“When we think we are using language, language is using us. As linguist Dwight Bolinger put it (using a military metaphor), language is like a loaded gun: It can be fired intentionally but it can wound or kill just as surely when fired accidentally. The terms in which we talk about something shape the way we think about it—and even what we see.” –Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture, p.14
Maybe you’ve had this happen to you. You’re reading a book that makes you think in different terms than you normally do. It’s about gender or race, methods of dialogue or topics of debate, anything that seeks to categorize the world or break down preexisting categories of the world: you look up from the page and start seeing references to this topic everywhere. And as you read about the topic, that book and its terms influence how you view these new references.
A good example is what happened while I was reading The Argument Culture.
Tannen’s book talks about male/female roles in “aggressive” or “conflicted” behavior. Males tend to roughhouse, trade insults in their conflicts. Females form arguments by appearing to avoid arguments. (Obviously, this is simplification of a continuum of gender behaviors.)
Then, as I sat at my daughter’s gymnastics practice, I saw a strange thing.
A young boy, tween-aged or slightly younger, sat beside a woman, presumably his mother. He was roughhousing with her: grabbed her upper arm, twisted it, ran his fingers down her spine (tickling?). His mother allowed this, often punching, playfully, in return. When he grabbed her hair, she grabbed his. It was only when he slapped her arm that she put an end to it; the slap was loud enough that I heard it from several bleacher rows behind them in a loud gym facility.
The behavior struck me as odd.
First, an authority figure allowed this playful-but-aggressive touch from someone who was both old enough to know better and big enough to do serious damage.
Second—and this was the stranger part to me—was the gender and age differences. It was a hierarchical male-female pairing, with the female in the authoritative position.
- If the roughhousing had been between two male equals (brothers, classmates), it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. I remember junior high boys being this way.
- If it had been a brother-sister pairing (equal ages, different genders) I might’ve found it strange but not abnormal.
- If it had been two equal females seems unlikely. Perhaps between sisters or close female friends in childhood, this might happen; I can’t see any adult females acting this way unless they were trying to do damage to the other woman.
But the mother-son dynamic struck me as bizarre. That a female authority figure wouldn’t tell him, no, you don’t treat adults this way, was baffling and disturbing.
But if I hadn’t been reading Tannen’s words about aggression and conflict in male and female behavior, would I have reacted by analyzing the encounter according to these terms?
Would I have characterized his behavior as aggressive? Would I have interpreted her return behavior as conflicted, telling him no, no, but laughing until he hurt her? Would I have noticed this at all, or merely been ticked off that they disturbed my reading time?
And perhaps my analysis of this mother-son dynamic wasn’t accurate. Had I tapped either person on the shoulder and said, “Hey, do you know what I see going on here?” perhaps they would have been startled to hear my description.
“It wasn’t like that at all!” they might’ve protested and substituted their own version(s), complete with different adjectives and verbs. He “tugged” her hair, not “yanked,” for example. Or given that all-purpose reason: it was just a joke! (The implication being that if I fail to understand the joke, the problem isn’t that the joke isn’t funny but that I don’t have a sense of humor.)
But my then-current thoughts had been formed by someone else’s terms. Accurately or not, those terms superimposed themselves upon my perception of the world around me. When I view the world within those terms and categories, it becomes a framing device: the world shifts to fit that frame.
My perception of the world, that is: the real world is still itself. Absolutes do exist, even when they are inconvenient for my personal desires or don’t fit neatly within my philosophical framework. I may be reading and thinking about zero gravity, but if I’m on planet Earth, that absolute law of gravity is reality. Saying that I can fly and jumping off a building won’t prove anything other than my delusional state of mind.
Everyone has presuppositions about the world. Often we can’t see them until we bump up against something that doesn’t quite fit. It startles us. I know I’ve run into these before, about things ranging from my inner psyche to God’s nature to racial perceptions to gender roles in marriage and church. These moments of impact (my experience hitting the wall of my framework—whamp, bam, ouch!) caused me to stumble back and see that wall (surely it wasn’t there a second ago, was it?) and reconsider things around me.
Ultimately, it leads to a choice: what do I do with this new knowledge?
Do I close my eyes and pretend that the reality doesn’t exist?
Do I open my eyes and consider whether my philosophical presuppositions are truthful?
Have those terms, the ones I’ve allowed to define the world, defined it accurately or inaccurately?
Are they still useful or do they misguide my view of the world and others around me? Are they harmful?
That’s why it’s important to use our categorizing terms carefully.