Monday, November 16, 2009

Our Universal Agreement

Although we seldom realize it, we are all party to an agreement which we entered into without our consent at the moment we spoke our first word. We all agree to speak a common language.
This has worked reasonably well for thousands of years, and because it has done so well, it has not changed much, other than adding some new words and changing styles, for several millennia. The basic idea is that every thing or event – real, imaginary, solid, emotional, whatever – is relegated to a class, and when it is necessary to consider an individual entity, that entity is given characteristics which differentiate it from other members of the class.
For example, Huey, Dewey and Louie are individual members of the class “ducks.” And classes are put into other classes – “ducks” is a member of the class “birds,” and “birds” is a member of the class “animals,” and so on. The ongoing events could have been classified in other ways. H,D and L could have been put into a class of two-legged animals, or animals that have white feathers, or any class we choose.
And in fact, we do make up new classes as we need them. Attorneys sometimes make a class of “people who used a certain medicine and got ill from it,” or scientists select a class of “people who have certain illnesses in order to study the efficacy of certain treatments.” Any individual entity belongs to many classes, depending upon what characteristics we are interested in at a given time.
There is no doubt that through language humankind has achieved great things and developed wonderful systems, e.g. transportation, government, economics, medicine and others. And of course, the inventions of modern science and technology – antibiotics, computers, space travel, etc. would never have come to pass without the greatest invention of all: language itself.
But there are also drawbacks. The major one is that we single out an entity from the ongoing process, and give it a name. At that point we have automatically relegated the entity to a class, and thereafter we tend to attribute characteristics of members of that class to that entity. But as an individual, that entity may not, in fact probably does not, have all those characteristics. Although beagles and pit bulls are both dogs, they differ in innumerable ways.
We have real problems when it comes to classes of humans. When an American  Muslim decides to run amok and kill 14 persons, we tend to ignore the fact that millions of law-abiding Muslims are as horrified as non-Muslims; thereafter we look suspiciously at anyone who “looks like an Arab,” or wears a head scarf.
Or take the class “Christian.” Does a member of the Catholic church resemble in any way a follower of the Amish faith? Perhaps the most dangerous classifications of all are “those like us,” and “all others.”
There is a second problem with classifications – once an entity has been put into a class, we think that individual will not change. But even a zebra knows that a well-fed lion is not the same as a hungry lion. And I can vouch for the fact that Glenn(age 80) is not the same as Glenn(age 16), or Glenn(age40).
I know there is nothing we can do to change our language situation; one does not suddenly invent a new language that thereafter everyone uses. But we can become more aware of the situation and problems that arise.
Joyce Carol Oates said it best, “Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that the symbols are inventions.” Let us try to remember.

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