The Land of Babel

In my therapy practice my attention is often focused upon clarity of communication. It’s the cornerstone of successful relationships and a subject that was glaringly omitted from our education. This is a complex subject, but with a little work we can make great strides.

Nowhere is this issue more evident than in the politics of the day. The candidates, their surrogates and the media pundits are all egregiously deficient in some fundamental facets of dialogue. The exchanges, and particularly the heated ones, are absent what I refer to as shared meaning. Listening to argumentation without any agreement as to what we’re actually disagreeing about is absurdly frustrating.

For example, Congressperson Bachmann recently charged Barack Obama with being anti-American. She then ventured further and suggested that there should be a media investigation as to other members of the House and Senate who are similarly anti-American. Thus the battle is engaged, the culture divided, patriotism and anti-Americanism rants unfurled. Yet, no one actually asks her what she means by the term anti-American. Without a shared understanding of what she is suggesting there can be no reasonable dialogue.

The reactivity of the moment prevails and opposing positions become more entrenched; and little is learned. Certainly no minds become changed, for there is no meeting of the minds. If I were interviewing her I’d inquire as to what she means by anti-American. Hopefully, she might come to see that her position is untenable, if not incoherent. I’d ask, “so if the government were ruled by liberals and progressives, and the conservatives were inconsolable and vehemently opposed to their government, would they be anti-American?”

From there, if our communication were coherent, Ms. Bachmann might come to see that she confuses anti-American with what is really anti-conservative. It’s likely that she therefore equates conservatism as being the core American value To proclaim that Mr. Obama and other members of Congress have values and beliefs that are in stark opposition to hers, is an understandable statement. From that position, a dialogue that has meaning might ensue.

Shared meaning doesn’t suggest agreement, it only provides clarity as to what one is suggesting. And moreover, it helps the speaker identify their beliefs more lucidly. For instance, is being anti-current government the same as being anti-American? If a Hitler prototype gained control of the U.S. would being anti-American then be a good thing? So by delving into meaning we actually being to relativize and contextualize our statements, so they become more sensible.

Certain words and phrases are intended to incite knee jerk reactions. The Republicans are far more adroit and inclined in this way than the Democrats. To charge one with being a socialist provokes such a reflex amongst many people. Yet if we paused to consider the term socialist, these same people might be astounded to see how our country is quite embedded in socialism. Our schools, post offices, libraries, police and fire departments, motor vehicle departments and the myriad of other governmental agencies that organize are lives are indeed, socialist. How wonderful might it be if rather than defending against the word, we opened it up to more scrutiny.

When we stop and inquire as to meaning, there flows a level of communication that makes sense, that has a coherence. Without sharing meaning, any meaningful flow of dialogue is immediately disrupted, and the lack of ensuing sense—becomes non- sense.

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