Language and Communication: Finding Common Ground

I love words. I’m a little sick that way. I like to learn the nuances of their meanings and connotations. I enjoy learning etymology. English is a genuinely fascinating language once you get over its inelegance. (In the grand scheme of things, English looks at all other languages – their rules and structure, and says “IDGAF I do what I want,” and takes only the bits it likes to form a hodge-podge. Native English speakers then force the rest of the world to learn our strange language because we can’t be bothered to adhere to rules like all other languages).

To make matters worse, we are dreadful at teaching English to our children. I feel sure that I learned more about English grammar from French class than I ever did in any English class in the American public school system.

So not only do we have a confusing language, we don’t even learn to use it properly. This is how words like “literally” have come to mean their exact opposite, first in vernacular speech and then (devastatingly, for some of us) in the dictionary.

Now, I understand that language must evolve by basic necessity (much to the chagrin of institutions like the Académie française) but I must admit that I fear for the future when I see evidence that we are changing the meaning of words to reflect our poor educational standards, rather than focusing on the problems of widespread illiteracy.

I’m sure I do not speak perfect English, either. I use Grammarly to correct nearly everything I write. Some rules of language simply never sunk in.

What purpose does this rant have on a blog about compassionate debates?

The whole purpose of language is to communicate thoughts and ideas. When two people discussing a point of opposition have different definitions in their head for the words they are using, no mutual understanding is possible.

So Jane says “humility,” meaning “a lack of self-importance,” and Alice hears humility as “poor self-esteem; humiliation,” – if neither of them realizes that they are working with two different definitions of a word, Jane will think Alice is arrogant or self-centered, and Alice will think Jane is a doormat.

If you’ve ever taken the time to read a contract – even the privacy policy on any online service – you may have noticed that many terms are defined in their first usage. This is so that if an issue should go to court, both parties have the same definitions moving forward. It’s one of those features of legalese that drive many lay-people mad but is nevertheless crucial to ensuring both sides know what is being agreed on.

I have seen so many arguments that turned out to be wasted energy because there was no fundamental disagreement – only semantic ones.

It’s hard, but so important, to remember when talking with someone else, that the way they relate to language and people is unique to their own lived experience and may be wildly different from your own. Which does not inherently make either of you “right” or “wrong.” If you (me/we) can learn to be mindful of different definitions and contexts, we can communicate more effectively – which is the first step in reaching any kind of consensus.

Hurry Up and Stop Grieving?

Have you ever had a friend or loved one who was grieving? Whether over the loss of a close friend or relative, a messy breakup or divorce, or a rapid decline from financial comfort into poverty – any feeling of sorrow over losing something they once had. The tendency, when we bear witness to these sorts of tragedies, is to offer concern and comfort to our friend – but only for a while.

It isn’t our fault, really. We are all busy with our own stuff. Yet as time goes on, we tend to lose patience with our friend if they aren’t visibly recovering as quickly as suits our comfort level. If they remain too long in grief or poverty, we tend to do one of two things: we either slowly drift away, or we jump in and try to fix everything as quickly as possible. Rarely do we allow for the process to progress at its own, meandering, pace.

In part, we do this because these issues make most of us uncomfortable. Death, grief, failed relationships, poverty – these are the ugly side of life that most of us choose not to think about unless and until they stand in front of us and punch us squarely in the neck. Having someone around who is a constant reminder that sometimes the darkness obscures the light…well it’s a bit of a downer.

And in part, we rush the process because the world stops for no man (or woman). So, yeah, it sucks that your mom died but you still gotta pay the electric bill, so suck it up and go back to work. Your Depression doesn’t allow you to leave your bed in the morning? Here, take this medicine so you can return to being a productive member of society. You aren’t sleeping at night because your bed feels empty now that your partner is gone and you can’t get comfortable? Got a pill for that, too. You lost your job, depleted your savings, and still aren’t getting interviews, never mind job offers, after submitting 137 job applications? You should try harder. Here’s the information for a career coach – if you give them the financial equivalent of 6 months rent, they can help you see why your resumé sucks.

No wonder we’re overmedicated and in massive amounts of debt. And whether you throw money, medication, or both at your problems it will always be a temporary solution – a band-aid over your gunshot wound. Without proper care, the wound will fester and be a much larger problem later.

In his book, “The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path,” Ethan Nichtern discusses materialism in the context of our grasping for emotions we deem positive: happiness, joy, love, etc. We clutch at these and run from “negative” feelings – sadness, anger, despair – forgetting that light cannot exist without darkness; forgetting that feelings are neither good nor bad. They just are.

Having been on the side of grief many times, I have this theory that the pressure to move on as quickly as possible is counterproductive more often than not. Sure, some people wallow, and while wallowing has its place, some people need a kick in the pants to find motivation. But in most cases, I wonder how effective it is to tell the grieving person how irresponsible they are for giving into their grief.

When I am struggling emotionally, guilt trips do more to cripple rather than inspire. And often the one thing I need that is most lacking is someone to tell me that it’s ok. It’s ok to feel like shit. It’s ok to take the time to take care of myself. It’s ok to ask for help.

It’s ok – no, it’s hugely helpful – to sit and make friends with my grief. To mentally treat my feelings of grief as an entity, listen to them, offer them understanding, show compassion, and not try to banish them. Let them be what they are. Then they no longer have to act out to get my attention.

My grief and I can learn to face the world together.

Carpe Diem

This quote/prayer/affirmation is the main feature of my desktop wallpaper. For those who can’t read from the image, it says,

Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts toward others. I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.

The Dalai Lama suggests that we begin each day by saying this to ourselves. I keep it on my desktop because I spend far too much time on my computer, and I need the reminder that each day of my life is an opportunity to create a better version of me so that I may be of greater service to others.

I need the reminder that I choose how I think. I choose whether my thoughts are kind or not. I choose whether to be angry with people and categorize them as “bad,” or to understand that toxic ideas that our society perpetuates are the core problem.

Some days, it’s harder to remember this than others. It is always worth the effort.

“That is what Fiction means.”

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

~ Oscar Wilde

Since I am living in the U.S., I feel it would be negligent of me to write a post that doesn’t discuss the topic of race. The acquittal of the officer who shot Philando Castile is the latest in a long line of things that make you go, “what the f*ck?”

The thing is, I have sat here staring at the blank page for several hours now, and I don’t have words. It’s 105° F today, and my house lacks central A/C and adequate insulation. I’m sweaty and stinky, and I want to take a shower, but I am determined to publish a post before I do anything else. And I don’t know what to say.

I have written over 1000 words about pretty much anything else, but I can’t publish those thoughts because they are not the ones that matter most right now. The verdict came in on Friday, but here I sit on Monday, and I still have no words.

And maybe that is as it should be. I am a white woman. What could I possibly add to the conversation? But that doesn’t feel right. I feel like I have to speak out. Yet I don’t know how.

I don’t come from a particularly enlightened lineage. I spent a lot of time in my great-grandparents’ home as a child – a home where racial slurs were thrown around on a semi-regular basis with no self-consciousness whatsoever.

In my own immediate family, I didn’t hear that. I was, however, taught about the unsuitability of interracial relationships. My grandparents insisted that the cultural differences were insurmountable.

My mother’s take is problematic in a different way. She is one of those people who “doesn’t see color.” Try as I might, I cannot seem to make her see why that is offensive.

I am quite sure that despite all of my efforts to be aware, to listen to the experience of others, to put myself in their shoes, there are realities that I ignore – blind spots, areas where my feelings reject what I am being told because that sort of thing has never happened to me and I struggle to believe that people are that horrible to others. My privilege is showing, I know.

And while I feel like I should get a little credit for putting in as much effort as I do, I know it will never be enough, and I find that exhausting. It is exhausting to consider that as much as I view myself as an ally, I will forever be trying to prove that the snake on my shoulder doesn’t bite.

And so I return to giving myself permission to balls up.

Because despite my racial privilege, I know how it feels to be marginalized in pretty much every other way. And I know how much I appreciate those people who use their privilege to shine a light on areas that much of the world would rather remain hidden. The ugliness of poverty and mental illness, the objectification of people in the LGBTQQIA community. The erasure of those with physical and developmental disabilities. The list goes on.

And so I sit here, with this mixture of sadness and rage, and I witness the atrocities committed against POC, and I feel utterly helpless. Because asshats like Brock Turner go free, but Jeronimo Yanez is acquitted on all charges.

This is not news. That is, this is nothing new. It is noteworthy because advances in technology have now given everyone their very own video camera that they carry in their pocket, so there is more awareness of the kind of thing that happens. But awareness, clearly, is not enough.

I am reminded of the 1996 movie, “A Time to Kill.” If you aren’t familiar, it tells the story of a Black man in the South who is on trial for the murder of the two white men who raped and nearly murdered his little girl. In the closing speeches, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Jake Brigance, makes this statement.

I set out to prove a black man could receive a fair trial in the south, that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. That’s not the truth, because the eyes of the law are human eyes — yours and mine — and until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be evenhanded. It will remain nothing more than a reflection of our own prejudices, so until that day we have a duty under God to seek the truth, not with our eyes and not with our minds where fear and hate turn commonality into prejudice, but with our hearts — where we don’t know better.

This has always stayed with me. It’s a simple enough statement in a 20-year-old film. And we don’t get it. We still don’t get it. And obviously, it isn’t a problem unique to the American South. We like to pretend that it is. Localize it, so that it isn’t our problem. Not us. “Not all white people…” Maybe not. But enough white people to rig the system in their favor and maintain it at any cost.

By the way, Carl Lee Hailey, the man on trial in the film, is acquitted.

“That is what Fiction means.”

 

“Correctness” Is Not the Goal, Liberation Is: Why We Need to Stop Saying “Politically Correct”

Today’s thought experiment is on sensitivity, including the issues we personally feel sensitive about as well as being sensitive to how your words and actions affect other people. The latter shouldn’t really be controversial, but somehow is.

We have this idea in society that sensitivity is childish and shameful. “Thin-skinned” people are generally mocked for their inability to handle “criticism.” The typical response when people ask for more care and sensitivity in a certain area goes something like, “suck it up – no one is hurting you. You need thicker skin.” And then they proceed to poke the wound they’ve already made, telling you you’ll form a callous eventually, when in reality they are making what may have begun as a minor cut into a gaping, bloody hole that may never properly heal.

I was going to write something about political correctness as it relates to sensitivity, then I got side-tracked looking for an image I’d seen on Facebook and came across this wonderfully awesome series of posts from the Radical Copyeditor. I won’t mess with perfection – do yourself a favor and read the whole series.

Radical Copyeditor

“Politically correct.” It’s a term used widely by everyone from right-wing pundits to preachers to diversity trainers, and pops up in myriad scenarios. It’s every bit as loaded as a baked potato, but nowhere near as delicious.

I’m here with a message about “politically correct” for folks like me who want to use language in ways that increase respect, rather than deepen divides. To quote the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what you think it means.

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On Belief Systems, Righteousness, Introspection, and Compassion

When I set up this site, I wanted to make it a place to explore opposing viewpoints. To take them down to the depths of what was really at the core of each view and lay bare the underlying assumptions on which they were formed – the belief systems in place that lead logically to two diametrically opposed opinions on a subject.

I envisioned a forum where people could come when they truly wished to understand why the opposition feels the way they do. I wanted to spark discussion. But it was also important to me to encourage introspection – to delve into our own personal belief systems and find the underlying values and fears that have created our worldviews.

Righteousness is a disease. This desperate need we feel to be right in our opinions and actions at any cost closes our minds and leads to the toxic cultural landscape we have right now. Because we are so desperate to be justified, to be right, we grasp too tightly at our deeply cherished beliefs. We fend off perceived attackers with everything we have because if we allowed for one second that they were right or human – if we acknowledged that their opinions have been informed by their own life experiences – if we allowed that their viewpoint makes as much sense to them as ours does to us, then that must mean that our opinion has less value. It may as well be worthless, and we can’t have that.

It becomes difficult to remember that opposing belief systems do not pose an inherent threat. Beliefs can lead to harmful actions, but by themselves can only help or harm the person who holds them.

I know when I am confronted with beliefs that seem to be rooted in hatred, I feel a distinct tightening in my chest, and an almost insurmountable wave of anger rises up in my body. It is overwhelming. I don’t know whether to rage and scream or sob in despair. The reaction is so visceral that it can take a few hours before I can critically examine the more subtle nuances of the interaction. (Thankfully, most of these interactions happen over the internet and I have time to cool down before choosing whether and how to respond.) But I try to return to the moment of confrontation and determine first, what was the deep-seated fear that my anger responded to? Was it a valid fear? And second, what series of events and life-circumstances could lead to a rational person believing as my opponent does? What underlying assumptions/beliefs could explain this behavior? If I accepted these core beliefs as truth, would I feel as my opponent does? Why do I reject these beliefs?

This thought experiment has helped me separate toxic beliefs that have been learned from the inherent value of the person expressing them. It helps me to have compassion for the child that learned to hate. What must this person have experienced to teach them that this sort of intolerance was the best option? And how many people surrounding them reinforced this belief system?

When it comes down to it, those who agree with us and those who don’t – those who wish us well and those who wish us harm – everyone does what they feel is best, based on their life experiences.

If we could only come to the table with an open mind, and listen to what others have to say about how their life experiences have informed their opinions, we could all learn so much. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.

Permission to Balls Up Utterly

 

I started this site after a mania-induced dream assured me that this would turn into something epic and would be my legacy passed down to the next generation.

And then the mania passed, and I wondered who the hell I thought I was, and the site has lain dormant for 7 months.

However, the investment in a paid site has been nagging at me and that, coupled with some comments I’ve received from friends lately and with a hard kick in the pants from David Kadavy’s book Getting Art Done – which is currently only available in preview to email subscribers – has inspired me to ditch the lame excuses I habitually make and actually see something through even if it blows up in my face.

It is a terrifying prospect. I do not easily grant myself permission to balls up utterly.

I do have a superpower, though, and I think it’s time to stretch its wings and see what it can do.

Most people find it to be an extraordinarily annoying superpower, but I rather enjoy it.

I can play devil’s advocate in almost any situation.

It has been both a blessing and a curse in my life. It helps me relate to people with very different opinions than I have, and it has helped me get out of a religious environment that was toxic for me, without causing me to feel animosity toward those who still firmly believe in those precepts. I know what they base their beliefs on, so I understand their actions even when I don’t agree with them. I know few people who have rejected their religious background without becoming embittered against their former faith. I understand that too, but it makes me sad for everyone.

The downsides to this are, first, that I can’t always turn it off when I want. Socially, that can be awkward. Most people do not want to hear the other side of an argument – they just want validation. Secondly, I have struggled in the “persuasive writing” courses at university, because there are few issues where I firmly believe that one opinion is clearly superior to another – and the ones that do fall into that category are forbidden for being too heated. Balance is not always rewarded.

When I look around at the political climate in the U.S. (and the U.K., and other places), I see a need. Our us vs. them mentality is growing more caustic, and the “us” seems to be shrinking quickly while “them” is getting bigger and nastier.

And I’m going to say something dreadfully controversial, but I believe it wholeheartedly: any time a human being Others another human being for any reason, they are contributing to the problem rather than the solution. I will explore that further in a later post.

I’m not sure where this blog will take me, but I am doing the terrifying thing and throwing it out there.

I hope to do more good than harm. If one person finds value, I will be ecstatic.