A sublime article at the Guardian by Tony Judt who recently died after a long and public battle with motor neuron disease. He was writing about words being all we really have, and expressed himself beautifully. For instance:
“When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.”
“In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts – the view from inside is as rich as ever – but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate. The vocal muscle, for 60 years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”
I read this article on the same day that I stumbled upon “Life without language” – an extended blog at neuroanthropology.net which explores ‘encultered cognition’. Language is much more than words, but does require some form of symbol system, including sign language.
The blog on language features an extraordinary story conveyed by Susan Schaller about her attempts to teach a profoundly deaf person in Idaho who grew up without any form of symbol system to communicate. Her goal was not to teach language, but to convey the very idea of language, and at the end of several weeks of sustained effort, she finally made a breakthrough:
“And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.”
“The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.”
We need our symbols, and words are some of the most sophisticated symbols we have. By reflecting on what it might be like to lose the ability to speak, or not to even understand what language is, and is for, we can remind ourselves that words are rarely ‘just words’, and that it is incumbent on us to use them well.
Last year I read a report published by the IPPR that made me think. It was called Warm Words, and analysed the language and discourses used in the media and campaigns to talk about climate change.
The authors identified several discourses at the time of publication (August 2006 – so it’s a bit out of date now) that fell into three main groups; alarmism (we’re doomed), “settlerdom” and “British comic nihilism” (climate change is just too fantastic to be true), and “small actions” (messages that encourage people to beat climate change by doing little actions like turning off lights). I thought this was all fascinating, coming at the same time I was getting slightly power crazy after being exposed to the sort of sneaky public engagement strategy that campaigning organisations use, and the ideas behind social marketing and population segmentation models.
The report suggests most of these discourses are pretty ineffective, and among its recommendations are to improve the way the media uses the small actions discourse:
As mentioned earlier, populist climate change discourse (for example, in magazines) tends to put together alarmist and small-action repertoires, through features such as ‘20 ways to save the planet from destruction’. In bringing together these two repertoires without reconciling them, these articles feed a notion of asymmetry in human agency with regards to climate change.
This, the report says, is pretty disastrous, and makes people think that while their actions are responsible for climate change, they are also powerless to do anything about it. How can turning off my telly make any difference to rising sea levels and ecosystem collapse?
Their conclusion is to create a new discourse which they call “ordinary heroism”, an attempt to create a (very British by the way) language about climate change (more about heroism in another post soon). Their explanation of what makes this unique isn’t entirely clear from the report to be honest, but the examples they quote of early uses of this discourse in the media all have in common that little changes from lots of people add up to be significant.
This is absolutely one of the reasons that technology and the internet is so crucial to helping us change our behaviour. My own energy saving rituals (nothing odd, I promise) seem negligible until I’m connected to everyone else, when I realise that the cumulative effect of my and our small actions are beginning to bring about significant change. This, as well as the competitive and social proofing reasons, is why it’s great that socially-networked energy displays/smart meters are beginning to find their way on to the market.
But what else can we come up with?