Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.

 

In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 

 

Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.

 

Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

Nuances in What We Say and Mean

I really enjoy language. I listen to a podcast about language, Lexicon Valley, I studied Spanish for my undergraduate degree, and I’m currently learning sign language. There are a lot of ways to say the things that are on our mind, and a lot of nuance in how we say the things we want to communicate.

 

I find this fascinating, but it can cause real challenges for us in our relationships with others. Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships describes communication as “the mortar that holds together whatever structure you decide to build.” It is our communication which establishes and maintains our relationships with others and gives them meaning. The defining characteristics of our relationships can often be understood by the language and words we use. How we say something, the particular meaning we pull from a word, and the vocabulary we use all signify something about the relationships we have with others.

 

Complicating this is the nuance running through our communication. I’m in Reno, Nevada, and the way we speak is heavily influenced by trends in the San Francisco Bay Area. We speak a little bit differently than my fellow Nevadans in Las Vegas, who are more influenced by the language of Los Angeles. In his book, Wright encourages us to remember that there are many differences and nuances in the way we speak and use words. This is important to remember because these small nuances can change the meaning and definitions we attach to what people say and how we understand ourselves relative to others. He writes,

 

“Remember that everyone speaks a different language, and not just the English, Spanish, Japanese sense of the word. The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like ‘relationship’ and ‘love’ and even ‘communication’ will mean something slightly, or vastly, different to each individual who uses them.”

 

For me, this is a reminder that I don’t know everything. I don’t know what is happening in another person’s head and I can never be perfectly sure that we are using the same word or phrase in the same way. We might be using the same word, but have a slightly different sense of what that word means. It is important that we are clear and concise with our speech and that we listen intently and ask clarifying questions when others are speaking so that we can better understand them and be more sure of the meaning we attach to what is said. This can lead to better alignment within a relationship, strengthening its overall ties and bonds.

Hostility Toward Blacks

In the 1970s Richard Nixon began using crime and the need to control crime as an excuse for policing and incarceration practices that had disparate impacts on black people. Through the 1980s Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior continued to push the “tough on crime” narrative, hinting at race while appearing neutral in their approach to policy and problems in the United States. In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander examines the evolution of these racialized messages and policies and describes the ways that anti-black sentiment spilled into the language that is still used to discuss politics and culture. I read Alexander’s book during the summer of 2016, before Candidate Trump had emerged as the Republican front runner, when racial attitudes in the United States felt like they could still take a major step forward.

 

Instead, what I believe we have seen in our country is backlash against President Obama and a return to the negative racial discussions that arose with President Nixon. Regarding Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., Alexander wrote the following:

 

“Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for “get tough on crime” and anti-welfare measures. Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims. The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.”

 

We have fallen back to the same dangerous rhetoric today. President Trump has taken us to a place where the racial underpinnings of our politics are possibly more obvious. Lacking any policy understanding, he thrives on culture wars, and denounces black athletes, black protesters, and black politicians at any opportunity. He has used the NFL and NBA as targets for white resentment, especially rural white resentment.

 

I do not believe that facts like the ones presented by Alexander above will change the situation. I do not believe that demonstrating how white privilege has helped the core of the republican party will make a difference in where we are today. And I don’t believe that even the future (hopeful) election of another black president like Cory Booker will make a difference in where our country exists on race.

 

What will make a difference is for reasonable people to become more connected with racial minorities in our communities. Particularly within schools and youth groups, we must reach out and connect with those who have been disadvantaged. We must not flaunt our support for things like Black Lives Matter, though our support is crucial. We must not tell those opposed to racial equality that they are the bigots that they are, but we must quietly and rationally express our support for movements and policies that support diversity and individuals who have been victimized by race. Sharing these feelings with those closest to us will create a space where others can be more comfortable with movements supporting rights and policies that benefit minority populations. Demonstrating to our friend and family that people like them can also support diversity and minority populations will help them be more reasonable and less racially tribal in their decision making.

The Words We Use

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to find out that you both agree on the same concept or principle, but you just don’t agree on semantics and vocabulary definitions? Author Colin Wright looked at this phenomenon within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright has three rules regarding communication in relationships and his first rule is to keep in mind how other people use vocabulary different.

My college undergraduate major was Spanish, and I took linguistic classes in English and Spanish, so I am always drawn to conversations and discussions surrounding the use of language to express complex ideas with random sounds organized together. I love the different uses of language across a nation or across multiple nations, so Wright’s first rule of relationship communication is a natural fit for me. In describing his rule he writes, “The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like “relationship” and “love” and even “communication” will mean something slightly, or vastly different to each individual who uses them.”

It is not often that we discuss how language is used with the people in our lives, and in daily conversation we certainly don’t often dive into questions regarding the different meanings we all have with the same set of words. Wright’s description of vocabulary means that we are living in an unavoidable world of telephone, where the words can be the same, but what has been said is different from person to person.

Being honest and open in relationships requires strong communication practices that can be inhibited when we are not discussing the same idea with the same concepts arising from the same meaning in the vocabulary we use. It is worth being more aware of one’s own vocabulary to better recognize situations where communication is taking place, but miscommunication is obstructing the meaning of what is being said.

Human Speech

The last section I highlighted in James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, was written by writer Chris Kraus who spoke mostly of obsession in her letter to Harmon.  Near the end of her letter Kraus wrote, “Human Speech is driven, always, by the desire to achieve a goal. Realize you are constantly being manipulated.”  When we look at political speeches we are good at understanding that there is a goal or agenda behind the rhetoric used by politicians, but I am not sure we extend that to a lot of other areas in our life. Television and commercials are nothing but influence machines, and speech in the workplace often focuses on what we want or need others to do for us.  I think a big area where I am able to grow from this quote is by reflecting on my own speech.  By building a base of self awareness I can think more about what I say and evaluate what goal lays beneath my speech.

 

Krause also writes, “Nothing exists without a source. It is important to contextualize everything.”  I think this is important to consider when we are looking at the goals behind other people’s speech. The more focus and awareness we have the better we can be at understanding what goals people have, but keeping Kraus’s second quote in mind helps us see that there is a deeper level than just the goals of another person.  We can dive even deeper and start to evaluate where the other person’s goals came from, and just what they will gain when they reach those goals.  Seeing the context behind the goals will help us understand the motivation for others, and will help us react better to the other’s attempt to manipulate us.  If their goal is positive and pure, then jumping on board to help them and follow their goals may not be a bad idea.  If their motivation is purely self serving then perhaps it is better if we shy away from their goals and influence.

Spend Time Listening

At  the end of his letter of advice written for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Larry Niven writes, “Everybody talks first draft. Don’t react till you know what he meant.”  In this quote he is talking about the importance of taking time to understand other people and to have enough self control to not react instantly to everything you hear.  Niven would argue that it is important to give people a chance to explain what they mean or repeat what they said in a second way before we judge them. When people are speaking about something for the first time, as apposed to speaking about a routine topic, it is likely that they will not immediately have the words and language dialed in to explain themselves succinctly.

I really enjoy the self control aspect of Niven’s quote.  His idea is all about being less reactionary in general, and being patient enough to try and understand other people.  We often are in a rush, and it is easy to judge other people for their actions, appearances, and speech without trying to take a moment to understand them.  Listening to others and giving them an opportunity to repeat wheat they said in a new way encourages us to think about how the other person has reached the point they are at, and why they think and speak the way they do.  Our backgrounds all differ and we have many different experiences in our life that shape the way we view the world.  Listening to someone and not judging their views on face value requires that we understand their background.  To reach this level we must understand that what another says is never a complete summary of what they think and believe. Asking that person to explain and expand on what they are saying will help us dive deeper into their thoughts and ideas. Giving them more time to explain themselves helps us connect with others in a new way, and it helps us have a more well rounded approach to the world.

In addition, to fully engage in this quote we must see that we approach any conversation with our own background and expectations.  The way we interpret the other person or the topic will influence the way we think about what the other person is saying.  To allow ourselves to understand another person’s ideas, we must first make sure out understandings of that topic are out of the way. If we cannot reach that point we will be forced into a box where we only think about the things that do or do not align with what we already think.  Instead, we should listen for the overall meaning of what the other person is saying, so that we can expand our vision and thoughts.