Language and Understanding

In my last post I spent some time talking about interpretation. I wanted to convey that interpretation has to do with the process of how we understand the world about us. Interpretations can be valid or invalid—that is to say, a good interpretation or a not so good interpretation. What we understand something to be can be a reasonable understanding or a poor understanding. What is certain is that we are always making sense and meaning of the world about us. Even when we misunderstand, we are seeking to understand. Misunderstanding itself presupposes the possibility and the promise of understanding.

Language plays a central role in how we understand. In fact, we cannot understand without language. Hans-Georg Gadamer (one of the most important hermeneutic philosophers of all time) wrote, “Being that can be understood is language.” One of the things he meant is that anything that can be understood discloses itself in the language of the one who understands. What we understand something to be is articulated and communicated in language. I was presenting a paper at a conference a few years ago in which I was making similar points about language. In the Q&A one of the audience members took issue with what I had to say about how everything we understand is understood linguistically. I asked him if he could communicate his point to me without using language. Needless to say, he could not.

To be sure, we have what philosophers refer to as pre-linguistic experiences. Whether an event, a feeling, an encounter, or anything else—while the thing itself is not language—our understanding of those things takes place in language. Another way to look at language (especially human language) is that we give things names. Suppose I tell you the sky was orange last evening at sunset. Presuming you have been taught colors, you understand me when I refer to an orange sky. The phenomenon we call orange is articulated by a set of symbols and/or sounds that refer to it. There is nothing at all particularly orange about those symbols or sounds, but we have housed a certain phenomenon in those symbols and sounds. The being of that phenomenon that can be understood is in language. After telling you about the orange sky, suppose I ask you if you would like to eat an orange with me. Although the symbols and sounds are the same, you understand without even thinking about it that the “orange” of the sky and the “orange” I invite you to eat are different beings. You have learned the word “orange” and the different things to which that word can refer. But your understanding of either would be limited to non-existent without language.

 Language is not only that which we articulate and communicate about things. Language also does a great deal to shape how we understand things. That is why language is so important and why understanding how language works is even more important. For example, I think of how in the past year how there were worldwide protests against police brutality of black citizens in the United States. Many commentators and political leaders refused to use the word “protestor” when talking about the protests. Instead, we heard of “rioters” and “looters,” with no distinction at all made between the activities or an acknowledgement of protestors. The effect that this had on many was to characterize any and all involved in those events as rioters and looters. If we remove the word protestor from our language concerning these events then we do not have to consider the reality of police brutality in the United States and we quickly associate anyone involved in such events to be bad people. If my social media feeds were any indication, the power of language to shape understanding, when misused, so easily allowed (or manipulated) people to dismiss a very real problem and even demonize those calling for the country to address the problem. People who like their world to be black and white, who do not like complex and nuanced thought, and who cannot or are too bothered to make necessary distinctions tend to fall for these sorts of linguistic tactics pretty easily.

Language does influence perception. Political campaigns, for instance, invest plenty of time and money in crafting language to influence and shape perception. A now well-known example is a memo crafted by Frank Luntz, a consultant advising the first Bush campaign in the early 2000’s. Luntz was advising Republicans how to talk about environmental issues. Probably the most widely reported part of the memo is where Luntz advised Republicans to refer to “climate change” rather than “global warming.” The term “climate change” was not a new term Luntz created. Climate scientists have long used this language. In popular culture, especially at that time, the term “global warming” was more common as it referred to the specific way the climate was changing. Why did Luntz suggest changing terms?

Answer: for the express purpose of changing perception.

He wrote: “‘climate change is less frightening than ‘global warming.’” Whereas global warming seems to point to a more catastrophic problem, climate change suggests “a more controllable and less emotional challenge.” The overall tenor of the memo was to come across more positive. Instead of being “environmentalists” or “preservationists,” a word such as “conservationist” put a more positive spin on the Republican position. Luntz said, “The words on these pages are tested—they work!”

One may argue that the change in language suggested by Luntz corresponded to the truth and the intent was to communicate the truth more effectively. Whether that is the case is another conversation. The point here is that language shapes perception. We know this. The use of language, ethically speaking, entails a responsibility to use it well.  

With this post and the previous one, my intent is to set the stage for the next few posts where I will be looking at a few different random words that I think we do not use as well as we could be. Being attentive to language and how we use it, I am certain, fosters better discourse between us and can make our civilization…perhaps a bit more civil.

Stay tuned…

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