Tag Archives: language

What kind of work are we doing?

I’m currently contemplating the language of work, and whether it is in any way possible to decouple that from the concepts of capitalism. Work is intrinsic to capitalism, the whole system is built on the underpaid work and on the unpaid work that the poorest in society are obliged to do.

There are all kinds of things I do that involve effort, commitment and high standards that are not part of capitalism. I wonder how useful it is to tease these different kinds of work out from each other. I think it’s important to assert at the same time that there’s a great deal of unpaid work – domestic work and caring work especially, that are key to keeping capitalism grinding along. These unpaid forms of work are often undervalued in a system that only values people based on what they earn. Domestic work and care work are vital for the wellbeing of people, these aren’t just services provided to the economy.

Sometimes we talk about spiritual work. Anything that feels difficult and important, where we have to put in effort, it can be tempting to describe it in terms of work. We might put work into developing our skills, or into sustaining our relationships. We might work on creating community, and we might work on creating beauty. Work in the vegetable patch, or work on a blanket all have value in our lives, and some of these things will save us money even when they don’t get us paid.

I need to work on taking time off! What a splendid irony. And yet, with my brain infiltrated by capitalist concepts, putting that down is a job of itself. I note how we also use the language of work and jobs to express feelings about things we feel obliged to do but take no joy in. Perhaps that’s a key point for considering language use.

I’m going to have a play around with my own language use and see what happens. Perhaps I should think of some of this as investing in myself. There are places I can swap in words like development, creating, maybe even manifesting. I think it’s important territory to explore, because the words we use have such an impact on how we experience ourselves and the world. There would be a lot of perspective shifts happening between working on myself, and investing in myself and those terms suggest entirely different directions to move in.


At the limits of language

Traditionally speaking, language is the bard’s tool. Even if we aren’t being deliberately bardic, language is a key part of how most humans get most things done. It’s also an incredibly limited tool to use in some ways, especially English which is a terrible language for anyone trying to talk about complex emotions. Just having the one word for love is extremely limiting for a start.

For some purposes, the kind of writing I’m doing in this post is the best way to get things done. I’m aiming for clarity and I’m talking about the kinds of concepts that are pretty easy to talk about. When it comes to spiritual experiences, it can be very hard to find words with enough power to express what’s happened.

I could, with regards to yesterday’s blog post, have written a more coherent description of what happened. But I don’t think I could have done that without sacrificing the impact. The intensity of the experience is at least as important as the events – and without conveying that, none of it makes sense. I can tell you that I’ve had an intense experience, but that probably won’t be enough to make you empathise much – unless something similar has happened to you.

Talking about magic and deity with people who have similar experiences is easier because you can assume they have some idea what you’re talking about. But even in that context, it isn’t easy. Trying to talk to anyone who doesn’t share your frames of reference can be hard.

Poetry doesn’t work for everyone. It requires that you think in a different way to dealing with prose.It’s a side step from everyday language and reality, and sometimes that can really help when trying to express the kinds of things that regular language just can’t handle.


Privilege and slavery

The language of slavery is something to be incredibly careful with. It’s not something to use casually, or as a metaphor. It’s really not ok to describe things as slavery that really definitely aren’t slavery – doing so undermines the meaning of the word, which in turn may cause people to take the whole idea less seriously. 

It’s important to talk about historical slavery and the ongoing impact that has in the world – both for those who remain disadvantaged and damaged by its impact on their ancestors, and for those who continue to benefit from the profits their families made. 

There are other historical, oppressive systems that were horrible – indentured servitude being an obvious case in point. It’s not equivalent to Black experiences of slavery in America and people who want to talk about it on those terms often have a racist agenda, so it’s worth being clear that these are not the same thing. If a person who has entered this kind of contract is constantly facing new debt sources so that they can never escape from their ‘employer’ then we’re looking at something a lot closer to slavery. Very bad working conditions are not the same as slavery, but both historically and in the present there are those who truly push those lines.

Modern slavery exists and is defined in terms of being forced to do unpaid work. This often goes alongside human trafficking and organised crime. People who aren’t legally in a country, and who have no recourse to support are exploited hideously. I will never forget the Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe bay who died in 2004, killed for someone else’s profits. Disregard for life is one of the hallmarks of slavery. 

There is a grey area when it comes to people who are forced, through poverty into work that pays them so poorly they can never escape from it and that compromises their health – to a potentially fatal degree. A risky job where efforts are made to protect you is entirely different. However, if you could change job, if you have prospects, if you aren’t at risk of death then ‘wage slave’ isn’t a good term to use. Being trapped in oppressive capitalism is vile, but it isn’t slavery. Being owned by a company or a person so that you can only do what they permit you to do in all aspects of your life, is slavery. If you can choose, and if you can leave, you aren’t a slave.

Most importantly on the personal level, we need to stop describing ourselves as ‘slaving’ over things. We aren’t. Plenty of other, better language exists to describe hard work, considerable effort, personal suffering and discomfort. If what we’re talking about looks at all like a first world problem, a middle class problem, or a minor discomfort alongside our privilege, we should not be describing it in terms of slavery at all.


Teaching the cat new words

Dogs are fairly open to commands and can be taught to do what they’re told to quite an impressive degree. Cats, less so. It’s not that cats don’t understand words – they are smart and can figure out meanings. They just aren’t motivated to please and obey in the same way.

All creatures have a better shot at language if you use the same phrases or words to signify the same things, and you keep it short. For some time now, Mr Anderson has understood many words pertaining to cat food and cat treats. He understands ‘cat go out?’ as meaning we’re going to put him on his lead. ‘Cat go down?’ is a question for when he’s being carried. He prefers to be carried out and walk back, most of the time, and it is helpful to remind him when we’re heading for home.

Saying ‘no’ to a cat is pointless. They hear you, but they are seldom that concerned about what you want if it doesn’t align with what they want. In recent weeks I’ve been working on the phrase ‘bad idea’. I say it when I think something isn’t going to go well for him, and I reinforce it by saying it when he makes a bad choice and it doesn’t play out well – usually this involves Mr Anderson having made unreasonable assumptions about how physics won’t impact on him. Saying ‘bad idea’ doesn’t get him not to do a thing, but increasingly I see him pause, and reconsider. Sometimes he changes his mind. Sometimes he clearly fancies picking a fight with physics and does the thing anyway.

Much of this has applications for people, too. It’s worth thinking about how individual people use language, what kind of language they respond to and what actually motivates them. Most people are far more like cats than like dogs. If you can find a way of communicating that engages them in the right way, what it is possible to communicate changes dramatically.


Stealing the surface of science

“Our trials show that when people make contact with light encoded information at a quantum level with the support of … applications they can access optimal states of wholeness.” (text from an actual website trying to sell a magical machine.)

There’s a lot of this sort of thing out there. There’s a sort of illusion of science that the author of the above text is trying to conjure. Trials, quantum, applications, optimal states – it’s a language that is supposed to sound sciencey, to validate something that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual science.

I note a lot of the same approaches come up around conspiracy theories, and anti-vaxx material. Often the sources are trying to debunk actual science while trying to present their pseudo-science as more scientific than actual science done by scientists. It’s a process that depends on an audience who dislike authority and don’t know much about how science works. Thus you can end up with people persuaded that vaccines are unsafe because they are made by Big Pharma, and that horse de-wormer cures covid, which it doesn’t. Also, horse de-wormers are made by Big Pharma.

It’s difficult to know what to do in face of all of this. When you’re dealing with people who feel they can make contact with light encoded information at a quantum level… but who could not explain what ‘quantum’ actually means, rational argument is a non-starter. We’re not speaking the same language here, and the language itself is intrinsic to the whole process. 

If I read something that claims to be science, there are key words and concepts I’m looking for. I want to know what the actual data was, how the tests were organised, what kinds of numbers of people/other things were involved. I want to be offered the raw data and the methodology used to get to that data. I will be more reassured if the conclusions include some thoughts about how or where the conclusions might be flawed or in need of further research. The language of uncertainty is the language of science. I’m looking for evidence, probability, possible interpretations of the data. If I read about truth, proof, and any kind of absolute I know I’m dealing with a fraud. 

The trouble is that certainty is more persuasive, especially if you don’t habitually speak the language of uncertainty. The person who tells you that they have Proof that a thing is Real and you have been Lied To is more emotionally convincing than the person who tells you that you have 67% less chance of suffering serious side effects and that the long term implications are unclear. We like certainty and we like to feel in control. Unfortunately, being certain and wrong makes you a very long way from being in control. 

I wonder how much odds it would make if we spent more time in school learning about risk and personal outcomes in relation to probability, research stats and so forth. We’re not usually taught science and maths in ways that help us understand how, and when to take the numbers seriously in a personal way. Leaving it to chance whether a person can extrapolate from data or tell snake-oil from science doesn’t seem like a good idea, to me.


Madness and language

For some years now I’ve been exploring my own language use to try and weed out inadvertent abelism. For example, like a lot of people, I’d been in the habit of using blindness to refer to things people refuse to see, are willfully oblivious to, or are unable to recognise because of cultural and personal biases. This brought up all sorts of interesting things as well for how often I default to writing ‘see’ rather than a more inclusive ‘perceive’ or ‘experience’. I’m keen to tighten up my language use so as to be more precise, and to avoid abelism.

I’m trying to be more alert to the way in which language that criticises people for low intelligence or lack of education is used to attack people who make deliberately bad choices. One of the things this does aside from demeaning people with learning difficulties is to draw attention away from deliberateness.

Madness is proving to be a tricky one to figure out. As a person with ongoing mental health problems, the only time I find madness language offensive is when a white man kills people and the media jump straight in with ‘he must have mental health problems.’ There are certainly issues around using the language of madness to flag up disagreement. It’s much more effective to call out a person’s reasoning if that’s the actual problem. It’s also important to be careful with people whose thinking has been distorted by gaslighting – there’s a lot of that out there right now. People with poor critical thinking skills who have been extensively exposed to lies can end up with a really distorted sense of reality. It’s important to talk about what that is – calling them mad makes it sound like a personal issue, not a deliberate thing that’s been done to them.

The difficulty with madness is that there’s a glorious side to it. It’s been part of our literary traditions for a long time, and overlaps heavily with religious experience. I have been told that the difference between shamanism and madness is that the shaman goes deliberately and comes back at the time of their choosing. Some of us actively seek madness in substances, in extreme activities that bring on different states of consciousness, perhaps even in meditation. I knew someone once who drove himself clinically mad with excessive meditation practices.

Ecstatic experiences and insanity can be hard to tell apart. Inspiration, the fire in the head can feel like madness if it hits hard. To most people, belief in magic is itself madness. I find it problematic when other people use the language of madness to belittle spiritual experiences. The numinous is not rational.

I’m also aware that romanticising madness is really problematic. For many people experiencing mental health problems, the reality is hellish. Misery and the inability to act are more likely outcomes than literally or metaphorically being away with the fairies. The wild upswings of mania can seem fabulous while a person is experiencing them, but can prove life destroying. 

Madness is the state of not being engaged with consensus reality. We don’t really have a separate language for the people who have sought that deliberately. I am reminded of the bit in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell where a person seeking insight into fairy distills madness into the body of a mouse and then makes mouse water from the body, and drinks it. Choosing to drink the mousewater is a very different experience from falling apart organically, even if the look of it is similar.


Non-violent language

There are times for violence of course, when it is the only means to protect yourself, and when it is the only way to prevent harm. In our everyday lives, violent language is common, and well meaning people use it without considering what it might do. By violent language, I mean language intended or likely to threaten, to humiliate, to silence and frighten people. Non-violent language may be neutral, and in instances of conflict intends to engage, educate, enable and empower.

No one is persuaded to change their views by being attacked. Approaches that depend on abusing someone over their appearance or nature persuade no one. They may shut down the recipient, or they may entrench them in their position and further fuel the conflict. Non-violent expression talks about ideas. The non violent approach would look like saying ‘here is the evidence I find persuasive’ and not ‘everyone who thinks differently from me is an idiot.’

It’s worth noting that violent speech is often also ableist speech. It tends to use words suggestive of intellectual impairment. Language that attacks disabled people is often used to attempt to humiliate the people on the other side of the argument. Violent speech can be fat-shaming – we saw this a fair bit with Trump. It can be sexist – attacking men and male-presenting people for being feminine in some way. Whether this is seen by the target or not is uncertain, especially online. It’s worth remembering that any such comments will however be seen by your friends, some of whom will be hurt by this kind of language.

How we use language, matters. This is a basic tenet of the bard path. I get really frustrated when people say things they don’t mean, lash out carelessly in anger, and hurt their own causes by alienating others with divisive language. Writing in anger it can be all too easy to perpetuate injustice in the ways I’ve described above. The best way to avoid this is to practice non-violent language in a deliberate way at times when things are less loaded and fraught.

Consider the impact of saying ‘we’ over saying ‘you’. If I’m talking about an issue and I say ‘we need to do better than this’ the odds are you aren’t going to feel attacked. You might feel uncomfortable, but you know I’m talking about something we all need to work on to change. I’m careful around making it explicit when I want to undermine systems. So I’ll talk about patriarchy and dismantling it. I want to talk about what we can do together to dismantle white supremacy. I want us to replace capitalism with something kinder. I want to inspire you to feel that you can help fix things, not attack you for being part of something that wasn’t your fault. I want to expose how privilege works, not attack you for the privilege you did not know you had.

This is an area of constant learning for me. I’m particularly interested in figuring out how to talk in ways that allow people to go into difficult topics and uncomfortable spaces in order to make real change. I’m also giving serious thought to what I do with people who deliberately or carelessly use violent language to dominate conversations and shut other people down. Or, I think in some cases because they wrongly imagine they are being brave, championing their cause and being good allies. Aggressive allies often cause more harm than good. It’s important not to tone police people who are in distress and experiencing rage, but at the same time this is too often used as an excuse by people who claim to be allies but whose main function is to hut and disrupt, and deepen divides. At present I have little idea what to do with this except to flag up that it exists.


How do you make me feel?

Recently I’ve been exploring my own use of the word ‘make’ and how that small word influences my relationships. How do I make you feel? How am I made to feel? Where are the edges around personal responsibility?

Manipulative and controlling people will try and make you feel things. So will people who are trying to cheer you up. Sometimes, we’re very deliberate about the impact we want to have. It bothers me a lot when people try to define feelings as wholly the responsibility of the person feeling them. It doesn’t always work that way. However, if we let people ‘make us’ feel things, or we don’t look closely enough at our responsibilities, that’s also an issue. People who are violent so often blame the person who ‘made them do it’ rather than recognising their own lack of self control.

I’ve been playing about with my own language use. It’s interesting to say ‘this is what I want to inspire in you’ rather than ‘make’. What I really want to do most of the time doesn’t involve making anyone do or feel anything. I want to enable and facilitate. I want to encourage and support. The language shift is helpful for directing my attention towards the kinds of spaces I hold for people and what that facilitates, and away from me taking inappropriate responsibility for how I ‘make people feel’. 

At the same time it’s opening up conversations about what other people around me might make, or not have to make. I don’t want anyone feeling like it’s their responsibility to make me happy. I want space where there is room for happiness, and where people can share joyful things and uplift each other. 

Words are powerful. Words are the basis of magic and spells. They are also how we hold the shapes of our thoughts and intentions. Sometimes a small language shift can open up large areas of possibility and exploration. 


Druidry, language and imposter syndrome

How often do you see a creative person talking about imposter syndrome? Too often. Because we’re not really supposed to blow our own trumpets, be proud of what we do or confident about putting our work into the world. Why is this a Druid issue? Because boasting was part of what our Celtic ancestors did. Because language matters. Because creativity and inspiration are part of the modern bard path. A culture of encouraging people to feel like imposters isn’t healthy.

If you create, in any way, you are a creator. If you write, then you are writer. If you draw or paint, you’re an artist and so on and so forth. The measure of being the thing is whether you do it, and you are also allowed to have breaks from doing the thing without that undermining your identity. If you are doing the things, you cannot be an imposter.

It’s not about how good you are. No matter how good you are, there will always be people who don’t like what you do and people who think you are a bit shit. They are not the measure of your worth.

If you don’t do the things, and claim the title, then feeling like an imposter might be a reasonable issue to have. If you call yourself a Druid but never do anything you can identify as druidic, that would be a problem. If you call yourself a bard, but have never learned a song, or a story, or a tune, never make anything, never do anything to bring beauty and inspiration to the world, then you may in fact be an imposter. The answer to this is to do something.

The other answer, is praise. This again is a very bardic activity and it goes with the boasting culture. Praise extravagantly, praise often, praise with passion and conviction. Get in there and tell people how great they are. Visibly admire stuff. Actively support the people who are able to say good things about their own work. Talk in positive ways about your own work so as to model this for other people. Take pride in who you are and what you do in ways that will help other people feel able to do the same.

No one who is doing the work should feel like an imposter. No one should feel that they have to say they feel like a fake – we really need to avoid having a culture of people not being allowed to respect themselves. If you do need to express discomfort, find other and better words. It is ok to be having a shit day. It is ok to say this piece of work isn’t going the way you want it to. It is ok to say you haven’t done the things in a while and this is impacting on your sense of self. It is ok to be uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable does not mean you are invalid.


Language, Culture, Celts

Let me start by saying that this is a speculative blog post. I’m a dabbler, not a historian and I am not qualified to hold much of an opinion on this subject! So, I’m just sharing some things that occurred to me, that might, or might not be meaningful.

Nomadic hunter gatherer people tend not to go in for writing. Writing calls for kit, and storing writing clearly isn’t ideal if you’d have to heft it all about with you. People who need to travel lightly tend to have oral cultures and depend on memory. Nothing controversial there.

Writing seems to go with keeping records. I’m not aware of any instances where we think a culture started writing because it wanted to keep its poems for posterity! Written records become necessary when you want to keep track of ownership and/or debt. If wealth is held in common, you don’t need records. You might need records in a larger and more complex community that is sharing resources – you might want to track that to understand what happens. So at the very least, writing represents organised and self conscious social structures, probably.

It’s very difficult to have tax without written records. It’s difficult to keep track of debt, or tithing or any other system where ownership and contribution are related. These can of course be very good things in a culture, making systems to share out the goods. But at the same time you can’t have functioning hierarchies without some kind of paperwork. Arguably the difference between a barbarian horde and a colonial project is whether you can follow through with accountants and tax the people you just rampaged over.

This leaves me with some interesting thoughts about the Celts. What are the implications of the Celts not having a written language? What does it mean about their social structures? How much of our sense of them as a hierarchical community depends on them having been depicted that way by the Romans, and by those later writing down their stories? The stories we have are full of Kings and nobles. But is that a fair reflection of Celtic peoples in Europe, or of their systems of interacting with each other? Here I am speculating, but I think it’s worth wondering about what the absence of writing might suggest.