Thursday, December 6, 2012

Language, power and the nature of truth.

Language is a social construct for the transfer of meaning. It is emphatically not a social construct that decides meaning. If it does, when it does, that meaning is entirely arbitrary, devoid of reality and grounded only in the assumptions, prejudices, intellectual baggage and emotional attachments of the group involved. Change the membership of that group, or change the context, and the network of personal meanings dissolves like the dew-soaked gossamer of a morning spider-web.

Those who operate as if the latter proposition were true are condemned to argue endlessly over the meanings of words, rather than searching for the right words to communicate a precise meaning. Their search for meaning will never end, can never end, as every new abstraction, opinion, or random interjection changes the 'meaning' of everything that has gone before. Every new input expands the range of 'sub-meanings' words carry until they become overloaded and lose the boundaries they need to retain their shape, substance and value in communication. 

In social terms, meaning = context divided by perspective. The context contains all the possible meanings of a situation. But those meanings are latent, insubstantial, they do not exist a priori. Without perspective there is no actual, factual, concrete meaning.* Because meanings are uniquely human, they only exist in people. Meaning only exists in human consciousness; sensual, intellectual and emotional, which makes up the semantic (and moral) frameworks of individual human beings. Only people make meanings**. 

The idea that truth is a social construct is a false idol, a proposition that excludes both hard reality and the vital metaphysics of collective wisdom. There are absolute truths, things that are true whether we like them or not. The earth goes round the sun. The moon directs the ocean's tides. There are also personal truths, things true only for ourselves, aspects of our unique individual nature that evolve and crystallise over time, often becoming apparent only after years of maturity. 

But  genuine social truth is a distillation of collective knowledge of reality and acquired personal wisdom. It's not a construct we can all agree on, an arbitrary Venn diagram of mutual agreement. It's a refinement, a truth which  stands up to the toughest tests we can put it to, a polished gem abraded by interrogation and analysis, faceted by cutting away flaws, falsehoods and illusions, comforting or otherwise, until light passes through it illuminating beauty, symmetry and durability.

And unless we have a robust, comprehensive and precise mechanism for expressing and elucidating the meanings of what we perceive we are at a loss for such collective understandings, and thus for a basis for concrete actions that affect reality in ways that we can understand as being meaningful and genuine in whatever context

That robust, comprehensive and precise mechanism is language. 

Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar described a three level model of language. Our words rest upon a surface structure, a mental model of reality, which in turn is derived from a deep structure of experience - the totality of personal experience, both internal and external, that creates and informs the complete range of personal meanings we carry.

Those with a limited or ill-constructed vocabulary, poor spelling, inadequate grammar, syntax, logic and rhetorical skills are crippled in communicating from their own experience and meaning frame. They lack the tools to discern and discriminate, to draw from their 'deep structure' with clarity and integrity. They are equally crippled in understanding what others communicate to them. They do not have the ability to accurately receive meaning, lacking the words necessary to assess, classify, contemplate and reflect.

While we can think in pictures or tones or even tastes we can only communicate with precision if we think in words. Those who distrust language, those who have been taught that 'language = reality', and that language is malleable and therefore reality is malleable are left both without a firm place to stand, and a lever of words with which to move the world.

The power of the bureaucrat.

The power of the bureaucrat is the power of words. A bureaucrat uses words not to decide meaning but to direct, limit and control energy and action. Meaning for the bureaucrat is of secondary import, whether he is a government mandarin or a business executive. 

Anyone who has sat in a room full of social workers*** arguing the toss over this word or that in framing a Mission Statement, a Vision or a Strategic Purpose document knows that ultimately the meaning of whichever words or phrases win out will be lost. The discussion may be heated and passionate and the determination to reach the precise and agreed meaning of the text may continue ad nauseam. But the longer this goes on the more individuals find the discussion moving further from their own understandings, from their own 'deep structure'. Eventually they withdraw their energy and emotional investment until their personal commitment is gone. The words are on the whiteboard, but they are dead. They are connected to so few people's meaning frames that they have no value. They have no meaning and arouse no interest in most of the people involved.

The bureaucrat rarely engages or puts much store in such exercises beyond preventing the inclusion of any form of words which directly limits his capacity to determine what happens next. Meaning is for philosophers. Vision Statements are for idealists or consultants. The real purpose of language for the bureaucrat is to allow or deny access to resources, to shape, direct or control action and to limit delegation of the power to decide. For him language is a functional tool, with specific forms and styles to suit any context it's true, but always with a purpose, a role, a prescription for reality. Bureaucratic language shapes action, and therefore shapes the world.

Turns out I did learn something after 30 years in the public sector.

* In terms of the equation above, if P = 0 then the whole equation = 0.

** Ask any animal. Wild animals make no meanings. They engage with reality without reflection on such abstractions. Domesticated animals only make meanings from the cues they receive from humans. They react only in animal ways unless we teach them patterns of behaviour that ape human meanings.

*** It's not that social workers are worse than other people. Some of my best friends etc.. They just have such a finely tuned sense of inequality, injustice and personal attachment, coupled with sophisticated language skills, that they are uniquely skilled in arguing for a principle until they end up flogging a dead horse.

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