If There Was No Such Thing As Language…

language-technologies2014Recently I’ve made the error of reading comments from people at the bottom of some the articles about the recent shootings, racism in America, so called white privilege, and the Black Lives Matters movement. For years I stopped reading the comments because after doing so I typically walk away with a sense of foreboding. I rationalize that it is a good thing that people have these outlets, because if they didn’t they probably would be letting out their feelings in a lot less benign ways. One of the recent arguments I’ve seen are between people arguing about the idea of #blacklivesmatter v. #alllivesmatter.

When people argue over things like this, I choose to believe that what they seem to be arguing about and what the real issue is are two completely different things. Very often, if both sides had the language to articulate what it was they were feeling, they might find that they have a lot less to argue about than they thought. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a common language. Even when people use the same words to express themselves the meaning behind those words can vary so greatly that the people are effectively speaking two different languages. In my summation, the only two languages that don’t bring with them the potential for confusion are music and math. Other than that, unless one or both parties has the humility to surrender their meaning in order to grasp the meaning someone else is trying to convey, there is the potential for strife.

Take a word like “God” and you can easily see what I mean.  I don’t think there are two people in the world who mean the same thing when they say the word “God”. Whether they are rejecting this word or accepting it, there is a great chance that they are talking about completely different ideas. In fact there are instances when the “God” that some people who call themselves atheists reject turns out to be equally rejected by people who would say that they love this “God”. And as most of us know, most wars are fought over what people think they are talking about when the say the word “God”.  Many of us simply take for granted that this word “God” contains within it the fullness of the One whose true fullness can never be contained (if you believe that sort of thing). But at the end of the Day, the word “God” is just a word just like any other words we fight over like “racist”, “American”, “patriot”, “justice”, etc.

So what’s the answer? If none of us speak the same language how can we ever hope to transcend what seems to divide us? How can we ever create a world where all people truly feel safe and valued? Well, as far as I can tell, it begins with examining our assumptions and our intent. If we assume that we are not speaking the same language (even if we’re using the same words) and that we don’t really understand what the other person is saying, it opens the door for greater awareness. We can then ask questions like:

  1. What do you mean by that?
  2. How are you using this word, because if I were to use it I would mean…
  3. How do you experience the word _____, because when I used it my intent was not to offend you?
  4. Can we meet in the middle? When I say ______, are you willing to translate it in a different way? In the meantime, I will try to break the habit of saying _____ since I know it offends you?

If our intention is to foster understanding, we have to be willing to admit that there are things that we do not understand.  If we continue to think that the way another person uses language is a failed attempt to speak our language, our egos and its law of separation will continue to seize the day. When that happens, we fight over legitimate attempts to bridge the gaps between us the way people did when Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made the song Accidental Racist. When we are trying to engage another, we cannot use ourselves as the frame of reference. Doing this severely contributes to the dissension  in the world that some of us say we hope to transcend. It would actually be more progressive to come out and say, “I have no intention of understanding where you are coming from, because to do so would threaten my desire to be right which I value more than I value you. However, if you would be willing to let me dump on you I’d be more than willing to tell you why I think you are wrong and dismiss anything you say to the contrary.” At a minimum, this gives the other party the opportunity to decide whether or not they would like to participate. And in another way, being honest with oneself and others is the beginning of inclusion–even if what we’re saying seems exclusive–because it establishes some sense of common ground.

He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in! –Edwin Markham

In the video below, I elaborate more on the above theme. The invitation here is to take responsibility for the both the language we use and the language we hear. In this time of tension, we are going to need more of this.  We are going to have to pour ourselves out (i.e. our egos) in order to make room for others and we we will need to trust the Holy Spirit to express what language can never convey on its own.

3 replies »

  1. I understand you are wanting to help bridge the gap of understanding around these issues, but it seems to me that each of your blog posts is coming from using yourself as the frame of reference….it’s your thoughts, your beliefs, your experiences, etc. So how do you envision others carrying on a dialogue about these issues without using themselves as the frame of reference?

    It seems that those who condemn the Black lives matter movement would condemn them even if they added the word, too…as in Black lives matter too…ie: not excluding white folks. The same people would probably have equally complained about the Civil rights movement as it focused on the uncivil way Blacks were being treated.

    It feels to me that the more we realize our Oneness, beyond sexual orientation, color of skin, economic stature, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. the more we come together and drop this dispute over communication that serves as an excuse to separate us.

    “When we are trying to engage another, we cannot use ourselves as the frame of reference”


    • Katelon, you are right. It is not that we don’t express ourselves from our frame of reference. That’s all we can do. But rather, it is to try to listen to others from their frame of reference and not our own. In other words, if I tell you that I believe the world is unjust and you feel inclined to disagree from your frame of reference, if you want to understand what I mean, you might ask me something like, “What do you mean when you say, ‘the world is unjust’?” I would then tell you what unjust means to me. And if you say, that you think the world is fair and I want to understand you, I could ask you, “What do you mean when you say, ‘the world is fair’?” After listening to each other we might agree or agree to disagree, but at least we will have a better idea of what each other means. Does that makes sense? I was hoping that poem made it a little more clear.

      Liked by 1 person

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