The Bewitching Trickery of Language

antonio-grosz-327775-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Antonio Grosz on Unsplash

Language is a wonderful thing. It allows us to categorise, simplify and describe our complex and confusing universe, applying words to objects and actions that might otherwise remain as unusual blobs of shifting shape and colour, forever unlabelled and elusive. Language brings order, creating a beautiful, intricate structure that we use to create common understanding within our species, paving the way for mastery of our environment.

Language is magnificent, but there’s a downside to this wonderful ability. Language is so deeply embedded in our nature, and used so liberally, that we often forget that its primary function is to describe our world. We confuse the descriptive word that comes out of our mouth with the thing itself, as though the word is more real than the thing we’re describing. A cow isn’t the word cow; it’s the burly, black and white thing with the nipple-clad, pink undercarriage standing in front of you. The word cow is just a label that we use to identify something, not the thing itself.

The confusion between expression and reality was illustrated wonderfully by French artist Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe with the words “this is not a pipe,” cleverly reminding the viewer that the image of the pipe is not an actual pipe, just as the word cow isn’t an actual cow, but simply a useful noise that you’ve made with your mouth.

the-treachery-of-images-rene-magritte.jpgRene Magritte — The Treachery of Images

Another great example is from semantics scholar Alfred Korzybski, who remarked that “the map is not the territory,” highlighting the common confusion between models of reality (the map) with reality itself (the territory). The map is purely a representation of the landscape, just as the word cow is a representation of an enormous, methane-oozing animal that likes nothing more than to spend its day grazing and mooing.

Confusing the label/representation with the actual thing that is being described can have the regrettable consequence of diminishing our appreciation of it, by reducing it down to nothing but a mere abstraction. The sound that we make when we say cow can never be as wonderfully intricate as the actual thing that we’re identifying, and while language is effective at categorising our world, it can have the unfortunate side-effect of removing all sense of depth and curiosity from our observed object. In reality, a cow is a natural marvel that can weigh over 1300kg, has 360-degree panoramic vision, and can smell something from over 6 miles away. The word cow is just a useful abstraction—great for simplification, but with the downside of blinding us to the marvellous minutia of the actual animal itself. As we simplify, so we depreciate.

“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”—Virginia Woolf

One might say that the glass that I’m currently drinking out of is just a glass, but in reality it’s an invention with an almost 4000-year history, originating in the heat of India, advancing towards Europe to the mighty Roman Empire, and eventuating as a handy drinking receptacle used by billions of people worldwide. It’s much more than just a glass. By reducing something down to a single word, and then confusing the word with the actual thing itself, we’re compelled to forget its rich history and delightful features, and so take it for granted.

Language is not reality. When we realise this, we’re brought closer to reality, being forced to recognise that the sounds that we utter are a mere abstraction, with the real world right before our eyes. Words create an impressive and convincing illusion, in which we come to identify everything in the real world as nothing but a selection of muttered letters—short, compartmentalised, and boring.

“To see the truth you need to step out of the word jungle”—Bharath Gollapudi, Quora

Sam Mendes’ masterpiece American Beauty reminds us of our world’s dazzling intricacy by encouraging us to look closer—an invitation to expand on an all-too-brief, short assessment of a thing, to better understand its hidden beauty.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”—Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

There’s an entire life behind things—endless, fascinating detail, which we have better access to if we remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. Even something as seemingly banal as a plastic bag, dancing in the wind, can be heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We just have to look closer.

A similar theme can be found in Alejandro Iñárritu’s impressive film Birdman. During one scene, the protagonist actor Thomson Riggan rages at villainous critic Tabitha Dickinson, accusing her of mistaking words and labels for the reality that they represent:

“Let’s read your fuckin’ review. ‘Callow.’ Callow is a label. It’s just… ‘Lackluster.’ That’s just a label. Margin… marginalia. Are you kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That’s a label too. These are all just labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… You just… You’re a lazy fucker. You’re a lazy… [picks up a flower] You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don’t, You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.”—Riggan Thomson, Birdman

For Riggan, the critic who promises to “kill his play” is a fraud, failing to look past her abrupt descriptions to a deeper truth that she is too lazy and complacent to see. As a writer, Dickinson is so immersed in the world of language that she’s unable to separate words from reality, choosing to pigeonhole Riggan and his play before she’s even witnessed it. This is just one small, subtle element of a major theme of the movie—the confusion of fantasy and reality. Though Riggan frequently delves into fantasy himself, undergoing impossible feats such as moving objects with his mind, he’s aware of the beguiling potential of words, even keeping a sign at his dressing room desk that says “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”.

If we want to increase our world’s worth before our eyes, we must remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. This is not to say that we should spend our days wandering from object to object, mouth agape at everything we encounter. We need semantic brevity in order to get shit done. But if we pause from time to time and examine our world a little more closely, our blessed sense of appreciation will be heightened, and we’ll slowly become more grateful for this spectacular, fascinating world that we’re living in.

 

How to defeat shame and embarrassment

3048648-poster-p-3-how-i-get-it-done-wallow-in-your-failure.jpgBrene Brown, photo by fastcompany

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” – Leonard Cohen

Humans, while quite lovely at times, can be a spiteful bunch. The merciless critic within us, that character who always makes us feel better about ourselves, lets loose his disapproving expression or wicked tongue, the recipient of which is cast into a filthy pit of shame.

Shame is a result of undue, unfair, or badly-delivered criticism and judgment, adding to an anesthetized feeling of unworthiness. When we’re experiencing shame, we want to withdraw from the world; to run away from the thing that’s causing us damage. Experience enough of it over time, and we’ll make ourselves so small that we may as well not exist.

Brene Brown is a research professor from Houston who has spent much of her career studying shame. In her extraordinary book Daring Greatly, she explores the devastating impact of shame on our lives, and offers a powerful antidote: vulnerability.

Many of us might think of vulnerability as weakness. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to damage, and we live in a perilous world with physical and mental danger around every corner. Surely it’s better to protect ourselves? As it turns out, being constantly guarded is tantamount to being invisible – we must risk vulnerability in order to achieve anything worthwhile.

“Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And yes, we’re taking huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.” – Brene Brown

Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s strength. It’s a prerequisite for progress – you simply cannot hope to achieve anything unless you’re willing to take risks. Every compromising gamble could end up in success, or failure, but you’ll never find out which unless you have the guts to throw the dice.

Shame cloaks us in fear, preventing us from being vulnerable. Every disparaging look that lighted upon us and every small failure that befell us has helped to assemble an impenetrable suit of shame armour that we wear to protect ourselves. Brown is wonderfully candid throughout the book, describing her own farcical attempts at self-preservation:

“All of my stages were different suits of armour that kept me from becoming too engaged and too vulnerable. Each strategy was built on the same premise: keep everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy.” – Brene Brown

If shame is the excavator of quick, cowardly exits, vulnerability is how you board them up. Slowly, with enough practice, you’ll become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of being vulnerable, and though there’ll be times when you’ll want to shamefully escape using the swiftest of exits, you’ll usually possess the strength to stand true, and with a bit of luck, achieve great things.

“As I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light.” – Brene Brown

The hazards of life are thrust upon us daily, and every time that happens we’re faced with a simple choice – cowardly withdrawal, or knightly, engaging vulnerability; to camouflage ourselves and fade comfortably into the background, or put a tentative foot forward, place ourselves in all kinds of jeopardy, and maybe accomplish something that makes us feel like worthy human beings.

“Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.” – Brene Brown

Though we’re horrified at the prospect of being vulnerable, it evokes unadulterated admiration when we witness it in other people. It’s a trait for which we hold a heartfelt appreciation – this person has the courage to step reluctantly into the abyss, and the audacity to push their chips forward, cross their fingers, and throw the dice. They’re risking embarrassment, loss and failure, but at least they’re brave enough to play.

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.” – Brene Brown

“We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us. We’re afraid that our truth isn’t enough – that what we have to offer isn’t enough without the bells and whistles, without editing and impressing.” – Brene Brown

Brown places great emphasis on the idea of wholeheartedness, which is living your life from a place of worthiness; a place where you realise that you are undeniably valuable, deserving of happiness, with the courage to be vulnerable. This is a position from which you’ll experience and affirm everything in your life – fear, pain, doubt, depression, amusement, bliss, joy – everything. By answering life with a resounding yes, you’re fully participating in your own existence.

“Much of the beauty of light owes its existence to the dark. The most powerful moments of our lives happen when we string together the small flickers of light created by courage, compassion, and connection and see them shine in the darkness of our struggles.” – Brene Brown

“We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” – Brene Brown

“The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything—from their professional success, to their marriages, to their proudest parenting moments—to their ability to be vulnerable.” – Brene Brown

It’s a choice between shying away from vulnerability and remaining on the sidelines of your life, or taking a deep breath, strapping on your boots, and running onto the field, brimming with fear but truly alive.

“Our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness.” – Brene Brown

“It’s easier to live disappointed that it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain.” – Brene Brown

While we’ll never be able to fully silence shame-inducing critique (whether from ourselves or others), we can combat the crippling feeling of shame by practicing gutsy and relentless vulnerability, stepping into the world as opposed to withdrawing from it. We adore vulnerability in others, and yet, when it’s time for us to enter the fray unprotected, running away becomes a tempting option. When we do muster up the courage to take the plunge, we’re transformed into objects of admiration, and during those moments, we’re living wholeheartedly.

“I remember a very tender moment from that year, when Steve and I were lying on the floor watching Ellen do a series of crazy, arm-flinging, and knee-slapping dances and tumbles. I looked at Steve and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how I just love her that much more for being so vulnerable and uninhibited and goofy. I could never do that. Can you imagine knowing that you’re loved like that?’ Steve looked at me and said, ‘I love you exactly like that.’ Honestly, as someone who rarely risked vulnerability and always steered clear of silly or goofy, it never dawned on me that adults could love each other like that; that I could be loved for my vulnerabilities, not despite them.” – Brene Brown

The importance of good ideas

Death – that fiercly dark, inescapable lurker – eventually reveals his position to every one of us, and sweeps us away. If you’re lucky, it could be while you’re softly snoring in your bed, as a blood clot torpedos its way towards your unsuspecting heart. If you’re unlucky, you’ll contract a horrible, drawn out disease with no cure, and stink up your hospital room in the process. The end result is just the same – this life as you know it comes to a close, and you return to the same state as before you were born, a state impossible for anyone to describe.

While we may not be able to persist for eternity (as if that would be a good thing), there’s something that we can create which does continue into the future: our ideas. We can concoct wonderful concepts in our brains, and magically transplant them into the brains of other people, some of which can be passed on and thrive within human culture for millenia. Controversial scientist Richard Dawkins expands on this idea in his book The Selfish Gene, in which he proposes the idea of the meme, which like its biological counterpart the gene, has the ability to self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. This was the definition of memes before the internet took over and turned it into something trivial. Dawkins’ meme is a truly perceptive concept which imbues our ideas with a life of their own; an existence that can adapt, thrive, or die, much like ourselves. The ideas that we send out into the world can be devastingly prolific, or fade away with a depressing whimper. They can live in the minds of entire continents, influencing the behaviour of their hosts in unforeseen ways. This is why it’s so important to ensure that our ideas are good and beneficial to the human race, to the extent that we judge them so. Bad ideas are like a cancer, which can infect multitudes of people and end up annihilating us. Climate change deniers are an example of this – the asburd idea that they hold in their heads might literally end up killing us all. This might be considered more murderous than any cancer that can develop in our bodies, and its effectiveness is strengthened dramatically by the rise of the internet, a network that serves as a superhighway for bad ideas.

Truth is the necessary antidote to such evils. We all have a moral responsibility to send good, true ideas out into the world, which nourish the human race. Worthy ideas are like sustenance for the soul, as though you’re consuming the most nutritious, perfectly balanced meal available to you. Bad ideas are tantamount to visiting McDonalds every day – eventually, they might kill you. The information that you share with your fellow chimps is much more important than you might realise, and so some moments of consideration are required in order to prevent the spread of cancerous concepts. This is why good journalism and writing is such a crucial part of society – we need excellent journalists to counteract the stream of incessent bullshit that is fired at us from every imaginable angle. The truth is often difficult to uncover; certainly not as easy as clicking on the first few Google search results and then re-writing what you’ve discovered. Anything worthwhile takes time, and anyone committed to the truth should realise this, lest they get drawn into the dark world of damaging falsities. Fake news is a genuine problem in today’s world, the validity of which is being undermined every time that Trump incorrectly labels something as fake news, in order to cover up a glaring truth about himself. It’s a part of Trump’s ongoing war with the media, in which he’s going so far as expressing his approval of assaulting journalists, because of their responsibility and gratifying effectiveness at illuminating his obscenities. Earlier this year at one of Trump’s rallies, his supporters were filmed mercilessly abusing the media – a direct result of the president’s words.

The bigger the audience, the more construction or destruction the person can inflict upon the world. The concept can be extended to celebrities, who whether by talent or sheer luck, have amassed monumental audiences in which they can effectively spread an endless amount of awful ideas. Take the Kardashians or any one of their ilk, who whether realising it or not, are spreading the destructive notion that you have to look and dress a certain way in order to be considered beautiful. Their absurd fame is genuinely bad for the human race, notably for young impressionable girls whose self-esteem would be better nourished if they followed the pursuits of people who were actually worthwhile. Sadly, Marie Curie or Rosa Parks don’t have quite the same entertainment value as an over-inflated celebrity with a head full of air.

Our society can only flourish if we help to foster good ideas, and root out bad ones. A solid foundation requires strength and durability, which can only be found in valuable truth. Anything built on deceit will crumble when put to the test, which could happen to our species unless we make a concerted effect to propogate lasting, effective ideas, while at the same time rallying against duplicitious nonsense. Like Karl Pilkington’s Bullshit Man, if you witness somebody in the act of spouting inaccurate drivel, call them out on it, preferably in a similarly dramatic fashion.

We’re all destined for the grave, but our ideas don’t have to be. A small part of us can continue into the future, and if you choose to live with integrity, you might just improve the human race in the process.

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