“You just can’t talk to some people!”
The number of times I’ve heard this before — it’s mindblowing. And for the most part, it’s not true. What is true is that there are some people out there who can never persuade certain other people.
Sometimes they just don’t like each other; whether it’s a class thing, or race, or gender, or what have you. Other times, people just suffer from delusions, or an idée fixe; I know of one math professor who believed that women were wasting their time in his class because they were too unintelligent to comprehend mathematics, and he could not be convinced otherwise.
But most of the time, I’ve found this to be a matter of impatience combined with semantics.
Bide a moment here; this is important: People use the cliche “It’s a matter of semantics” without having the slightest idea what that means. It’s not a minor thing, semantics; it’s the study of meaning in words. And a slight variation in meaning can be all-important.
We use language as an imperfect tool to transmit ideas between unlike minds. Read that sentence again, if you will. No two of us have identical thought patterns; we were not all raised the same way, nor were we educated in the same fashion. We haven’t had similar experiences or even read the same books. So our minds will be different, and (of equal importance) our understanding of what words mean will be different.
This latter is sometimes hard to grasp. After all, words like “fork” and “automobile” and “doctor” all mean specific things, right?
Except, when I hear “doctor”, sometimes I’m thinking of a scientist, other times of a physician, and most often of a certain television character. And “fork”, while a fine utensil, can also be a tool for lifting hay, a cleft branch in a tree or a road, or an off-color reference to primary genitalia. I’m sure “automobile” can be misinterpreted as well, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.
We discern a lot of the meaning here from context, which is how we can differentiate a surgeon from an academician. But, if you lack certain experiences, you’d have no idea what I’d mean when I say “doctor’s scarf” — whereas another person might instantly picture sixteen feet of multicolored knit wool and have an inexplicable urge to eat a jelly baby. (Or not, if they’re young.)
Now some would say this is a completely unimportant example. (They’d be wrong.) After all, how much harm could a miscommunication like this possibly cause?
Well, the thing is, sometimes words carry more with them than literal meaning. For example, it would very probably be correct (though a bit impolite) to tell you that, at one point, your father surely had sexual intercourse with your mother, else how could you have come to be? And yet, there’s a certain expletive beginning with “mother” (and ending with a variation on “fork”) that most people would not suffer to be applied to their immediate family — even though it carries with it the same literal definition.
We call this “emotional loading”. Most expletives are emotionally loaded terms — which is, of course, why it can feel very cathartic to swear. It is an emotional release.
While dictionary definitions are usually fairly common for most words, the degree and quality of emotional loading is extremely subjective. Because of this, some words and phrases mean different things to different people, or at different times, or in differing circumstances.
Now, cliches and tropes exist for a reason; we can understand the complex concepts underlying them without conscious thought, which aids in communication. However, employing cliches to discuss concepts that are hotly contested — and therefore imperfectly understood by one side or another (or both) of every discussion — must always be counterproductive. It’s inevitable.
And so, when discussing such difficult concepts as habitual societal oppression and the disenfranchisement of subsets and classes of people, one sure way to fail to convey one’s point is to employ a term like “White Privilege”, to call someone a “Fascist” — or a “Liberal”, or to say “All Lives Matter”. These words end discussion, end communication in those very subjects where communication is the most vital.
One of the most common delusions of this time in this country is the idea that a third of the population is somehow evil or subhuman because they chose differently in an election. The very thought of this is destructive to thought and reason; it engenders purposeless hate and revulsion, and it creates a valueless sense of superiority and self-righteousness where we should have tolerance and patience and, if possible, a little understanding.
The difference between the neo-Keynesian economic philosophy of the Democrats and the modified Friedmanism of the Republicans is actually very slight, and yet we hear words like “Socialism” and “Trickle-Down Economics” and the differences seem huge. And that’s just one example; it’s not tough to imagine that “Conservationalists” and “Environmentalists” would both want to protect our national parks.
The things we share are far more powerful, and far more meaningful, than those which divide us. These are difficult times, and we need to remember these commonalities — especially now.
And if being very careful about the words we use in discussion can help, I say we do exactly that.