You Do Not Own Language

No one does.  

At some point humans decided to communicate with each other, sometimes using mouth sounds, sometimes making marks on surfaces.  We’re still playing around with it.  Importantly, it’s a cooperative activity. Communication requires multiple people.  Unless you’re having a conversation with yourself trying to peel back the endless layers of your soul.

We try to have some shared understanding of the ideas represented by the words we’re using. But we are all so different – and so fucking complicated – that we’re likely to have variations in our understandings.

When we want to communicate and share ideas with someone else, we want to make sure we have a shared understanding of what we’re trying to represent with the words we’re using.  If a person interprets a word or words we use in a way we did not intend, we may attempt to further explain our understandings of the words we are using and how we believe those understandings relate to one another.  In order to move forward, the person we are communicating with must have the desire to understand our ideas, and this may involve considering new or different interpretations of the words we use.  But if someone decides they don’t want to accept your understanding of the words you’re using, they’re not going to consider any of the ideas you’re trying to share. And that’s a shame. 

Suppose two people are talking.  One tells the other that they “don’t enjoy taking notes”.  The other hasn’t heard the phrase “taking notes” used that way before and gets confused.  They think the word “taking” means that you are removing something from somewhere else.  Why would this person be “taking” notes?  From where? From whom? They express their confusion, and the first person explains that “taking notes” is used to mean ‘writing down what is being heard or read’.  Imagine if the second person was frustrated by this and refused to listen to the remainder of the other person’s thought just because they didn’t want to accept a different interpretation of those words?

I’ve seen situations similar to this many times.  The people who refuse to accept different interpretations of language from the ones they have already gotten used to – these often seem to be people who feel that their perspective is ‘the norm’, the standard of ‘rationality’, perhaps even superior…the people who are used to being listened to and perhaps not as used to listening.  These are people whom society, including many of the people’s they interact with, have sent a message that their voices are ones that are always heard.  They read stories and watch movies by and about and about people that look like them and have similar experiences to their own.  They see people in positions of ‘authority’ who look like them and have similar experiences to their own.  These things may contribute to someone feeling that their perspective and their voice are important.  There’s nothing wrong with believing your perspective and your voice are important.  There’s something wrong with believing they’re more important than everyone else’s.

And I’ve seen that attitude plenty of times.  I’ve seen people express ideas worthy of contemplation and discussion only to be shamed by a person who doesn’t really want to communicate.  When approached by a perspective that doesn’t mirror their own experiences – when addressed with language that might confuse them – they don’t ask questions.  They feel no responsibility to learn about different interpretations and perspectives.  They shame others for not fitting into their own understanding.  They shame anyone who uses language in a way they’re not used to hearing.  They try to squash different perspectives and ideas.

It is these different perspectives and ideas which must be brought to life through language and behaviors.  These which are often squashed, are some of the only tools any of us have to work against oppression by those who would have us feel that certain voices matter more than others.

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