Speaking Ourselves into Being and Others into Silence: The Power of Language

an image from behind the looming silhouette of the word, "Libertyville" astride a hillside overlooking a city at night.

Weaving back in a short poem to start our post:

The Influence Unseen of the Words We Use to Be

Part I: The Acculturation of the Mind

There is a fertile topsoil we are born with in our brains, imprinted by the interplay of sights and sounds and movement of those who interact with us. This immersive communicative theater, felt first in the womb, roots itself within the immediacy of each moment, even while gesturing at distant realms yet unknown. Climbing towards this mystery with our tongues and thoughts and technology bends the world toward our needs, and allows us to project our inner selves into the past and future. We ride rivers and build highways across our brains. This is our cultural inheritance, our storied legacy of language and literacy.

Part II: The Shadowed Underbelly of Words

Yet this glorified development harbors dissonance as well, darker truths of the animal and spirit world we project beyond ourselves and thus, distort. As we entangle each other in our webs of words, we may mirror and magnify influences unseen, that inarticulate undertow of us vs. them. When we summon forth our disgust and anger at someone or something else and wrap them into words until our vision becomes blinded, we may become its prisoners, trapped in the enchantment of language itself. As Alicia lived in the interlocution of the pages, the chatter of our minds can lead us unto rifts within. Do animals go mad, other than when rabies infects their brains? Language, in this sense, is viral, amplifying our extremes while shrouding our ensnarement. We can paint a veneer of progress over the denatured scars we leave behind.

The Deceptive Power of Language

In our last post, we ended with the suggestion that our enhanced language and literacy abilities may also occlude our connections with our wiser selves or with our natural world. This deceptive power of language is a fear that Plato raised long ago. In The Republic, Plato argued that poetry is a mere imitation of nature, and thus, inferior. Yet in this shallow deception lay great power, for the poet, through the use of melody, rhythm, and other “ingenious devices,” could take advantage of the irrational “weakness of the human mind. . . having an effect upon us like magic.” He therefore recommended that poets be banned from his ideal republic.

Echoes of these fears can be heard in The Kekulé Problem by Cormac McCarthy, in which he notes that the “unconscious is a machine for operating an animal,” and in fact “that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesnt much like language and even that it doesnt trust it.”

In The Language Game: How Improvisation Created Language and Changed the World, by Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater, which we explored earlier in Language—like reading—may not be innate, they similarly note that language has evolved, and continues to evolve, far more rapidly than our brain architecture and biology can, and thus that there is something about the viral, statistical nature of language itself that has been culturally shaped for learnability to fit the human brain and continue to be passed on across generations.

One of the arguments I’ve been making through this series is that language and literacy development enhances and extends our innate capacities. Yet as with any technology that brings greater power, linguistic or literary enhancements may also be abused or misused. Any study of human herd phenomenon and its correlation to the exposure to and use of dehumanizing or manipulative words, such as bullying, propaganda, or mass killings can demonstrate this. One of the fears that accompanies AI is this very misuse of the manipulative properties of language.

We’ve explored some dimensions of this previously when we explored the enchantment that the stories we tell can have over us, such that when accepted uncritically, they can lead us to acts that would be absolutely horrific to our more rational or empathetic selves if we had not erected blinders around our own mind’s eyes and heart’s understanding. Those blinders are most likely erected and reinforced by the linguistic environment we exist within and the words we unconsciously use.

Bringing Critical Consciousness to Language

And it is here that this tension between our unconscious and language may be unpacked a little further from McCarthy’s pithy description (“the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal”) – for it may be that the more consciousness and rationality we can bring to our use of language, the more we can work to reduce the influence of harmful assumptions or generalizations; conversely, the more we internalize or use language unconsciously and uncritically, the more we may subject ourselves and others to harm.

There are a couple of lines of evidence that may reinforce this idea that are worth pursuing:

  1. By distancing ourselves from our own selves by using third-person language, we can better empower ourselves to tackle psychological or emotional obstacles. Source: Stepping Outside of Ourselves to Help Ourselves
  2. Similarly, by learning to speak another language, we can improve our decision-making and better cope with strong emotions when we switch between languages. Source: ‘I couldn’t believe the data’: how thinking in a foreign language improves decision-making

Beyond language, finding a way to maintain peaceful communion with our own unconscious may also be an important counterbalance. Meditation, hiking, running, music, and many other such disciplines are methods of allowing our inner chatter to simmer down to the point where we can gain momentary glimpses of what it means to stand outside of it.

Furthermore, there may be something we gain in terms of well-being, health, and learning simply from exposure to and immersion in natural environments and tree canopy, as we’ve explored in The Influence of Greenery on Learning. Our increasing detachment from and destruction of a world inhabited by a diversity of animal and plant life speaks to this non-linguistic need – while at the same time, we are struggling to find the collective language that we need to re-connect to and value our beautiful planet. If we can find a way to connect our language to the world we live in without blinding ourselves–or allowing ourselves to be blinded by those who would capitalize off of our ignorance–then there will be hope for the future of our species, and that of many other species.

#language #literacy #unconscious #innate #developed #narrative #deception #manipulation