Thursday, March 13, 2008

1.2 There is no "I" in "Meme": Language

The language we use, whether it beongs to our culture, subculture, technical tool or organization, affects our fundamental perceptions, choices, and behavior (and we rarely notice).

[T]he language a person speaks [affects] how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. [...] Different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. -- Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Wikipedia
The world, and the process of living, are inherently continuous and nameless. To communicate about them, we humans use our amazing minds to interpret them down into structures, finite bits with ends, beginnings and apparent affinities with other bits. We come up with those structures by drawing from our history, our cultural biases, our priorities, which themselves are created by language in an ongoing feedback loop. There is no "accurate" way of describing the world, and thus there is no objective way. There's just the way that you happen to be using.

A language is a very heavily biased cultural description of the parts of the world that it cares about, and its own priorities. For example:

In American culture (and some, but not all, other cultures), words about sex and sexual organs are used as the strongest forms of insults. It would be ridiculous for me to insult you by calling you a "stupid arm," but we find the word [cxxx] so offensive that I can't even directly reference it in this blog. This use of language reflects, and perpetuates, certain cultural assumptions about sex.

The languages of subcultures and organizations also codify, teach and perpetuate, unconscious cultural values and expectations.

A close friend of mine just became a cop. He is a deep and thoughtful person with a strong protective instinct. I was thus surprised, in recent conversations, to hear him talking about apprehending and charging people as "contacting" his "clients."
For me, "contacting a client" means calling someone who has voluntarily hired you and maybe leaving them, say, a voicemail, or perhaps a nice fruit basket. For his unit, "contacting" someone might mean chasing a guy four blocks, fighting him to the ground with the help of three other officers, finding a gun and a gram of coke on him, and taking him to jail where he will develop his first criminal record, permanently changing the course of his life.

Contrast this linguistic convention to some other options: instead of "Today I contacted four clients," make it "Today I handled, then made life-changing decisions towards, four human beings." Or, alternately: "Today, I wiped the floor with four more scumbags." The neutral language employed by my friend's unit serves two instructive purposes: it facilitates the emotional detachment that makes policework possible, and it restricts that detachment to the universe of professionalism and service.

So, yes: the linguistic structure you use effects how you think and act. But while changing a language is often a part of changing a social system's rules and behavior, it is rarely the direct route. If you had a goal, for example, to make all police highly sensitive to the human realities of the people they are arresting,* you might think it would be smart to change the institutional language from "contacting clients" to "Making Choices to affect Human Beings." But if your police still (for example) (1) have to fill an ambitious weekly quota of arrests to succeed at your unit, and (2) only see the perp at the time of the arrest (no exposure to context or after effects), your new language won't change their approach to the job. It will just irritate them as phony polish on top of the job's harsh reality.

I don't know about you, but I see surface-level language "fixes" in the industry all the time, and they drive me directly to drink.

To learn more about this fascinatng topic, you may want to read this highly-recommended book: Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences.**

* And I hope you do not
** Lord knows I want to read it. It's on my short list.

Stay tuned for: 1.3 There is No "I" in "Meme": Culture

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