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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