Language, Power, and Powerlessness

“Mastery of Language affords remarkable power”- Franz Fanon

This quote from Algerian intellectual and social critic Franz Fanon is itself a powerful statement. What does it mean to master language?

We certainly have of examples of manipulative language mastery from the media. We have been exposed to language since childhood that encourages us to try to look at ” all sides of an issue”. There is danger here, though.  When you turn in one of the giant cable news outlets, and they are, for example, debating the roundness of the Earth, are there really two sides to the issue, one for ’round Earthers’ and one for people who think the Earth is flat?

Power comes through the ability to manipulate one’s environment- including other people in that environment- to perform in a way that is advantageous for the person creating the language. There are about 5000 people who believe the Earth is flat, out of seven billion.  They certainly get a lot of press, though, because being extreme sells!

We can disempower ourselves with language, too.  As a university professor, I often see students who use words ( adverbs, for the most part) that are vague and inexact. What does it mean when there are very many car crashes around the time of the Superbowl? That language does not tell us much. Already, the student has moved from a specific description of car crashes during the Superbowl to something vague.  A recent article  from the L. A. Times, based on a solid analysis of drunken driving, indicates that there is a measurable increase- about a 77 percent increase- in drunk driving.


Yet, the seriousness of this issue- drunk driving- has been- dis empowered- by the vagueness of the language ‘very many’. For the student, it may take training and practice to eliminate vague language from their way of describing the world. Vague language is one linguistic downfall inscribed on us all from the time we are young that can limit our potential, whether for understanding, or creating a positive game plan for our lives.

In this series of blogs, which you will find on YouTube, we will examine the ways in which language, when repeated, either creates a false sense of powerlessness, or, in effect, “programs” us in ways that lead us away from considering alternatives that might allow us to realize our full potential.

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