« Sixth Grade. OMG. | Main | Total Eclipse of the Mind »

Your Life Experiences Do Not Invalidate Reality

Gather 'round, kids, for I am about to impart a piece of knowledge that cost me tens of thousands of dollars to gain. I spent years studying linguistics and gaining an expansive Spanish vocabulary so that I could be counted on to accurately translate Spanish words to English, but this one thing is really the key to it all.

The meaning of words is in people, not words.

I've mentioned this before because I'm not kidding when I say it's the single most important thing I learned in college. While it pretty much means that translating anything is a impossibly Herculean task, it also unlocked the door to me understanding that in order to effectively communicate, even in English, I have to provide sufficient context and make concise word choices. In order for my words to be understood, I have to carefully select each one of them because context I can't control comes along for the ride.

Case in point: Peanut. It's a simple word. We all know what it means. OR DO WE? If I say "peanut" to a person who is deathly allergic to the delicious little guys, they bring to that word a history. Their life experiences, which could include some pretty gnarly hospitalizations, jump into the meaning and knock loose opinions. A sentence like "He threw the peanut on the floor," is suddenly threatening. Compare that to saying the same sentence to someone who would happily dine on peanut butter and peanuts and all of the nuts every day, and you see it. The sentence means something different to each and every person who hears it. The meaning that people bring to individual words matters.

Collectively as a society, we understand that. We have a list of words we know not to say if we're standing in front of a judge in court, for example. We also choose to avoid certain words around our mothers or the neighbor or whoever. We all filter our words based on our own experiences and a bit of common sense. We don't want to offend anyone and we don't want to invite meaning to a conversation that isn't intended.

(There is an argument to be made about whether certain words should be considered "offensive" or not, but the fact of the matter is that we all agree on a short list of words when it comes time to select them for use in situations where we might be judged. So. You may not be offended by one of those words, but you don't use them every day in every encounter because you get it. You are a functional member of society. Congratulations!)

If we zoom in on that collective understanding, we find that we adjust all of our conversations based on that invisible meaning that comes with words. If your boss is the one who is deathly allergic to peanuts, for example, you certainly aren't going to spend hours talking about how great peanuts are and describing peanut-laden recipes. You may not be concerned with coming across as offensive, but you're certainly concerned about coming across as an insensitive jerk. Heck, people apologize to me all the time for mentioning that some meat-filled meal was delicious. It's always hilarious because I genuinely don't care if everyone else on earth is a meatatarian, but we still all carry around that desire to use appropriate words. It's good that people try to use words in effective ways.

So, the meaning of words is in people. We all bring context and life experiences to the table. Got it?

Now let's take this little conversation a step further now, shall we?

Symbols are even more powerful than words. They can convey an entire conversation without saying a thing. They bring with them all of that context and all of those life experiences, but they do it in dump truck-sized piles.

The easiest example I can think of is a cross. When I see a cross, I interpret it in a different way than you do and differently than your mom does and differently than that stranger who just walked down the street. My life experiences have shaped my interpretation and that exact same thing has happened to every other person on earth.

Mila, for example, might see a cross and then think it's funny to snap it in half. In her three short years of life, she hasn't gained a great deal of context to tell her that two lines intersecting mean more than two lines intersecting. Contrast that with the people in Indiana near my in-laws' house. They have a life-size cross in their front yard with a life-size Jesus hanging on it. Jesus is bloody but I think probably still alive and definitely in the midst of a very symbolic sacrifice. The owners of that house very definitely have a giant pile of context and meaning that they bring to the table. It guides them in their interpretation of that symbol.

And here's the kicker -- Mila's life experiences do not invalidate the other person's life experiences. Just because a toddler doesn't understand the deep meaning and importance of that symbol doesn't mean that all falls away. 

Let me just make that point one more time -- your life experiences do not invalidate other people's life experiences. 

That's especially true when life experiences are shared. So ... let's say there was some sort of symbol that a great deal of people looked at and found to be terribly offensive. Let's say for those people, there was a collective understanding that it meant they weren't ... I don't know, let's say "human." Symbols can be very powerful (see also: life-size Jesus dying on a cross), so they absolutely can carry enough meaning to say, "you are property."

There is an entire collective experience that says the Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy. That collective experience attributes that symbol to meaning that they are valuable in the same way a car or tractor or building is valuable. Property. Property which you are free to use however you see fit -- to perform hard manual labor that nobody is willing to do for any amount of money, sex whenever you please, whatever. If you start to think maybe you don't like the way that property's arms are shaped, you can sell it to the highest bidder like you would a car with a bit of rust on the fender.

Your life experiences do not invalidate other people's life experiences.

So, you can say that the Confederate flag symbolizes state rights or rebellion or whatever you want, and that's fine. You own what that symbol means to you. It's based on your life experiences, after all. But, you don't get to tell someone else that they're wrong for being offended or hurt by the existence of that symbol, especially because there is a collective memory that knows that your experiences are built on a lie. There is overwhelming evidence that "state's independence" was really about "the right of the states to allow for the ownership of labor." It's right there in the states' articles of secession.

Do like you do with the peanuts. Love them and hold them close and cherish their existence, but stop throwing them around as if the entire world has to love them with you. In fact, it's time we declare the United States a "peanut-free zone." Just like in grade schools, keep those peanuts to yourself. There is no reason for you to share. Doing so just means you don't know how to be a productive member of society.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments (1)

Well said.

August 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEmile
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.