Linguistic Responsibility and Security

Communication -- technologically and physically -- often is the gating issue when it comes to making us more secure

In the past half century and certainly in the years since 9/11, the security industry has been leading the way in becoming strategic, smart and secure, as reiterated by this year’s ASIS show slogan  The country now has the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an agency dedicated to making us smarter and more secure than we once were.  Private industry has taken up the cause through new technology.  Recent advancements since 9/11 have eclipsed those prior to it.  Examples of recent newly implemented technologies include smart cards with biometrics, video analytics, cloud computing and big data.  Service providers have broken new ground in the integration of security systems and in the recent application of Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) systems.  Security forces are now manned with advanced technology tools and communication systems.  Put all this together and you come up with a nation that has become smarter and safer thanks to the contribution of the security industry both private and public. 

Communication -- technologically and physically -- often is the gating issue when it comes to making us more secure.  In the industry’s attempt to communicate better, communications technology fixes have been made since the experiences of 9/11 and the Hurricane Katrina disaster, when both physical communications and technology communications systems failed their purpose.  For physical communications, that is the words and thoughts we communicated to each other, the question remains are we better in what we say and how we say it? Have we progressed as much in our physical communications as we have in our technological communications?  The results of a successful or failed security and emergency management operation and the ability or lack thereof to effectively use technology in our communications, as well as to effectively physically communicate with each other, serves as a timeless reminder that language matters.

Linguistic responsibility has been a concern in the U.S., especially in times of war.  “Loose lips sink ships”, was an important slogan during WWII designed to make American’s aware that “careless talk costs lives.” The basic concept of being careful with what and how we say things is part of social psychology’s discourse on linguistics, referred to as propositions of the Sapir-Whorfian Hypothesis, which serves as a timeless reminder that language matters.

Social psychologists contend language has the potential to help us understand human cognition. However, language can also be ambiguous and create uncertainty.  The conflict of cognition versus uncertainty is an important linguistics concept because of unintended implications of language as well as what it explicitly states.

For example, as part of a continuing education program for attorneys, based on an episode from Sesame Street, Dr. Joe McGahan recently gave a talk entitled “Elephants or Pachyderms: The Effects of Subtle Linguistic Variations on Reasoning.” He stated that it was more appropriate to call 10 elephants, “10 elephants,” than “10 pachyderms.” Similarly, if someone were to communicate on how to be secure and safe, instead of communicating how to be more secure and safer, the audience might imply we are unsafe. This subtlety in language could create a disruptive paradigm where someone would assume they are not safe, rather than take actions that could ensure their safety.

To avoid confusion and miscommunications, perhaps the smarter approach would be to think of safety as a continuous variable. This would allow people to discuss being safe in terms of statistical degrees or probabilities. For example, what is the probability quotient of a person being safe walking on a particular city street versus a different street in the same city?  That comparison of being “safer” might lead to a “smarter” choice of action or conversation as opposed to a debate on whether that same person was safe or unsafe.

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