This philosophical reflection on language is written by Dr. Darren Slade, Research Director for FaithX and General Editor of our sponsored journal, Socio-Historical Exploration of Religion and Ministry. He regularly writes articles for the FaithXperimental blog, primarily curating relevant research as it is published and contributing articles for our FaithXperimental Spotlight series.
However, in this blog Darren offers a different kind of article: philosophical reflection on how language itself can contribute to incivility in communication. His thesis: un-nuanced and lazy thinking — that words that so clearly carry one meaning for us must therefore carry the same meaning for others — makes it easy for us to condemn those who disagree with us without truly understanding the meaning they attach to what they are saying. He also offers some possible ways to avoid allowing our assumptions about our common language to divide us.
There is a deep divide in our country, and in many parts of the world, that continues unabated. As a civilization, we have become so polarized and so entrenched in our tribal ways of thinking that finding common ground (or even civility in dialogue) appears near impossible. But what if part of the problem has to do with our use of the English language? Is it possible that our method of speaking is, in fact, causing much of the divide in our culture? Here’s what I mean:
I’d like you to take a moment and try a quick and easy “armchair” experiment. First, find a chair and sit down. Then, ask yourself a question: What is a “chair?” Yes, I’m serious, and no dictionaries allowed. Now, sit down and define a “chair.”
If you think about it long enough, you will begin to realize this simple task is actually very difficult to accomplish. For every definition you can think of, you can find multiple examples that contradict it. For example, defining a chair as “something to sit on” would seem to suggest that a floor also qualifies as a chair. But that’s not right. A floor is not a chair, even if you can sit on it.
So you get more specific and define a chair as “something you sit on that has four legs.” But that’s not accurate, either. There are some chairs with only three legs. Bean bags can be chairs, and they have no legs at all. A dog has four legs, and you could sit on your dog (if your dog was big enough, that is), but that doesn’t make your dog a chair.
So why is it so difficult to define a chair!?! We all know what one is, right?[Read more…]