What you see depends on what you think – David Bohm
As much as we’d like to pigeon language as something that is descriptive and separate from the real thing, it is actually much more than that – words create reality, we hide behind words, and we move mountains with words.
A quarter of a century ago (!!) I started listening to public radio – aligned with my time of being a new driver, and therefore having utter freedom with the radio dial. The listening was a heady blur (all these *important news items* – what to focus on!?!), one thing I never forgot was all the new words I was learning….the word salad was something like this:
Today I have a similar experience, where I try to make sense of the news of the day, and truly parse it. Language can be so incredibly persuasive, and at times totally not accurate. It doesn’t surprise me that later in life my hero became Noam Chomsky – someone who has dedicated his life to linguistics and visualizing the shape of world politics according to that.
Of late the news of Ferguson, Missouri comes to mind – listening to white and black folks talk about “the right to live”, “black versus white issues” the “right to mourn”, etc is filled with incredibly powerful language. The powerful language does a couple of things – it creates a barrier to entry and it sets up a facade that doesn’t really speak to the complex and ambiguous issues around what ultimately happened that day Michael Brown was unlawfully killed, the important details of a long history of race in America, and the strange tendency we have as humans to hail from a “tribe”.
I’ve been especially blown away by the language used by white peers that include, on no uncertain terms, as white people we are not allowed to have an opinion on the matter. Angry white people telling “whities” to be quiet. Yikes.
Grounds for dialog needs to be safe – safe to ask questions, safe to be heard, safe to listen. Not a firing squad of racial slurs in any direction. It is only through communication that perceptions can be erased. If I’m not allowed to explore the issue/ask questions, then I will always be considered the “privileged white person”. If a black person is not allowed to have their clear and calm voice heard on public radio then they continue to be perceived as the “angry black person who resists becoming a cop because of the absolutely terribly perception they have of those figures of authority”.
So where does art fit in all of this? Easy – when we look at the arts, we are making a dialog with things in order to come to a higher understanding of the way things work. We look at art to make connections, and not to draw lines in the sand. The first thing a therapist will tell you is that open dialog – continual communication in and out – is the only way to heal and to break out of the old ways of seeing and doing. If you can’t have a dialog with the art, the person, the tree then you will turn into cement.
In the spirit of not becoming cement-like termites, I dare you to have a dialog with a black, white, yellow or pink person – whatever you consider the “other” – and have that conversation as if you were respectfully looking at a Rothko painting. Some of you will be perplexed, some will look and listen soulfully, some will laugh nervously and share stories till common ground arises, and some will simply listen and take it in with no judgement. In having this kind of conversation with someone I promise you will learn that they are not the other, and they are simply part of the whole just like you – you will look for the connections and they’ll come up easily.
Let’s try a word salad that looks more like this, and here’s hoping public radio will sound like this one day:
Understanding one another is the key to growth – remember to choose your words wisely. xo
Tagged: Catherine Haley Epstein, David Bohm, dialog, Ferguson, Michael Brown, Missouri, Noam Chomsky, Perception, power of language, public radio, Word power
Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune. -Noam Chomsky
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