Linguistic Relativisms

Conversations between people with opposing views can be challenging. Perhaps it would feel more accurate to say they’re likely a total waste of time and energy. I carry a lot of biases regarding the nature of spirited disagreement. Some of it might be I reckon people often spoiling for debate feel like they’re bringing a nuke to a pen fight. This is to say they feel they must have a deadly arsenal to deploy in the large scale theatre of war we know as a civil discussion.

This has often bothered me. When I was younger, I leaned into concepts like science and reason as professed by people called (or calling themselves?) thinkers as a possible toolkit for being able to survive discussion where viewpoints were at odds. I didn’t get very far. Approaching opposing discussion with robotic reason and cold facts appears equally as explosive as invoking Latin words when trying to pivot from a weak argument to a stronger one. Proper thinker tactics.

Why though? Why can’t we just discuss things? Well, it turns out there’s something called Linguistic Relativity and another thing called Linguistic Determinism. Both are hypotheses that language can determine, or at least influence cognition. There’s a lot of academic debunking and debate about it. Apparently Noam Chomsky once said it was wrong, but old Noam has never read any Leroy Little Bear.

Here’s the thing though. Intuitively, I feel it’s a strong cause of why discussions can be unnecessarily difficult. My perspective is with British English as my first language. I can understand German and French to a degree. I know some Cantonese, Finnish and Icelandic words, and I’ve been making a concerted effort to apportion at least 5 minutes a day to actively learning Māori. This is to say I only know English, but understand that there are other languages that structure themselves in ways that English does not.

We know the brain is asymmetrical. We further know that the left hemisphere is the language handler. The right hemisphere understands language (more so it’s subtleties which are lost on the left hemisphere) but has no speech. We also know that lateralisation means both hemispheres are busy choosing to allow cross communication (or not). But here’s the thing. The left hemisphere is pretty literal. It assigns and categorises, files things away as facts. You know – science and reason. Good old thinker stuff.

In English, if I tell you I believe something, I typically tell you that I am that thing. I am a Democrat. I am a Republican. I am keto lol. Now, rather that practising and upholding a system of beliefs, I am the thing I believe. The language I have in the hemisphere that uses it, files that away as a fact. Me = thing. FACT.

This is where I think the inordinately and unnecessarily combative nature of discussion can arise. Because we have not only filed away our belief system as fact, we have further in most cases tied it (at least in English) to our identity. The upshot?

I don’t like this – can’t be true.

Any discussion around beliefs becomes an assault on both identity and archived collections of “facts”. There’s an inherent lack of preparedness to observe the nuance, overlap, interrelatedness or betweenness of ideas within a discussion because any opposing viewpoint – possibly just a different viewpoint – could be seen as an assault on the identity we’ve invented and stored as incontrovertible. We’re literally defending ourselves from new ideas.

It sounds really stupid and obvious when I write it down, but my point is English might be the best language to make us stupider and narrow minded because we can’t have a discussion about what we think we know without wanting to activate a Stark pre-Ironman Jerico.

Here’s an idea then. Next time we’re tooling up for a discussion, walk the perimeter, looking for all the overlap and betweenness possible before addressing where potential opposition lies. Maybe this way we’ll discover that what we know is the world as we see it and in discussing it we might learn something new.

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