Musings: Languages, Cultures and Conflicts. Why We Suck At Communicating

Contrary to pop­u­lar belief (and I could again put “Feminism” as an exam­ple here, but I digress), words and lan­guages aren’t a mono­lith. Not only do their def­i­n­i­tions, or even core “mean­ing” beyond def­i­n­i­tions, change through time but they are also extreme­ly mal­leable. In fact, a giv­en “bad word” may mean as some­thing offen­sive today but can also be a badge of hon­or tomor­row (unless you’re per­sis­tent about keep­ing it that way). Such words include “nerds” and “geeks”, the val­ues of which was neg­a­tive a decade back but now is wide­ly accept­ed by pop­u­lar sci­en­tists to describe them­selves.

In oth­er words, words — on their own — don’t actu­al­ly hold any mean­ing or weight. The “weight” is an assumed vari­able that WE give to it, kin­da like cur­ren­cy, if you will. Is a hun­dred rupee note real­ly as valu­able as we think it is, or is it just an “agreed-upon” con­tract that we share with the sys­tem we’re a part of?

To sim­pli­fy the idea here, I’ve often described lan­guages — ver­bal or freak­ing face­book posts, like this one — their seman­tics, etc. are pret­ty much a more elab­o­rate form of “Morse Code”. In oth­er words, when some­one tells you some­thing, you will not iden­ti­fy what they’re try­ing to say unless you hold a cer­tain “key” to decode what they’re say­ing; that is, know­ing the same lan­guage they do. And if the con­texts of infor­ma­tion between two peo­ple are sim­i­lar enough, then it becomes eas­i­er to deci­pher “new­er” infor­ma­tion, even if there’s plen­ty of chances for errors (aka, “mis­un­der­stand­ings”) to pop up while pro­cess­ing new­er infor­ma­tion. Because our deci­pher­ing method relies on speed, we also heav­i­ly depend on the assump­tion that the processed con­clu­sion we’ve reached (whether it’s “Indians are bar­bar­ians”, or “Homosexual mar­riage will bring cyclones”, or “MRAs hate women”) is like­ly to be true.

But despite Zomenhof’s best efforts, this issue isn’t easy to resolve, even with a sin­gle world-lan­guage. Even in pri­mar­i­ly English-speak­ing worlds, there is a lot of mis­un­der­stand­ings ram­pant, which result in sce­nar­ios between minor quib­bles to large polit­i­cal move­ments and cul­tur­al con­flicts. Why “cul­tur­al” con­flicts? Because the con­text is no longer dif­fer­ent lan­guages, but dif­fer­ent cul­tures, where­in one word can mean com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent things to peo­ple in dif­fer­ent cul­tures, even if the basic def­i­n­i­tion is the same.

For instance, “Patriotism” to one per­son could mean love, devo­tion and com­mit­ment towards one’s coun­try — a place they rec­og­nize as a home — and defend its val­ues and her­itage. To anoth­er per­son, how­ev­er, the same could mean a form of trib­al­ism which deems out­siders, or those not from their group or race, as less valu­able or even sub-human — essen­tial­ly ratio­nal­iz­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion. Another exam­ple would be the term “Social Justice Warrior”, which to one cul­ture might mean a white knight that holds equal­i­ty and jus­tice as a virtue above all, fight­ing for equal rights for the oppressed, but to anoth­er cul­ture it might mean a band of crazy peo­ple that use jus­tice as an excuse to harass, abuse, bul­ly, ter­ror­ize, cen­sor dis­sent, and active­ly ruin lives of peo­ple they choose. (But I digress.)

However, the best exam­ple I can make at the moment would be this quote:

“Those who fear peo­ple, do not fear God. Those who fear god, do not fear peo­ple. The more a per­son believes in god, the less he is afraid of oth­er peo­ple.”
To an Atheist, this quote may be full of horse-manure, con­sid­er­ing they regard reli­gion as a human con­struct that has noth­ing to do with nature. Knowing this con­text, of course the state­ment doesn’t make sense, and the mean­ing hid­den with­in the quote will just not be able to sur­face into their mind. That’s because the con­text in the mind is so dif­fer­ent from the con­text that inspired the quote that it sim­ply isn’t able to reli­ably process it. I mean, does the Voynich Manuscript even make any log­i­cal sense to you?
But to a Religious per­son this quote may be unde­ni­ably valu­able, because the mean­ing behind it is clear.
So there’s my point about com­mu­ni­ca­tions. But what do we do with this new-gained insight? How do we solve our cur­rent prob­lems then? Well, I’ll leave it to you wise peo­ple to fig­ure that out. I’ve just been mus­ing, after all. 🙂


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