Russell Conjugation

We are told we’re entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. This leaves out the observation that the war for our minds and attention is now increasingly being waged over neither facts nor opinions but feelings.

In an era when anyone can publish anything, the quest to control information has largely been lost by institutions with a race on to weaponize empathy by understanding its basis in linguistics and accordingly tweaking the social media algorithms that now present or world to us.

Russell conjugation, or emotive conjugation, is a currently obscure construction from linguistics, psychology, and rhetoric which demonstrates how our rational minds are shielded from understanding the junior role that factual information generally plays relative to empathy in the formation of opinions.

In order to understand the concept properly, you have to appreciate that most words and phrases are actually defined not by a single dictionary but rather by two distinct attributes

1. The factual content of the word or phrase
2. The emotional content of the construction

The basic principle of Russell conjugation is that the human mind is constantly looking ahead, well beyond what’s true or false, to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?” While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we’re descended from social creatures who couldn’t safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts were presented to them by those they trusted or feared. Thus, as listeners and readers, our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to colour their perceptions.

Many, if not most people form opinions based solely on whatever Russell conjugation is presented to them and not on the underlying facts. That is the same person will oppose a “death tax” while having supported an “estate tax” seconds earlier, even though those taxes are two descriptions of the exact same thing. Moreover, such is the power of emotive conjugation that we’re generally unaware that we hold such contradictory opinions. Thus “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants” may be the same people, but the former label leads to calls for deportation while the latter prompts many of us to consider amnesty programs and paths to citizenship.

If the Internet democratized information, why has its social impact been so much slower than expected? Assuming that our actions are based not on what we know but on how we feel about what we know, we see that traditional media has all but lost control of gatekeeping our information, but not yet of how it’s emotively shaded.

Thus the answer to the puzzle of our inaction, it seems, may be that we built an information superhighway for everyone but neglected to build an empathy network alongside it to democratize what we feel. We currently get our information from more sources than ever before but, at least until recently, we’ve turned to traditional institutions to guide our empathy. Information, as the saying goes, wants to be free. But we fear that authentic emotions will get us into trouble with our social group, and so we continue to look to others to tell us what is safe to feel.

Eric R. Weinstein
Mathematician, economist, Thiel Capital