Posted by: terrapraeta | January 22, 2010

Semantics


What would you do if my heart was torn in two
More than words to show you feel
That your love for me is real
What would you say if I took those words away
Then you couldn’t make things new
Just by saying I love you
More than words
Now I’ve tried to talk to you and make you understand
All you have to do is close your eyes
And just reach out your hands and touch me
Hold me close don’t ever let me go
More than words is all I ever needed you to show
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
Cos I’d already know

Extreme, More Than Words

How many times have you engaged in discussion, debate, or flat out argument and gotten hung up with the words “it’s just semantics”? I can’t say the number of times I’ve “heard” that, or said it, myself.

But I have come to realize, over the years that “just semantics” is far more crucial than I ever realized. I mean sure, in some case you may truly be understanding one another and using different language that honestly does mean the same thing from different angles. But oftentimes, I think there is far more to it than that.

Vera posted another article yesterday in this ongoing webring discussion of community. She quotes John Michael Greer from his article The Cost of Community and then poses a question:

I know a fair number of people in activist circles who speak in glowing terms about community; most of them don’t belong to a single community organization. I also know a fair number of people who’ve tried to launch community projects of one kind or another; most of these projects foundered due to a fatal shortage of people willing to commit the time, effort, and emotional energy the project needed to survive. [emphasis mine]

Note the language. The project is assumed to be primary and needs to survive. The humans are resources in short supply that are to work on its behalf. This sort of conceptualizing, I submit to you, is part and parcel of the problem. Turning the argument upside down… what if we actually have a fatal shortage of projects committed to serve the needs of the people who do show up, aiming to help them survive and thrive?! Let’s ask ourselves: do projects need emotional energy, or do humans?

This is a classic example where I would expect a response of “it’s just semantics” yet it is also a classic example of what I would suggest is far more than word choice and actually reveals certain underlying, unquestioned (and often unquestionable) assumptions.

We live in a culture based on production. A world co-opted by the needs of production over the needs of people (human and other-than-human). An environment where the first question anyone every asks (after your name, sometimes) is what do you do? (I take care of the people I love… OH! You mean to make money[ie to produce]) A culture where the gravest sin is to do nothing at all [to produce things…] So of course, community must be a tool for getting things done. Right?

Wrong. Community is a gift for helping people (human and other-than human) find happiness, mutual support, completeness. It is the way our species has evolved to be in the world.

But back to my main point: The way we use language, the way we put together words and concepts and build arguments can sometimes say far more than what we initially intended to say. Hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) within our words are the assumptions we have about how the world, people, things really work. And I think it is useful, sometimes, to step back and look for those assumptions both in our own writing (and speech, although speech – being transitory – is often harder to pick apart) and in others. Stop allowing unspoken assumptions to be glossed over, ignored, or worse, simply accepted. Because it is the question that we do NOT ask, that define how we relate to the rest of the world.

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Responses

  1. I’ve always hated the “it’s just semantics” “rebuttal” because it implies that word choice is unimportant in communication, and that is how I usually respond to it. “Yes, it is a semantic arguement, but it is important because if we don’t agree on what the words mean then we can’t communicate.”

    On a side note [And feel free to delete this if you want to], I’ve been on a bit of an editing kick recently and would edit a little a bit of your post:

    I would change: “culture where the gravest sin is to do nothing at all [to produce things…]”

    To: “culture where the gravest sin is to produce nothing at all”

    And “Community is a tool for making people […]”
    To: “Community is a tool for taking care of people”

    [I also cringe at spelling errors, but I’m getting better about it]

    JimFive

  2. Hey —

    I’m not one for censorship;-)

    On your first bit…. I was actually thinking of Office Space when I wrote that line…. If you had a million dollars what would you do? I would do nothing 🙂

    On your second bit… I agree, I do like that better, I was “echoing” the prior statement, but that in itself is weak considering what I am talking about 😉

    Are there spelling errors in this one? I used to spell really well when I was a kid… then I got my first word processor and suddenly I became a spelling moron — like, overnight!

    tp

  3. I second the second change, but I am thinking… community is not a tool at all… that to think of and turn humans into tools (and by extension, a group of humans too) is one of the deep roots of the “machine consciousness”… (?)

    Love the way this webring is spreading good vibes and good thoughts all around! 🙂

  4. Heh. I shoulda said… “I second the second change, AND I am thinking” … Semantics? Nah. Another way of being inside.

  5. tp,
    I didn’t notice any spelling in this one, but I’m still rattled about seeing catastrophe spelled with a y the other day. [Note, this is my problem and I know it, I’m not trying to complain or get anyone to accommodate my neuroses.] I don’t normally bring up this type of thing, but this time I felt they better represented what you were trying to say (and, therefore, thought they might be appreciated).

    Jimfive

  6. “community is not a tool at all… that to think of and turn humans into tools (and by extension, a group of humans too) is one of the deep roots of the “machine consciousness”

    Vera,
    This is a very good point and is something I needed to be reminded of, Thanks! One of the memes that I fight against is the idea that the human brain is a computer. I have a CS degree and a long standing interest in Artificial Intelligence and this idea is prevalent there. I assert that it has led us very far astray in how we (as a society) view people.

    JimFive

  7. Hey Guys —

    Okay, done. I did not make exactly the change you suggested, Jim, but change it I did 🙂

    And don’t worry about commenting on the writing itself. I’m a big fan of constructive criticism 😀

    tp

  8. Hey —

    Sharon Astyk’s response to Greer’s latest is *really* good… makes some of the same comments we have stressed, but embedded in her personal story. Good Stuff: http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/01/whose_community_history_fellow.php

    tp


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