Let's Talk About Talking

Martha Bartter


Most people agree that a number of serious problems affect our society and the world in which our society "lives and moves and has its being." Serious disagreements arise whenever people try to specify those problems; even more serious disagreements arise when people try to prioritize them. I want to look briefly at the way our language interferes with any long-term, effective method of dealing with these problems, and the problems we encounter in dealing with our dealing with them.

Let me begin with an example (not a digression). Physicists often throw up their hands in despair when attempting to explain the more esoteric aspects of physical science. We find the most "accessible" discussions of physics among those writers who will put these aspects into philosophical or religious terminology - and even then, by the standards of the discipline of physics, we non-physicists have acquired only the most basic conceptions of the intricate, elegant theories the physicists work with. Our language gets in the way. Few of us - even the college-educated - speak the mathematical languages that express these concepts in ways that the experts feel confer any validity. Ordinary language simply gets in the way of genuine comprehension.

Until physicists developed the kinds of mathematical languages that "really" convey their theories, not even they could "really" talk about them, or put them to test. They even found them difficult to "think" about—to discuss among themselves. The lack of language hindered them, and they found ways to deal with those hindrances.

We find ourselves in a somewhat similar situation. We have disclosed problems of such a serious nature that we must find ways to "fix" them; yet when we try to discuss them, we get embroiled in such a variety of argument that we cannot even follow our own trains of thought through the mess. Perhaps we have a very strong indication here that we have fallen into the same "language" fix the physicists disclosed; and perhaps we need to try solutions that look something like theirs.

"Something like" but not "the same" solution. I do not expect all concerned citizens of the world could or would take on learning a new (especially a difficult) technical language, nor do I expect that doing so would suddenly confer upon us the ability to "see through" our multitude of concerns to a single, elegant solution. But I do hope - even expect - that making a few relatively small but not simple or easy changes in the way we language our problems may bring us closer both to better descriptions and to possible solutions. Furthermore, and perhaps even more important, these changes may allow us to do so without starting to fight each other.

One useful language looks metaphorical, or at least literary: Daniel Quinn's novels Ishmael and My Ishmael, for example. Reading them, one can feel quite convinced that his analysis of our world situation looks very accurate indeed. Trying to discuss this analysis, outside of Quinn's metaphorical language, however, frequently brings us right back to the impasse we faced - though at a new level, for we have integrated Quinn's analysis into our conversation.

What kind of linguistic change do I now propose? Essentially, discarding the one that not only allows but lets us virtually insist that our way of saying something REALLY DOES DESCRIBE IT COMPLETELY; that what we have said IS RIGHT. First of all, we must recognize that our language does do this. Then we must find a way to KEEP that recognition before us at all times, most especially when we feel an important emotional charge on the topic under discussion. Let's try E-Prime and see if that helps us to stop fooling ourselves with language so we can stay on-track

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