What Is "About" About?post by Bound_up · 2018-01-14T18:54:48.179Z · LW · GW · 4 comments
It has seemed to me that saying that something is "about" something else is probably the vaguest, least useful way possible to say that the two ideas are connected. I've used "about" myself in exactly those instances when I perceived a connection of some kind between two ideas, but I was incapable of articulating what that connection was, incapable even of seeing it myself.
"Well," I might say. "It seems like X is...about Y in some way...It's not exactly that X causes it...maybe X is a subsection of Y? No, that's not quite right, either. I'm not really sure, honestly, but to my eye, they seem linked to each other in some way. X is...about...Y."
Well, what did that mean, that it was "about" Y? Did they have a similar conceptual structure, were they causally related in one way or another, were they both discussed by the same groups, did they have similar effects on the world...like I said, it's vague. It could be any or none or all of these. Saying X is "about" Y tells you nothing very meaningful about them, so as a word, it's next-to-useless. Or, is it?
Now, I think I see what "about" is about; now I see it quite clearly. Saying X is "about" Y means, to say it very precisely, that you want people to give Y's connotations to X. For some reasons, X's connotations are undesirable, and you'd like Y's instead. Now, X is X, it is itself, so it is only natural that it will evoke its own connotations. If you're going to give it the more desirable connotations of Y, we must wrench the natural perspective off its natural path and force it down another.
Think of "it's not about who wins, it's about how you play the game," ie, please use the conceptual connections around this "how you play the game" idea to think about who won here today. Please don't use the connotations, do not use the subconscious connections linked to the "winning idea."
Now, what does "how you play the game" mean, exactly? No, that's not the point; the point isn't the point is to use those hard-to-define connotations, use the feelings around the "how you play the game" concept, the point is to take the aura around "how you play the game" and surround the "it" in question with them. You may not be exactly conscious of why it feels better, but you may feel it nonetheless. And, naturally, in this case, this attempt to change how people perceive the game is as much, or even more, about what it's not about. It is about "how you play the game," they say, yes, but also, they emphasize, it is not about winning. The speaker has some reason to ask you not to use the connotations around the "winner" concept to assess the "it" in question, probably, obviously, because they lost and are hoping to cut their losses.
They are hoping that, by repeating this truism, that "it's not about winning, it's about how you play the game," they can get you to join them in switching the game's assessment standards. They're hoping we'll all throw out the standards according to which they have unambiguously failed and swap in other standards which are more convenient to them, standards according to which, perhaps, they have succeeded, or at least they have mixed some success in to make up for their failure.
The political applications are clear enough, and you can pick up on this trick specifically almost anytime someone says "it's not about X, it's about Y," and in a great many other instances, you can pick up on the more general strategy from which this one tactic is born: using language to get people to give one concept the connotations of another in order warp their perceptions.
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