Language: a weapon and a bridge

Just about an hour ago, I woke up from a dream-like state, slowly, gradually. In my dream I was talking to someone who I perceived as having some very strong opinions, some of which I didn’t agree with. And in the conversation, I observed myself making very incisive, yeah, almost “deadly” arguments–there is a reason for all those “so-and-so destroys this or that guy” video titles on YouTube… And it felt so very good!

After maybe like three or four minutes of observing myself in this conversation situation, I became aware of how I was feeling. And the elation I had experienced until then vanished almost instantly. I had been using language as a weapon, and I suddenly had lost all interest in winning. Instead I felt very sad, because in my dream I had obviously forgotten that language can be used to build bridges as well, and that when I’m awake, most of the time I feel deep within that building bridges is typically a more wholesome way to use language.

So, very briefly, I’d like to draw attention to that distinction in everything we can use as a tool, which I believe is true for language as it is for guns by the way–and before my conservative friends reading this might get ready for a fight, let me build this bridge: I feel very much supportive of the Second Amendment! In its entirety, though. And the part about being in a state of adequate regulation matters. The real question is who is doing the regulating? For guns, I don’t feel in a position to answer that question, because I have never owned a gun, I haven’t even fired a gun once in my life, so my emotional and intuitive answer would be dominated by that I’m afraid of guns being used in harmful ways.

Coming back to language! In that case I am, or so I believe, in a somewhat better position to answer the question about regulation, because the use of language depends so very much on emotions: how we feel is a big component in determining the words we use, and after having worked for almost 10 years with a psychology professor and his students interested in emotion regulation at Columbia University, I feel quite comfortable having and expressing an opinion on the value of people being capable of regulating their emotions, and in consequence language.

Similarly to the Second Amendment talking about guns, the First Amendment says that the responsibility for regulating language lies with people, and that the government–which in my mind is more about the law, the police, and the justice system, rather than any other kind of institution the government might happen to financially support–is not in a position to exert its position of power to use coercive tactics when it comes to preventing the citizenry from using language in any way.

This does not mean however, as I understand it at least, that people aren’t responsible for how they use language, rather that it would be some kind of overreach if the government were to get involved preemptively, in an attempt to regulate who is allowed to hold what opinions. The responsibility for using language being on the people to me suggests that everyone needs to learn how to use language well.

From my understanding of how emotion regulation is something productive and a wholesome aspect of personality development, it is a necessary part of the naturally occurring socialization of children by their parents: children can learn to consider the consequences of different ways of expressing emotions, especially those expressions that are damaging to the relationships that they could develop. In the simplest example I can think of, a child whose toy has been taken away against their will by another child on the playground may experience a sense of injustice and wanting to seek revenge. If the child is sufficiently physically equipped, it may then engage in a relatively more violent attempt to get the toy back. And if this scene is observed by a parent, whatever the parent will tell the child in response afterwards is transmitting a kind of blue-print of regulation to the child.

This might take the form of a demand: “Don’t turn into a bully! No-one likes to play with bullies!” Or something like this: “You’re not supposed to get into a fight like this, what if the other kid hurt you real bad! Next time, come and get me, and I’ll sort it out.” Or maybe the parent will encourage the child: “Well done, if you let people get away with taking your toy, you’ll be out of toys soon! Always fight back!” In other words, parents transmit their values for acting, and that’s often not very conscious to either the parents or the child.

The exchange could also take the form of a much more exploratory conversation: “Hey, so I take it you really wanted to get your toy back, because you felt angry that the other kid just took it away from you, and you didn’t like that at all? I find it’s great that you feel you can do that by yourself! Still, I would really want you to be aware that by punching and taking your toy back by force, you might have missed an opportunity to make a friend. So to be clear, I’m not upset, really! It’s more that if you can learn to take a moment or two between feeling angry and deciding what to do, I believe you might be able to think of a way to talk to other children and turn a situation of a toy being taken into an opening up, and you have the choice to try to make it about playing together. Would you like me to role-play with you so you can see what I mean?”

In other words, I think it is possible in almost any situation in which we are tempted to use language as a weapon, to “destroy” the other person’s position so to speak–something parents are incredibly good at when teaching their children by the way, which they then also implicitly learn–, to do something entirely different. We can reach out, and inquire why the other person did what they have done, or said what they have said. And from there, we can explore whether there is a way to build a bridge between the other person’s position and ours, and if we achieve that, we can actually play across the bridge, learn to take each other’s perspective, and become more integrated and knowledgeable. And what it takes is those two, three extra seconds before we speak, to ask ourselves, “am I trying to destroy this person’s position and win, or do I want to play with them cooperatively?”

For a very long time, in Western countries, we have been trained with increasing sophistication, in schools and at home, in the art of using language as a weapon. And we’ve become so good at it that it is often no longer visible that that is what we’re doing. It’s a very sneaky and stealthy business, really. We can use technical jargon and very complicated arguments seemingly based in reason and logic putting us on the right side of an issue, morally speaking. But in the end, we might just be out to “destroy the other person’s position” in the process. That’s a form of warfare.

For as long as that is our intention, I think it’s difficult to imagine that the other person would take it laying low, and enjoy agreeing with us. Instead, they will fight, and if we win, they will give in grudgingly, resentfully, and when the opportunity comes for them to win the next battle, they will gladly do so.

If what I expressed here does feel even remotely useful, my request for you would be to take a moment, whenever you experience that a part of you feels elated about the prospect of talking with someone to win an argument, to consider whether by winning you might score a point for your team’s position, but in the process also close a door or burn a bridge to a person. Would it be valuable to think about a way to build a bridge instead?