We Might Be Talking About Different Things

If there has been a common thread to all my abstract thoughts lately, it has been my growing awareness of the fact that people often use the same language to mean very different things. I recently blogged about the case of "enlightenment," for example, and success, and about pride.

An important benefit of language is that it gives us a common language with which to describe things and convey ideas in a way that transcends individual experience. This does come at a cost, though, which is the fact that some people will describe, say, "maroon" in the context of purple, while others will describe it in the context of red. In fact, "marron" in Spanish and French means brown! In the end, linguistic precision is a hopeless case. People will choose words and phrases that resonate with them despite how those same words and phrases resonate with others.

The result is… mass confusion.

Consider the sad case of feminism, for example. Much as some would prefer otherwise, "feminism" is a word with baggage. Academically, especially in North America and Europe, it is a word that is strongly associated with Marxism and Critical Theory, neither of which are necessary for achieving equality of the sexes. (Let's leave aside any debate about the merits of both Marxism and Critical Theory today.) Thus, the context in which many English-speakers are likely to discuss feminism is decorated with a rich backdrop of theoretical tangents that are superfluous to specific policy questions.

That's perfectly tolerable, and often reasonable (though not ideal), until a person finds herself discussing feminism in the  context of, say, the Indian Sub-Continent. There, the relevant issues are not "man-spreading" and "boys will be boys." There, the relevant issues are Eve-teasing, gang rape, and the sad refusal of some parents to allow their daughters to use tampons. Elsewhere in the world, the relevant issues are female genital mutilation and child brides.

For better or for worse, women in Africa and India use the same feminist language as academics in the West. Still, despite both parties' discussing female equality broadly construed, they couldn't possibly be having more dissimilar conversations. The right to leave your body unmutilated is nothing whatsoever like the right to be taken seriously at a business meeting. It's just not. The language of the discussion might be the same, the terms might be the same, but the specific conversation being had is quite different.

The greatest level of confusion arises when two people attempt to have the same conversation, because they're using the same words, and end up unwittingly having completely different conversations, neither party realizing what's happening even as it happens.

Imagine discussing wedding colors with a French wedding planner. You say that you'd like your wedding colors to be white and "a rich and beautiful maroon," and your wedding planner tries to talk you out of it. Maroon is not a good wedding color, she says. It's unique, but quite unconventional and perhaps even quite ugly to some. You become offended that she called your idea ugly. You both go back and forth and tempers flare. Neither of you realizes that you've been arguing over different colors. You meant something closer to burgundy, and she meant something closer to chocolate brown. This is why wedding planners use reference cards to discuss color, of course.

Still, that argument is trivial compared to the arguments I've seen on social media regarding "toxic masculinity." This emotionally charged phrase means something different to those who oppose "toxic masculinity" than it does to those who feel opposed by the use of that same phrase. One group of people uses the phrase to denote behaviors in men that tend to victimize women; the other group sees that phrase a means to criticize all men for doing harmless things that men like to do, like being competitive and rowdy. In truth, people ought to avoid and condemn behaviors that tend to victimize women… AND… people ought not be criticized for being competitive and rowdy, if that's how they like to be. But neither conversation has anything to do with the other. They are two different conversations. Those who do not take the time to acknowledge how other people are using and interpreting the same phrase are condemned to have endless, meaningless arguments with people who misunderstand them equally.

…which, I suppose, is punishment enough for refusing to go through the exercise we've all just gone through now. Take the time to understand exactly what people mean, even if they're using words you think are specific. You might be wrong about how they're using them, which means they might be right about what they're saying. You just have to find out first.

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