Tag Archives: language

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.


Ecolinguistcs, a review

 

Ecolinguistics is an academic book by Arran Stibbe, exploring the way in which language underpins how we treat the natural world. I think it’s a brilliant book and heartily recommend it. However, it is expensive, so you might want to look at co-owning one (an ideal solution for study groups and groves). Unfortunately, the ebook version isn’t much cheaper than the paperback. If you can’t afford £30 for a book, there is a free online course that covers much of the same material, but not in the same depth. http://storiesweliveby.org.uk/ I got lucky and picked up a copy during an online sale.

Ecolinguistics is a detailed exploration of how we use language to talk about the world we live in. It’s quite a technical approach, and at times hard work for the non-academic reader. I found I mostly had to take it in small bites. There’s a density of ideas here, too. If you like pondering the intricacies and nuances of language, this a marvellous thing to read. It dissects how different people use language and the effects it has. It gives us the tools to use language differently and to more compassionate ends. This is a deconstruction of how the language of economics, particularly, breeds greed and self interest.

Humans are storytelling creatures. That’s not just about books and tales, but about how we communicate with each other. We tell each other stories about our experiences. Adverts tell us stories, so do newspapers, politicians, think tanks, pressure groups, and the PR teams for big business. The language we are exposed to is part of our environment, and we are all influenced by what we’re exposed to – to some degree. Expose people to the calculating language of animals as stock, landscape as resource, trees as biomass, and we become colder, less caring, less willing to take care of what’s around us.

However the flip side of this is that when we use inclusive language, when our stories place us in a community of beings and in relationship with the land, we become more compassionate. When we tell each other stories of belonging and involvement, we become more generous and open hearted, able to care and to get involved.

For me, this is absolutely what Druidry should be about right now. This is a path that’s always held a balance of human culture and wider nature. Story telling is part of what we do. For me, this book was a massive encouragement to see what a Druidic approach can do. This book gives a person the tools to move from an intention to an evidenced way of working, and the reassurance to know that this kind of approach works. We can make a difference with the stories we tell, and the language we use.

I found Ecolinguistics to be an incredibly inspiring book that has promoted me to do some serious thinking about what I do, how I do it and what value it might have. I’m planning to come back and blog about specific language use that might be interesting to fellow Pagans – ideas about how we talk about the world. I’m also aware of having had my poetry influenced by reading this book, and a clearer set of intentions for that line of writing has come to me as a consequence of it. More of this as it develops.


Changing the words

There’s a relationship between how we think and the words we use, and it’s circular in nature. However, when your culture has habits of language that encourage certain ideas, it can be worth stopping to look at those. When I was a young person, it was totally reasonable to write books in which the assumed reader was male. That puts over a message that women don’t really count.

When we take nature words out of children’s dictionaries to replace them with the language of the internet, that’s both a reflection of what’s going on, and a furthering of it. When we don’t have words to talk about things, those things are harder to share and explain. The words we have and the words we use, matter. They shape our thinking and our interactions, they are the basis of our culture.

I was interested to see PETA challenging some of the animal abuse norms in language recently. I’ve dropped ‘killing two birds with one stone’ from my own way of talking because it’s not what I want to say. They advocated against describing test subjects as guinea pigs, but I’m inclined to go the other way. Let’s be lab rats and test beagles when we are subject to experiments ourselves. It’s a good way of reminding each other that this stuff happens.

Sadly, the PETA alternative phrases were awful and sounded forced and silly. You don’t get meaningful language shifts by dictating in this way. It’s better to open it up and invite people to reconsider and then see what happens. Where the power lies is in looking at habits of speech and what they suggest, and being willing to rethink them. Why do we use animal names as insults? (bitch, catty, cow, mare, bullshit, etc) Why do we call especially nasty humans animals? The idea that animals are inferior to humans is woven through our speech. It’s worth thinking about and watching for.


Framing the horrors

Trigger warnings. Also, I’m going to use a lot of ‘I’ statements in this blog, not all of them are true of me, this is about the language, not personal experience.

How we use language informs how we see our own experiences, how other people use language shapes how we understand them. We may not be consciously analyzing each other’s words, but nuances affect us anyway. It is a method that is used to manipulate people. Cultural habits of speech can entrench values – and not always good or healthy values. How we frame things can prop up power imbalance, abuse of power, disempowering of sets of people and so forth. I think one of my jobs as a bard is to get people thinking about how the words they hear and the words they use change and shape their relationship with reality.

Let’s consider this more specifically.

“I was raped.”

This phrase casts rape as an event that happened to the speaker. It has a similar ring to “a tree branch hit me on the head” or “I had a cold.” The phrasing disappears a number of things. It disappears the rapist as an active player in the events, someone who had a choice, and autonomy, not at all like a falling tree branch. It seems passive, perhaps unavoidable, like the tree branch and the cold. These things just happen.

“A man raped me” is a very different statement, foregrounding the deliberate action of an individual. Something done to the victim, not an accident, not a falling tree.

We use all the same terms of phrase for other acts of violence and sexual assault. I was assaulted, not someone assaulted me. I was mugged, not someone mugged me. I was a victim of child abuse, not pointing at the adult who abused your child self.

One of the other things this language disappears, is the likelihood of the victim knowing the aggressor. Most assaults are not undertaken by strangers, although these are the ones we are taught to guard against. You are most likely to be killed, assaulted or sexually abused by someone you know. “I was raped” has no known person in it as perpetrator. It implies stranger danger. “I was raped by my boyfriend” has a very different impact. “I was abused as a child by my stepbrother” foregrounds a lot of things that need to be visible. Of course for many of us it isn’t safe to name the aggressor, and we have legal systems that mean you have to be careful about your accusations, but we should all be able to get as far as ‘I was assaulted by someone I trusted’.

The word ‘rapist’ suggests something other, that is not a person. A rapist is something we can imagine as separate, not one of us. It allows us to wriggle out of thinking about it. Or we can picture them like some kind of stage villain, self announcing and distinct. Rapists are here. They are us. They are next to us on the train. We work with them, hang out with them, are related to them. We need to re-identify their presence, their personhood. So many women are raped, it is reasonable to assume that men who rape are present and numerous and not self announcing. A man raped me, not ‘a rapist’.

We lose the men when we say ‘I was raped’. We lose the clarity that, often what we’re talking about is something a man has done to a woman. Yes, I know it doesn’t always work that way, but mostly it does. Rape is a crime with a distinct gender bias. This is another reason it would be helpful if we could start foregrounding the rapist when we talk about this stuff. It might help us not get bogged down in ‘not all men’ conversations if we started by being a bit clearer about who had done the things in the first place. Saying ‘I was raped, I was assaulted’ lets people decline to hear who was doing it.

How we talk about things informs how we feel about them and think about them. We need to move away from victim blaming, and one way we can push towards that is to change how we phrase things so that the perpetrator remains firmly in view.


Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.