Lately, I am finding myself a bit fixated on the fact that when people are in dialogue, they are often facing an invisible handicap. The clues aren’t usually obvious anymore. You might expect it to exist between strangers but it can occasionally show up between long-time friends, too. Exposing it, say, as part of introductions, isn’t the norm for any culture I am aware of. I am talking about the so-called denotation and the selective connotation of words.
Do you feel me?
I was having a chat with a friend at her kitchen table about the state of the world economy and how it translated to our everyday life over the coming year. It wasn’t such a cheery subject but we are both optimistic people and we ended up talking about the love vs. fear attitude spectrum and telling ourselves we would try to consciously focus on the love end. Other subjects came up but after a while, I found myself back like a dog with a new bone…I mean, how corny is that to say? If you were a fly on the wall, would you know what we meant? We will focus on the ‘love’ end of the spectrum. Ok then.
I don’t really like the word; it feels like it has long come to have the same strength and usage as the word, ‘nice’. So when we jump from the material to the philosophical, I can’t automatically assume that when you speak to me about ‘love’, you are on the same page.
The decision my friend and I made could only make comforting sense if we both had the same understanding of the word as it was being used in context. I have known her for years: we have very different characters that often arrive at similar conclusions but ah, those degrees in between our two positions are so often the good stuff! Because that’s where the expansion comes in. Our very different approaches enrich the other’s thinking. Because we are so different, I wanted to hear her version of it. Did we think someone listening would have understood otherwise? Not really. They might have gone straight to a mental Hallmark greeting card image.
Same goes for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. In fact, my new bone had started to waft a few days earlier. It was good to read an article* mentioning the definition of freedom not
necessarily meaning the same thing from one geo-region to another. ‘…the problem is that 21st century Muslims don’t necessarily buy America’s 21st-century definition of the term…Instead, the varied inhabitants of a dauntingly complex Islamic world want to decide for themselves what the exercise of freedom should entail…much as Christians once reacted to the heresies propounded by those who dared to question the doctrines and prerogatives of the Holy Roman Church.’
For the people of any particular culture, the desire for and pursuit of ‘democracy’ has to start where they are in actuality and move towards the ideal at a pace and interpretation that suits: there are countless factors shaping reality, most not directly controllable and many bringing about consequences not expected or hoped for by the majority. Recall those nations that have espoused democracy for centuries have grown up (and some might say regressed, too) tinkering and tooling around with the concept. Can we keep this in mind when we use geo, and even local, political terminology?
Another hot topic is the pro-choice/pro-life debate. For a long time, it seemed that one had to choose to stand within one of these camps. You are with us or you are against us. And then the light dawned: you can be both. Or you can be in one camp but still have dialogue and relationship with those in the other camp. How many decades did it take for a movement to come along and speak out about the real wrench in the works: our language, our words have deep emotional and visual triggers that, if not shared, will sabotage the great potential in exchanging and expanding thought. My experiential triggers are not necessarily yours – even if I am just one time zone away from you. Stands to reason that if your triggers are valid then mine must be, too.
Before we can even begin to think, we form allegiances. This is our primal nature and is the root of why a cultural trend can trump compromise time and again. Alliances, bonds,
shared beliefs are what differentiate one tribe from another. Think self-soothing, large scale. As Gordon, at runesoup, says: ‘We all have an annoying and ultimately unavoidable habit of normalising our own worldview… which abnormalises other ones. We may be doing the exact same thing but the words attached are worlds apart.’ And that’s ok in the neighborhood.
But when we venture out of our own orbit, it is wise to remember that just about everyone carries their own set of influences. It feels like precious cargo. It has its own vocabulary and if you sense it is different to your own, ask about it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Is multiculturalism a part of your everyday environment?
Do you find that people generally make space for another’s world view in conversation?
*How it Happened: The death of a U.S. ambassador raises questions about America’s foreign-policy assumptions, Andrew J. Bacevich; Newsweek International, Sept 24th, p.25
Related Article: The Psyche & the Machine
- Bacevich: What the Arab Movie Riots Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy (thedailybeast.com)