It may sound petty — but it isn’t. We need to change the language which we use to discuss and write about our biggest problems.
“There can be no progress on climate change until we rebuild our civic capacity to discuss, debate, and disagree in ways that do not turn every aspect of climate politics into an identity-driven tribal war between good and evil.”
The antagonisms in our dialogues (or fights, rather) with those with whom we disagree are one thing. But the words we use to reaffirm each other’s views matter, too.
Recently I read an article about banana trees in South America being at a high risk of getting a fungal disease called Black Sigatoka. Just another effect of the facts we are already familiar with. The global temperature is rising and the climate overall is changing — which makes certain species thrive (in this case, the fungus) and others, die (the banana trees).
The same old story — just retold from the perspective of different protagonists.
However, the article didn’t merely present the dry facts. One of the subheads in the middle of the text screamed with judgment:
“Once again, people are guilty.”
Our language is so infused with the “good vs. evil,” “right vs. wrong” and “oppressor vs. victim” figures of speech, that it divides us into tribes — more so than we realize. This language seems to be used by almost anyone who joins the public discourse to voice their opinion on anything — from decarbonisation to feminism.
It is present within the social media information bubbles, left-wing and right-wing traditional media (are there any media out there that don’t take sides?), and in our everyday conversations. It’s almost as if we were making a point to divide the society into “us” and “them.”
And even when it isn’t assigning us to tribes — the language I am talking about still entices unproductive, regret- and resentment-derived emotions that disempower us to improve our situation. Such emotions as guilt, shame, blame or anger. They make us look back, rather than towards the better future.
At the very least, this current public language causes us to feel embarrassed about the fact that we didn’t do enough in the past to help prevent the problems of today. But what good does it do?
The words we use to talk about politics, climate change and equality matter a great deal. We all need to become aware of how we say what we say.
As much as I respect Greta Thunberg for what she’s doing to spread the awareness about the climate crisis, one recurring part of her message makes me uneasy. I am just not sure if saying things like this is particularly helpful:
“You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. (…) You did not act in time.” — Greta Thunberg’s speech to MPs at the Houses of Parliament
Even though some of it may be true in regard to certain people — I think that this kind of finger-pointing to the ones who are to blame for the present situation can have an effect opposite to the desired one. That’s because the people to whom such talk is addressed will most likely feel attacked. And when a human feels attacked, their autonomic nervous system usually activates the “fight or flight” response mechanism.
I think that neither of these two alternatives — fighting back or hiding away from the problem — is the desired outcome Greta hopes for.
If you want to enter a dialogue with somebody — and you realize that you are more aware of the interaction than the other person — it is your responsibility to ensure a fertile ground for the conversation. Especially if the other is oblivious to the underlying emotional currents, but at the same time has more decisive power in the world than you do.
Your first task if you want to make an impact is to create a safe space for the exchange. And it’s particularly important when you know that there’s going to be a disagreement.
Without the basic sense of safety, your interlocutor is almost guaranteed to either fight back or fly away when confronted with the problem. But it is in your power to prevent such a reaction by skilfully using language.
When you feel emotional about something, you are more likely to lose awareness of how (and even what ) you speak. I experienced it numerous times when confronting feminism critiques or global warming deniers.
But it is absolutely basic that we bring more awareness into our conversations. It is crucial that we not only talk — but also realize the impact our words have on the person in front of us. Because this impact may be the opposite of what we intend to accomplish.
If we don’t realize this, we may end up thinking that we are going around spreading the “right” message — but in reality, we will be strengthening the reasons why our opponents disagree with us.
The necessity for this awareness is a big part of what I am trying to say when I proclaim that mindfulness is the key if we want to survive.
However, for mindfulness to “work,” we also need simple human empathy — because “mindfulness” or “awareness” cannot live in separation from our relationships with other human beings. That’s why I have to disagree with Noah Berlatsky, who recently wrote in The Case Against Empathizing With Trump Supporters:
“In practice, unfortunately, empathy is an imperfect tool for political or moral change, one that can exacerbate divisions rather than healing them. (…) Our current political crisis is, in large part, the fault of empathy. And unless we are very careful, calls for greater empathy will only make it worse.”
One of Noah’s points is that empathy deepens the societal divisions because it “likes to travel up the social hierarchy.” He claims that those who are already privileged by society tend to receive more empathy — which, in turn, makes them even more privileged.
But maybe it is merely the question of defining empathy in a different way that makes it seem to me like I disagree with “the case against empathizing with Trump supporters.”
Which would mean it is a matter of language — again. So before I go any further into emphasising how much I disagree with Noah, let me clarify what I mean when I talk about empathy.
To me, empathy means the ability to realize how your own words and behaviours impact your interlocutor. The capacity to make sense of the points you make within the context of somebody else’s story. The imagination vast enough to contain not just your own feelings — but your opponent’s, too.
Empathy is not about believing any less in what you say. It is merely recognizing that your words may mean something completely different to the person in front of you.
Understood this way, empathy is a key element to embrace if we want to enter a dialogue with our opponents. And we must have this dialogue. Because the complex problems such as the climate crisis or equality issues can only be tackled when the opposing camps find at least a scrap of common ground to build on.
“The initial focus of a conversation about a contentious topic like climate change with a neighbor, community member, or elected official should be to simply recognize and affirm shared identities, ideals, and beliefs.” — Matthew Nisbet, PhD
Which brings us back to the question of language again. The words we use must seek to unite, rather than divide. Maybe this is the way to find traces of consensus where we thought only war could exist.