In a perfect world, we’d all understand each other. We’d all know exactly the meaning and context of every sentence, and it would always be the same — across cultures, times, languages — fixed on the pursuit of verifiable truth.
Unfortunately, meaning is not fixed. Just as our culture changes, so too does our understanding of reality. When the authors of the Bible wrote that Noah’s flood and Christ’s fasting lasted for 40 days and 40 nights, they did not mean literally 40 days. Rather, at the time, the number 40 held deep cultural and religious meaning and was used to denote a very long period of time, often associated with a trial, or a test. Interpreting language this way limits our understanding to a single moment in time. It’s like using one still-frame out of a film and expecting it to capture the entire movie.
So if our understanding of language is not fixed, where can we find meaning? My best guess would be from its use in everyday life. There are those who feel that language is only a tool that informs our reality. While this outlook seems to be the general consensus, I feel it limits our ability to move forward.
The focus on truth may actually be the problem with the way we are using language today. Often times, we think that verifiable truth is what we are pursuing in all things. There are many ways of knowing and to use only one at the expense of others severely cripples the human experience. Can we scientifically verify if a mother loves her child? Can we quantify the beauty in Gustav Klimt’s paintings? More still — would we want to live in a world that could?
Saying that this truth is separate from language usage is where problems arise. To use the outdated political spectrum, both the right and left accuse one another of using language to further their ideology — either by hiding behind being “politically correctness” or brainwashing. We can see this at work in our very community, in the actions and reactions surrounding the “Date Grape” issue in Spokane, or even on a broader, national level with the more recent “#CancelColbert movement.” Accepting that our own perspective is only a partial glimpse of reality and not the ONLY truth is a good exercise in beginning to understand how complex the use language really is.
When we remember meaning isn’t fixed, that there are sometimes other more important pursuits than evidential truth, I think that, especially with the great motivating forces in the world, we can then be free to focus on asking other questions. Instead of asking is this true? in an objective sense, we should also be asking What is being said? From this perspective, the modern world could learn much more than just evaluating claims, but would seek to understand and apply that understanding to their daily life.
If the Oxford dictionary formally added “selfie” to the English lexicon, then that leads me to believe that it’s not that language is being desensitized; it’s that our ever-evolving relationship with language is changing. Perhaps we can change too.
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