Posts Tagged ‘language’

the power of “s”

A few weeks ago, I read briefly from Michael Harrington’s Socialism. Early on, he used the word “socialisms.”

I stared at the word for a couple of minutes. For all the times I’ve read, heard, and spoken the word “socialism,” this was my first time encountering it with an “s” at the end.

The “s” highlighted how little I actually know about socialism. It taunted me with the implication that, as Neil Postman might caution, I knew little enough of socialism’s histories to know an “s” could even belong there.

Another book made me think about the power of “s” to provoke deeper reflection. Called Late American Holocausts, it forced me to confront the idea of multiple holocausts. As an American, I’d grown up with the idea there was but one.

Of course, without even having begun reading the book, I could already see precisely why many Americans are taught that there was only The Holocaust … in which Americans were the victors, fighting evil, self-nominated, for the good of the world.

(The script hasn’t changed much, and–despite the tens of millions of people killed by America, its allies, and its arms sale recipients–American leaders still portray America as the lone, brave cowboy out bringing justice to the world. (Bah!))

Where else does an “s” invite deeper inquiry?

After “soldier,” for one. Who are the individual soldiers who sacrificed so much of their selves so that so few could gain vast riches? How do their stories vary? How do their losses ripple out to impact those who love them and must also face the daily consequences of those losses–of safety, of limb, of life? Who are these millions sacrificed by those who will never directly understand the individual costs of war?

And “war”? There’s another one. Though I didn’t see it until a few months ago, to read the word “war” and glide over it is to trivialize it. There is no one, uniform war. Each individual war killS and woundS different personS, placeS, and dreamS in dramatically different wayS.

Little has done so much for my seeing more clearly what is than the pluralizing letter “s,” which challenges me to explore the stories concealed by words used in misleading singular.

On heroing

Once upon a college-time, I found myself so useless–to myself, to others, to the world–that I wanted to die.

I challenged myself to find one thing I liked about myself; if I didn’t, I’d kill myself. If I could find one thing, though, I figured I could probably find more … with some patience.

I decided my calves were pretty rad. Seeing that one good thing paved the way for my sticking around to see more, so that one little thing meant everything: choosing life, as opposed to suicide.

Over time, I came to have faith in words. I understood them and became adept at shaping them to express precisely what I meant.

Then I began reading Neil Postman, who helped me understand some of the biases in words and word combinations, particularly English ones. Nouns are especially appropriate to represent some physical items (table; car; sandwich), but help create the illusion of stasis in some more dynamic “things” (language; people; school).

There’s a lot to this, but some of the biggest questions Postman opened for me were about this illusion of stasis, or unchangeability. By referring to “language” instead of “languaging,” English speakers may perceive language as an unchanging behemoth instead of sets of ongoing processes. By referring to people by individual, set names, we tell ourselves each person is one relatively stable unit instead of a changeable, changing entity who does the hard, ongoing work of “personing” in a rapidly changing world.

Some statements presented as fact aren’t, really.

“Projection,” as the term is used by semanticists such as Korzybski and Hayakawa, means that we transfer our own feelings and evaluations to objects outside of us. For example, we say, “John is stupid” or “Helen is smart,” as if “stupidity” and “smartness” were characteristics of John and Helen. A literal translation of “John is stupid” (that is, its most scientific meaning) might go something like this: “When I perceive John’s behavior, I am disappointed or distressed or frustrated or disgusted. The sentence I use to express my perceptions and evaluation of these events is ‘John is stupid.'”

When we say, “John is stupid,” we are talking about ourselves much more than we are talking about John. And yet, this fact is not reflected at all in this statement.

Language might actually be used to conceal more than it reveals.

At first, it felt liberating to be able to see some of the processes behind purported “things” I’d wrongly perceived as more or less stable. Slowly, though, it destroyed my faith in something that had almost always been a bedrock for me: that I could set forth words that showed precisely what I meant to almost everyone who read them. But if meaning is projected onto words by a perceiver instead of simply absorbed as stated, what I stated was far less important than the meanings being projected onto my words by readers/hearers.

With everything apparently objective revealed as potentially quite subjective, then, I lost faith in my ability to English-language … or that there was much merit in bothering to even try. I was especially disturbed by one kind of illusion I began seeing everywhere, especially in my own words: one of scale. Words can help things I’d consider enormous seem small, and can give small things an illusion of comparative enormity.

For example: If it’s a “disaster” when I flub an important meeting, what is it–apart from, of course, a crime–when hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes and retirement funds due to the bad behavior of a small number of extraordinarily powerful bankers? When those bankers aren’t even held accountable, but slapped on the hand by having less-than-incremental fees effectively taken from investors … as punishment? (How is that “punishment”? How does that deter abuse of power?)

If it’s “crushing” to remember a particularly bad memory, what is it, then, when entire villages are literally crushed by American-sold (and, often, -dropped) bombs? Especially when many of those bombs are “gifts” that keep giving for decades to come?

If an especially tasty hot dog can be “awesome,” then what’s the feeling you get standing and looking upon grand portions of the Grand Canyon?

If it’s “amazing” to get a great bonus at work, what is is when a family is granted asylum … and thus given a chance at life when they’d have almost certainly died had they stayed in their (prior) home?

With so many hard-to-see flaws in tools of meaning conveyance, words, I stopped seeing the point of trying to negotiate them.

If I was no longer a(n effective) worker-of-words … what was I, even?

Last week, I was fairly bludgeoned–multiple times daily, each day–by a word that I’d always translated as representing goodness. Read more…

Not a fixed state

This morning, I read an article on business “culture.” Its author wrote about this in a way that demands quotation marks be placed around the word. Is “culture” really some fixed thing, perceived and experienced the same way by everyone?

As I read, I imagined the author conversing with Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, authors of the 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. The book is less about teaching than assumptions, and specifically learning to explore and challenges one’s own assumptions, including those shaped by a specific language. One of my favorite passages is about “the mind”:

Even the words “the mind” are subtly metaphoric. Think of those words for a moment. Why the mind? Why a noun? Why a “thing”? As John Dewey and Arthur Bentley observed, we would come much closer to actuality if we spoke of “minding” (as a process) than of “the mind” (as a thing).

With that passage in mind (ahem), I chuckled at the idea of “a culture.” Why does English treat it as a thing, not a process? It’s dynamic and evolving, shaped by many factors and influences, not a point in time! It seems more apt, then, to think of “culturing” than of “culture.” Every day, through countless acts and interchanges, the people who participate in a company or community are shaping it. They might be said to be “culturing,” rather than “impacting ‘the’ culture.”

I have no answers to these questions, but I do love reflecting upon them. Before last month, I’d never really considered how language shaped my world instead of simply helping me describe it. Now, I see dozens of examples of this shaping every day. It’s fun exploring these questions I didn’t even realize were questions a few weeks ago.

If this isn’t enough for you to mull over, here’s a parting consideration I’d do well to hold in mind keep minding: “You cannot avoid making judgments, but you can become more conscious of the way you make them.” This is important because judgment can make us “behave in response to our judgments rather than that which is being judged” and because: “People and things are processes. Judgments convert them into fixed states.”

I’m not a fixed state. Are you?

This 4/4/17 post transferred from L2SP 6/3/17

Contracts: making me a crappier blogger since 2006!

Stop using passive voice!

Have you ever thought this while reading my blog? I sure have!

“The experience was one to be savored,” I might write, when the truth was savored the heck out of it. So why don’t I simply write, “I savored the experience”?

Easy: work. For roughly forty hours each week, I review, revise and write contracts full of worst case scenarios. These scenarios can make non-legal people extremely uncomfortable.

“But I don’t want to offer up my first-born child if this deal goes south!” such non-legal people might say if we lived in a fantasy world. In this one, “something comes up” and meetings are rescheduled they reschedule contract review meetings until rescheduling becomes riskier than just attending the damn meeting. Read more…

Learning languages: The priceless promise of adventure to come

I returned from teaching English in Japan eight years ago.

hiroshima9I’ve dreamed of traveling there with my family. I dream most especially of returning to Hiroshima and watching my young sons place their own paper cranes at an angel’s feet.

My husband would like us to visit Australia, where he and other early castaways were sequestered while fellow Survivor competitors finished up their time on the island.

We’d also like to visit places we’ve never been. Time and money are sparse, so we’ve taken to dreaming now of travel later.

I’ll be traveling internationally again soon. My new job will assign me certain territories, and I’ll periodically visit customers within those territories as part of my job.

Which territories? Read more…

Dow gobba gesk to you, too!

Airplane. Awesome! Chopper. No! Gabba. Mine!

What do these words have in common? They’re my 19-month-old son’s favorite words right now.

Every day, I’m delighted to hear my son, Li’l D, learn and use more words. Most of these are nouns, but occasionally they express more abstract concepts like feelings. En route to visit his dad last week, for example, he exclaimed loudly and repeatedly how “happy!” he was.

I was a little surprised to turn around two minutes later and find him fast asleep. Apparently being happy is a seriously “seepy”-making endeavor! Read more…

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