Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Babel Effect

Language . . . what is it good for. Actually a lot. God gave us language in order that we can share ideas between inside our own heads and the heads of others. I use “ideas” in the broadest of sense here, meaning facts, feelings and imaginative creativity. But, it too is broken and can be used for lots of things, especially for intentional miscommunication. But language in itself is good. I mean, read the first chapter of John and how, even Jesus, is expressed as God's word taking on flesh. So that is far different than, say a movie like AI where the futuristic, robotic world seemed to advance beyond the need for language, at least spoken language. I guess ideas went from one brain to the other directly . . . after all they were robots.

The reason I’m thinking about language today is for a very low-brow reason, it is from watching an episode of “Wife Swap” last night. It caught my eye, because it was an interesting social experiment, swapping a wife from a very conservative (might say fundamentalist) Christian family with a wife from a very liberal, but Christian, family. So it was Christian Vs Christian in a microcosm of culture wars.

I wish I was a better communicator on this blog because I do have a lot of ideas that I would like to get from my head to the head of others (and vice versa). However the written word is two dimensional and is a poor way to communicate (unless you do it in book length). Also, I have to write here on the run. It is usually (and literally) between patients and I am very rushed . . . with the phone ringing and me be paged at the same time. I mean I don’t even have time to proof-read my typing here (as if you didn’t notice). But I do think I can write better, or communicate better than I am.

Now to the point.

Sorry about the delay but I had a very busy day yesterday. I went to Starbucks early this morning to write . . . only to find my computer's battery dead. Now I have patients waiting again.

I'm starting to feel (after more thought) that this idea of language will have to become a multiple posting because there's (ironically) so much to say.

Premise 1: You don't have to be a Christian to make great observations about the real world. However, with a non-Biblical world view (and often WITH a Biblical world view) you reach wrong conclusions.

The linguistic deconstruction movement (or also know as simply Deconstruction) was one of those situations where non Christians (as far as I know) made some interesting and probably true observations about language and people, although certainly many of their followers took it too far.

In simple terms, they wanted to "deconstruct" language . . . even human history, down to their foundational building blocks. The building blocks were consider as motives, or to add a view of Nietzsche approach, to power over or dominate others. Now they went to far of course. For example, some feminist went so far as to say, everything ever written by men or spoken by men only had one purpose and that was to suppress women. Of course that is wrong.

But there is some truth to the fact that we use language, which on the surface seems beautiful and pure, but really is to accomplish some very narcissistic goals. This brings me back to my observations from the war between the two Chistian families on Wife swap and how they used "Christian language" for some very basic, carnal (you might say) goals. I think we all do this far more than we would like to admit.

Now before I can discuss this further, I have to go back and review “Mike’s Theory of Human Behavior.” I discussed this in great detail many posts ago.

I am not proposing some new, grand theory or idea of human behavior, but some what of a “no-brainer” over-simplification of what I consider is the Biblical view of human behavior. This is a far cry from pop-Christian psychology, which is mostly crap. I mean, Christians psychology (which I have criticized before) is made up of such goofy ideas of “recovery from repressed memories” or as Bill Gothard has said, “All mental illness if the result of personal irresponsibility.” Or that all emotional or behavior problems are either personal sin or demon possession (the famous Christian so, called Nouthetic Counseling movement). Crap, crap crap . . . mega-crap.

Here it is:

1) God created people wonderfully and of immense value.
2) The Fall of Adam and personal sin has broken us, erasing our personal value.
3) God has TOTALLY restored our value through Christ.
4) NONE of us realize that our value has been totally restored (passive) in Christ so we spend our entire lives trying to compensate for the perceived (but not real) "economic" short fall. We respond to this sense of personal devaluing in two major ways (some people tend to fall to one side and others fall to the other side based on personality traits);
A. The self-made man or woman. They think they have restored their value through their personal accomplishments or the image that they project to others or
B. Feelings of chronic shame. These (like me) think they see the short fall but they fail to see that it has been restored in Christ. Rather than feeling that they can succeed in fulfilling the shortfall (like the A people), they feel they must cover their failings so no one else knows about them.

Now, you add to this background human perception. I say that most mental illness is not a problem in logic, but a problem in perception. The schizophrenic is not illogical as much as delusional. They respond logically but to voices that are mal-perceived.

So our perceptions about ourselves and the world around us are influenced by the Fall in several ways. First, there's genetics. Unlike Bill Gothard’s stupid remarks, much of our personality and mental illnesses comes from the way our brains are put together from the womb. Secondly, how the Fall has influence us in early childhood. None of us have grown up in perfect families. Those who were abused as small children perceive the world differently and it is the passive way the Fall has effected them.

Next are our choices, both in behavior and in the ways we think inside our own heads. This is the only active part of personality and this may be where personal sin can influence the way we behave. But, even with that said, change in our perceptions comes very, very slowly. This is because our brains (neurons) change very, very slowly. The dualist-Christian (Like Bill Gothard) totally disregards the brain because it is of this physical world. To them, everything is sin or demons (spiritual).

With that said, we look at lanuage and the Babel Effect. The tower of Babel was man's response to his/her sense of the economic short fall (remember I am talking about self-esteem or self value, not about money). They wanted to build a tower to the heavens. God frustrated their plans with the confusion of language.

We now use language to 1) communicate ideas from inside my head to inside your head, but also in this deconstruction framework to intentionally mislead people. We intenentionally mis lead people to cover our percieved short-fall (again I say "percieved" because in Christ the short fall is NOT REAL). Non Christians do it as well as Christians and it dominates our language use.

The stereotypical example is the single guy in the bar trying to impress the girl. Always putting his best foot forward, and telling a few lies to make himself better than what he is.

But that is the tip of the iceberg. As I listen to language I notice that sometimes we ask questions because we honestly want to learn something. Some times we say things because we really want others to learn something about what we are thinking. But sometimes (not all the time as the deconstructionist would say) we use language to give the impression to our selves, and to others, that we are better than we are. We cover our hate and anger with “I was frustrated.” But if we are really superficial Christians we will say, “I was grieved by the Holy Spirit just because I love you so much with God’s love.”

I would like to pick up with the next posting, deconstructing some of the conversation that I heard between the two Christian families on Wife Swap.

But, before I close out this post, I want to end on the positive note that I really believe. It is simply this; there is NO ECONOMIC (speaking of self worth) SHORT FALL IN CHRIST. We are complete and of tremendous value so we don’t have to go on pretending. We also have the great freedom to cease from using language as part as that camouflage.


bryan said...

Language is useful for more than just communicating ideas (i.e. prepositional statements). In daily life language is used almost just as much to perform speech acts. This aspect of language was overlooked for a long time by linguists and philosophers of language. It was not until I read John L. Austin's
How To Do Things With Words
that i realized that in addition to transferring ideas between minds, language allows us to DO things.

MJ said...

I've read some of the How To Do Things With Words (now that you've posted it) but expound on it with some of your own examples.

bryan said...

Austin's idea that some language does something as opposed to just communicating information has some parallels and maybe some overlap with the Deconstructionists ideas. Both emphasize the use of language to do more than merely conveying truths, including the use of language to procure a response.

One of the many types of speech acts Austin discusses includes statements like 'Could I have that hammer?' or 'I'd like a steak, medium-rare, with a baked potato.' Both of these are intended by the speaker, and understood by the hearer as an attempt to get a desired response (to be handed the hammer, or to be brought a steak and potato by the waitress). The second statement is phrased as a proposition, but the real goal of saying it is not to let the waitress know what you like, but is to get her to bring it to you.

My understanding of Deconstruction is that it emphasizes the more ugly side of getting a desired response. Making statements that pretend to be propositions and are even taken as "simple propositions" by the listener and often the speaker as well (depending on how good they are at self-deception), but are in fact ploys to get a certain response. A lot of the examples you give of people being (spiritually) manipulative fall in to this category.

Usually reality is not as neat as both of these ideas suggest. There is always (or at least almost always) multiple functions of language being used at any one time, some more obvious, some less, some more innocent, and some more sinister. For example when I tell someone about my job, saying for example: "I do molecular biology research to find a vaccine for HIV." This language has a number of functions including: a)a tool to transfer the information of what I do to the other, b)a tool to gain respect by trying to sound smart and important, and c)a tool used just to build a relationship with the listener.

I'm sure that seemed quite jumbled, and hard to follow. The point I'm trying to make is that language serves many functions and each statement is usually motivated by numerous desires to achieve numerous ends, of varying merit. Sharing ideas is just one (albeit a very important and significant) use of language.

MJ said...

I agree, if I fully understand what you are saying. I'm going to add more thoughts in the next posting, as soon as I get a minute.