How are you doing? Think about that question carefully, what you tell yourself in response is important.
I have been taking steps to improve my craft as a writer recently. A chance to practice writing to an audience regularly has also been a pleasant side-effect of being able to send you these. It is a real privilege to have you all at the receiving end of this email.
I have an abstract idea or set of ideas, an imprint in my mind I would like to impart to you. Through some mysterious process, I can express these ideas in language, in the symbols you are currently reading on the page. If you, my dear reader, now possess a copy of the same ideas I had meant to convey then communication has happened.
- Communication is the transmission of an idea to one or more people.
It is often said we are social animals, that what separates us fundamentally from our cousins in the wild is our increased capacity for cooperation. This may have been true since the dawn of our species, but at the very least for millions of years. The greatest technological innovation we have conceived is neither electricity nor the internet but language itself. We have refined the art of sharing information beyond any other species and we have been doing so throughout most of our history... yet we still haven't figured it out.
A friend of mine once told me about an acid trip he was on, where he realised that in many of the conversations that we have we simply talk past each other. Both participants respond to each other and both believe they know what the other is talking about, but they are in entirely different worlds. Something is sobering about this thought.
The world is clearly rife with misunderstanding and I see two possible causes:
- We don't know how to communicate clearly
- We don't want to be understood (probably because we penalise one another simply for expressing certain thoughts)
Think of the many political and religious divides and conflicts over them. Do not all of these represent failed communication? If two people have a conflict in their ideas of the world, it seems that at least one is wrong and there should be some explanation that could move them to agree. To "agree-to-disagree" is ultimately just a patch, and it may be an expensive one.
We are prone to falling in love with our ideas and break-ups with them can be painful. Simply hearing information that runs in the face of them can bring unpleasant sensations to our experience. I suspect that this capacity for bias runs so deep that it sabotages attempts by ourselves and others to cut through it. We instinctively become less interested and more prone to distraction when we encounter them.
Wanting to hold onto certain ideas, to continue to view the world in a certain way involves a cognitive dissonance. Hiding away from evidence that one's views may be incorrect means that you worry that they may be. Do we really believe what we are telling ourselves we believe?
I believe that many of our failures to communicate are because we are unwilling to be understood (and therefore able to be criticised).
A heuristic I like to apply is to always talk about the reasons you take a proposition to be true, never try to adapt it to fit what you believe are the other person's values (which are just more beliefs).
I have recently for the first time read the seemingly timeless essay Politics and the English Language by the legendary George Orwell. It is not very long, I highly recommend you do so too. You can read it fairly easily in a single sitting.
It seems to me like we have a causal chain here:
The way we all use language impacts how we think, how we think impacts how we run the world.
Politics and how we use our language are inseparable — and the attempt to bring about social change through language — isn't anything new.
Let me share a few quotes from the essay:
"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable'"
This essay was published in 1946 and this point still resonates. Argumentum ad fascism — simply calling an idea or person fascist — still seems to work to some degree of success (I made the phrase up just now).
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."
Consider how the terms corporeal punishment, transfer of population and pacification sound compared to what they actually mean...
"Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give appearance of solidity to pure wind."
Next time you are exposed to political language, see if you can cut through these attempts and express what is said in layman's terms.
From what I understand China would like to reintegrate Hong Kong into its regime. This would mean that citizens of Hong Kong would be subject to the rules of the mainland and to being punished in the same way. I hear that due to overpopulated prisons, China is happy to execute criminals by firing squad.
Under much of the political language, it seems that the Chinese government's end game involves being able to bind civilians to laws they may not agree with the threat of death...
I honestly barely know anything about this situation. I am only thinking out loud here. Do you know much about it? Is there anything I should know?
I have also started reading Karl Popper's Conjectures and Refutations to develop a firm grasp of his epistemology and understand the mystery of how we can claim to know anything at all. As such, I am postponing the writing of my article another month. The new aim is by the end of September.
I will be putting out a different piece before then... one a little more related to the content of this email. I hope you enjoy it when it's ready.
Thanks for reading to the end of another email.