There is always a lot of controversy to discuss, especially online. I don’t really want to talk about the specifics (do you remember the last time you changed your mind on a controversial topic based on a blog post?), but I do want to talk about talking — that is, about language. Specifically, I want to briedly suggest that language is inherently non-neutral.
Neutrality can refer to a state of indifference towards a dialectical opposed pair of ideas. One is said to be “neutral” on a scientific matter if they have no predetermined motive for believing one way or the other about it. But is neutrality in this sense really possible in a serious discussion?
More often than not, how we phrase something betrays our categories for addressing the very topic of our speech. But what if we took a step back even further? What is language? Besides being intrinsic — indeed, foundational — to our inherited concepts of being human or being civilized, language permeates our thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams. Our ability to put words to feelings helps us to better understand ourselves and the world.
I am a philosophical theologian. Imagine a philosophy without language. Imagine a theology without language. It would not work.
So what is non-neutral about language? Because we are born into a concrete, flesh and blood world, our beliefs are inseparable from our lived experiences. We are born into an inherited world, one imparted to us by parents, communities, and media. These affiliations have a strong determining affect upon our identities and our commitments — things about our lives that transcend computation, logic, and calculation. How can we be impartial, in that way that a good judge (according to St Thomas More) would be impartial to a court hearing involving the Devil himself, towards our very upbringings, the people and places that made us who we are?
When we engage in discussions (I’m putting in mildly; we all know they are more like arguments), we are representing ourselves, not simply our ideas. You can dismiss an idea with the tools of logic and rhetoric; but you cannot dismiss people with language. You can hurt or help them, however.
My proposal is that we use language as a tool of understanding. Mind you, I did not say agreeing; it’s hard to agree in 2019. But maybe if we start with listening and understanding, we can get somewhere. And I think we’d all like to get somewhere for once.