let’s get more semantic

June 12, 2008

This is great practice trying to articulate all this complex stuff. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments people.

Lemme back up and say that I’ve been thinking about language, and specifically labeling, in the context of thinking about my own ethics – how I walk my talk in this world, as well as how my ethics exist in this much bigger picture – the world I’m walking in.

When I talked about willingness and the aggressive language around illness (and let’s say we expand the term “illness” to encompass a wide range of troubles like anxiety, fear and depression) I was trying to get at how I experience my troubles in a world that often seems hell bent on conquering them, and how that has not worked for me at all. And for what it’s worth, having spent thirteen years in social services, it’s not worked real well for lots of other folks who’s relationships with their troubles are often chunked out in those two steps forward and one step back dances. The idea of conquering doesn’t leave much room for the steps back.

After reading through the comments on the last couple posts, I’d like to narrow down my focus on how labels inform how we think of the darkness that exists in the world and the darkness that exists in ourselves.

I’m going to put aside how labels, like mother or boyfriend or geek, can help us understand something about someone, even if the understanding is very abbreviated and full of assumptions that may be off. For instance if I tell you I like to fuck women, in your head you’re likely thinking ok, she’s a lesbian. And even though I don’t use that label for myself and there’s all sorts of things about lesbian life I’m just not in to, at least you get that because I like to fuck women I’m different from the majority of other women and in the U.S. that difference matters. But as I said, I’m putting that conversation aside, at least for now.

I’m also putting aside how labels can motivate us to overcome unwanted behaviors and/or undermine our efforts at cultivating the positive ones. I think I understand what David was getting at in his comments, but I want to dig deeper and that thread seemed more symptomatic of the bigger issue I want to try and talk about it. Quickly, though I will say that it saddens me that there is not broader interest and support in this culture for cultivating curiosity and neutrality (in the Buddhist sense) towards one’s strengths and shortcomings.

Well now I’ve gone and posted so much that I’ve run out of steam for talking about darkness. At least now I know what I’m talking about later.


more on semantics

June 10, 2008

I wonder what it says about us humans, all the labels we derived from our short comings and frailties and from the darkest parts of ourselves – rapists, murderers, liars, crooks, cheats, molesters, good-for-nothings, thieves, swindlers, goons, bullies and so on. Help me out if you can think of a comparable list derived from the best of who we are. What do we got: heros and saviors and the likes. Even then they tend not be about specific behaviors, and certainly not about specific behaviors we want to encourage.

I think there’s something going on about fear and punishment and how little we are interested as a culture in cultivating compassion and forgiveness.


semantically speaking

June 6, 2008

First, let me run up the flag here and say that at best, there is a thin thread to string this post together, but I still want to talk about it. Hope you’ll bear with me.

The whole thing in my last post about willingness v. will is part of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself for a while now about the power of language. What we call something, how we refer it – that often says something more than the literal intentions. What’s most salient for me right now is the aggressive language used around disease and disorder. Things like, her battle with cancer, he conquered his fears, fighting the good fight, the will to live, etc. My efforts around healing or even managing my own maladies have been better served by a less combative lexicon.

But this experience of language goes way beyond my personal experience. For instance, if I told you a relative of mine died in the Holocaust, the term “died”, a fairly neutral term, does not suggest the horror that person endured, maybe being starved, then tortured, and finally lined up naked in front of big pit and shot in the head. But if I tell you my relative was murdered in the Holocaust, the term “murdered” suggests that something much more violent happened in his or her dying. And I think is more accurate way to talk about those deaths. And mass murder is accurate way to talk about genocide.

The power of language also extends to how we talk about folks who perpetrate acts of horror. Let’s take someone who commits rape, at the very least a pretty fucking foul thing to do. The perpetrator becomes a rapist, defined forever by the worst of himself. And I’m going with “him” because most perps are male. And in defining that guy by what’s darkest in him we push him outside humanity. And who does that serve? How does that serve justice? In taking away the humanity of the guy who commits rape, we’re not restoring humanity to his victim.

Bell Hooks said: For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?