05 August, 2005

On Language

I drove to Fort Leavenworth the other day to have a reevaluation done on my state of mind. Every year or so they reevaluate me to see if I can go back on active duty or if I should remain out to pasture. Ironically, they found that I was still not sane enough to go back to killing people.

I had to go there relatively early. It wasn’t early in the soldierly sense, because I still got to sleep til after sunrise, but it was early in the college student in-between-semesters sense, because I still had to get up before noon. I had to leave here by 0700 in order to make it there for a 0900 appointment. I hate driving during that time, because there is nothing on but morning talk shows.

I don’t know who decided that people at that time of the morning would rather hear inane drivel than some music to perk them up for their day, but they didn’t ask me. I don’t like listening to people talk if they don’t have anything to say. This sounds odd coming from my lips, because I will talk your ear off if I get the chance, and verbosity is my great weakness when writing. I use a lot of words, I tell myself, because I try to be very precise. Though I may use more words than necessary, it is because I feel that what I am saying is important, and I do not wish to be misunderstood.

The proper combination of words can make the meaning of our sentences clear or unclear. Orwell said that "the great enemy of clear language was insincerity." I know how Madison Avenue muddies up the language, as well as the spin doctors in DC, so I try very diligently to not muddy up my communication. I do this so that I can bitch about Madison Avenue and the spin doctors without feeling hypocritical. Heinlein had a type of character in some of his books that was called a Fair Witness. This person could only speak the absolute Truth as certifiable by them. It was a discipline to keep assumptions out of their language. For instance, in one passage of the book, Stranger in a Strange Land, a Fair Witness is asked about the color of a house. She replies, in all sincerity, "The house is white…on this side." Most people would have likely have said merely that the house is white. The difference is subtle, but certain.

The majority of people would probably make the assumption that the house is white on both sides. Having seen that it is white from this angle, we jump to the conclusion that it is probably white from all the other angles. We are geared this way, I think. We extrapolate. This tendency allows us to make quick decisions without having to wait until all the data is in. When our ancestors saw something stalking them, they did not have to see the whole wolf before they decided to climb a tree. Jumping to conclusions sometimes saves our lives, and so that tendency was reinforced through natural selection.

Jumping to conclusions can save us time, however, only if we jump to the correct conclusion. One of the biggest barriers to communication is when we don’t listen to everything the other person is saying before we start formulating our reply. Even if we do not interrupt the speaker, vocalizing the fact that we are no longer listening, we have made it almost impossible for them to communicate with us. Of course, some times, this is endearing, like when we are so in sync with someone that we can finish each others sentences. Generally, though, I think we jump to the wrong conclusion based upon assumptions that were hastily formulated.

The infantry manual taught me (and Lazarus Long reinforced the idea) to never act without having some sort of a plan, never wait to make a plan until all the information was available (because it will always be lacking), and never fail to incorporate new data into the plan as it become available. What this means to me is that it is necessary to make assumptions in order to act, but one has to maintain an open mind in order to allow new data to be incorporated. Always, always check the facts. Unfortunately, some people seem to make assumptions, and then let their opinion, backed up only by assumption, become as a fact in their mind. They usually answer the question, "How do you know?" with the platitude, "I just know."

When we defend our assumptions without checking the facts, we are engaging in intellectual laziness. We are programming falsehoods into our brains, and as any novice programmer will tell you, Garbage In Garbage Out. We are consciously making it impossible for us to rationally look at the world. In the sense that we create our own reality by the way in which we perceive the universe, we are creating our own little universe which is made up of the lies and half truths we have told ourselves. Were I a religious man, I would posit that it was more insulting to the Lord than merely making a golden calf.

I think, therefor I am. Descartes is attributed with writing that, but he stood on the shoulders of giants. Language has allowed us to increase our knowledge by sharing our thoughts with each other and future generations. Language is the symbology of the abstract, without it we would not be able to consider anything at all, except what was right in front of us. Language is the bus that connects the RAM of our consciousness with the hard drive of our brain, and it is also the world wide web that connects us to everyone else in our universe. Since what we know of the universe outside our immediate environment is dependent upon either the language of others, the language of our memories, or the language of our dreams and contemplations, I consider language to be the basic building block of thought. Language and thought and identity are the holy trinity of self awareness.

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