "the map is not the territory," from Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature.

E-Prime, developed in 1965 by Dr. David Bourland, Jr., also excludes all forms of the verb "to be". Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing. For example, the sentence "the movie was good" could translate into E-Prime as "I liked the movie" or as "the movie made me laugh". The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker's experience rather than judgement, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

Once you view the world in terms of categories, then labeling everything in that category as being bad is a short step away. Labeling by the dominant members of society is a form of oppression. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has all sorts of categories of mental illness, and the psychiatrist who makes the diagnosis, ie, the judgement, has the power to determine your fate. The generally accepted view of mental illness is that it is a biochemical imbalance in the brain, treatable with drugs. The psychiatrists in power, in concert with the pharmaceutical companies, like this interpretation. But there is another viewpoint. After psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, wrote the book The Myth of Mental Illness, he was marginalized by the psychiatric establishment, as recounted in an essay by Ronald Liefer. According to Liefer: "The psychiatric repression of Thomas Szasz is a symptom of the rise of the State-Science Alliance--the ascendance of the ethics and technology for managing and controlling people and the simultaneous decline of the ethics of individual freedom, dignity, and responsibility."

According to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication: "All diagnoses are tragic expressions of an unmet need."

Jan Hunt has also argued in Subjective vs. Objective Labels that the use of subjective labels, as all psychiatric diagnoses are, leads to the unfortunate consequence of self-fulfilling prophesies. More on diagnoses.

Bureaucratic language or language denying choice: When Adolph Eichmann was asked, "Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people to their death?" Eichmann replied, "To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy."
Asked to explain, Eichmann said, "My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache -- 'office talk.'" In office talk "you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, 'Why did you do it?' you say, 'I had to.' 'Why did you have to?' 'Superiors' orders. Company policy. It's the law.'"

If you say to yourself, "I drink because I am an alcoholic," your self-talk is a combination of Amtssprache and a moralistic judgement because you are denying responsibility for your choices by labeling yourself as an alcoholic; a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

I value freedom. This statement is a value judgement, and a statement of a need, to be distinguished from a moralistic judgement which implies right or wrong. Freedom means I take responsibility for my choices because I choose to do the things I do. The problem is we are taught from an early age, out of awareness, that we are not free, despite words to the contrary. Domination systems want to fool you and trick you into believing you are free, yet have you all the while serving them. In actuality, "You are free, but you just don't know it!"

"Deserve" assumes a universal rule, such as declared by God, law, or "everyone agrees".

A common use of "deserve" that may not serve us: "I deserve to be happy."

This would serve a person better if reworded with empowering phrases like, "I want to be happy," "I can be happy," "I intend to be happy," and "I will be happy."

When one says, "I deserve to be happy," one is abrogating responsibility. It begs the questions, "Says who?" and "Who is going to give this to you?"

We all have a choice to be happy. We do not "have to" do anything. Everything we do is a choice. Sometimes neither choice is to our liking. Yet we still choose. "Should" is another deserve-mentality word that makes erroneous assumptions about responsibility and reality.

Here is what Stephen Covey, said about "deserve" in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

A man once told Dr. Covey that he was no longer "in love" with his wife and asked what to do.
Dr. Covey responded "Love her".
The man said that he no longer felt love.
Dr. Covey explained that love is a verb, not a noun.
Waiting and hoping for love to bestow itself upon us and wondering why it never does is no different than believing we deserve to be happy and wondering why happiness never arrives.
People have far more control over their happiness than they realize.

More on deserve: A statement combining a moralistic judgement and deserve thinking is typical in our present retributive justice system: "He did something wrong and deserves to be punished," in contrast to restorative justice. Domination systems believe that the people in positions of judgement, power, and authority have the right to punish or hurt others because they believe they "deserve" it, but really, it is just their way of using their positions of power and authority for their own benefit.

The language we are taught prepares us to live in a domination system where a few people will control the majority. I am not satisfied living in such a system. It does not meet my needs for fairness and choice. To change the system, we need to first change ourselves and the way we think about things. If the language just described leads to violence, then I suggest that learning to speak in the opposite manner will lead to the opposite result. In other words, using non-[morally] judgemental language that reveals our feelings and needs [values], and making clear requests to fulfill those needs.

We all learn to speak this language from birth, and in so doing, our alienation from each other happens completely out of awareness. We accept our loneliness as being the natural state, when it really is not. But this insight regarding language may only be the tip of an iceberg. Imagine this: that we are not aware of and may never be aware of the extent to which our language limits and constrains our very way of thinking.

While yes, the first book I would recommend is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, as a tool for practicing what I think of as "the language of liberation", I also recommend as inspiration, Stranger In a Strange Land by Heinlein.


Foucault, Michel (1975) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (transl. Alan Sheridan) (1995) 2nd ed NY:Vintage books.selections:torture,panopticon

Chomsky, Noam (1994) On violence and youth

Diamond, Jared (1997) Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies...

Korten, David C. (2001) When Corporations rule the world. 2nd Ed., Kumarian Press.

Nisbett, Richard E. (2003) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why (NY:Freepress) pg 141.

McCormack, Win (2001) Deconstructing the Election in The Nation

Liefer, Ronald (1998) The Psychiatric Repression of Thomas Szasz: Its Social and Political Significance

Marshall Rosenberg (1999) Anger and Domination Systems and (2003) Nonviolent Communication

Smith, Adam (1776) Wealth of Nations - free PDF

Szasz, Thomas (1961) The Myth of Mental Illness

Wink, Walter (1992) Engaging the Powers:Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Wink, Walter (1999) The Myth of Redemptive Violence.


 Contact Scott Swain for mediation and Emotional Intelligence Tools training for business, love, and parenting.