You often hear it said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. Whilst this is tongue in cheek, it holds some truth to it. A prime example is how in America “chips” refers to what Brits would call “crisps” and what Brits would call “chips” Americans would call “fries”. We have “fries” over here too, it’s just that the “french fry” is a specific kind of chip. A sub-category if you will.
Using language is one way we communicate with each other. But what is communication?
Communication is how we convey our thoughts, ideas, emotions, plans and other information to one another. Our use of various language can help us do that, and is hopefully an effective way.
What we do need to understand is the language of the person we are talking to. It may be the same base but there could be significant differences. This is a problem because most people seem to think they are being clear with their language, because they understand what they are saying, and perhaps their friends understand them too, so clearly, YOU are an idiot if you don’t understand them.
To refer back to the chips example, it’s even more complicated than that in the UK alone. From north to south it can seem like we are speaking a completely different language, but if you live here you notice that this can actually be more specific to the county you live in when you travel to others.
It doesn’t stop there.
There are social bubbles that form their own language as well. My favourite example of this goes back to my tweenage (late teens to early twenties) years where we used to play a lot of Tony Hawks Pro Skater. For some reason, that I cannot remember, we started referring to Tony Hawks Pro Skater as Dezley. Dezley 3 was the main one that we played but we did go on to play 4 and Dezley Grundlemound aka Tony Hawk’s Underground.
We all understood what we meant. No one outside of our bubble would, in fact, I sometimes talk about Dezley to people and forget they were not part of my circle 15-20 years ago.
Now, Dezley is actually an efficient way to say Tony Hawks Pro Skater. It’s a shortcut in language, and language is defined through use. It is perfectly valid, but its not that useful outside of that little bubble. However, with something as weird as that it is obvious to me when I have made a mistake in my communication and have clarified quickly.
Obfuscation and Technical Language
We quite often see people obfuscating their points with overly technical language on the internet. Some people use this advanced terminology because to people who don’t know what they mean, they sound smart and therefore must be right in their conclusion. It’s a nasty psychological trick, you see folks like Jordan Peterson do it all the time. Sometimes they are making sense, and sometimes it is complete word salad invented to make them sound smart. They may actually understand what they mean but are using those terms in ways they are not normally used. They could have some very good points but because they have used this technical language in a personal way they have just made a mess of the conversation.
There are other issues too, where people do use this plane language and think they are being clear but are actually saying something else. This problem can then be conflated by others chiming in saying they are being clear or thinking “everyone I speak to thinks I am being clear”. Well, my friends think I am being clear when I talk about Dezley, but that’s a private language, it’s not clear to those that don’t know it.
The reason I provided this correction is that he wrote, “they need to know they are lying” and then in a new sentence wrote, “they may be unintentionally spreading false information.” These statements are in conflict.
He came back stating that’s what he said with his second statement about unintentionally spreading false information, but that still leaves his first statement incorrect. They need to know they are wrong, or they need to know they are spreading falsehoods would have been clearer because his statement above seems to infer that they can unintentionally be lying and he needs to let them know that. He also said he felt he was clear with his words.
To save argument I simply accepted he meant that and said that it didn’t come across that way, though did address the point that keeps coming up on the internet about religious people being delusional.
Problems With Using “Delusional” to Refer to The Religious
There is a difference between being deluded and being delusional. Much like you could say there is a difference between feeling depressed and suffering from depression. Though one problem here is it’s not clear if the depressed person suffers from depression and stating they feel really low would be clearer, just like there are better words than deluded due to the link to delusional.
I had a conversation about this recently on Reddit where someone was questioning why religion wasn’t considered a delusion and saying that the DSM should change the definition of delusional to include religious people. I suggested that if he knew anyone in mental health he should actually speak about their patients who suffer delusions and have the disorder vs the average religious person.
The funny thing is, from my previous conversation, the gentleman in question felt he tried to be careful with his words, yet in his example “…delusional is not being crazy…” it showed that he used language in an atypical way to how it was used in the field of psychology. Not that psychologists would typically use the term crazy as it’s an insulting term, but we can infer he meant mentally ill.
Now, I understand colloquialism. Having had him clarify a bit, I get that he just meant that they were wrong, but he wasn’t being clear with his language. It can easily be taken that he is accusing someone of being mentally ill, and with the whole meme of “religion is a mental illness!” you can understand why that accusation would be taken that way.
I don’t think simply believing in a god makes you mentally ill. Most theists I speak to are generally quite rational and responsible folks.
There are some who are into that whole faith healing thing and the like that are definitely dangerous. Even then, I don’t think they are necessarily mentally ill, I think they are really devout believers who are incredibly mistaken. Regarding them as mentally ill won’t help.
For one, it will cause stigma against the mentally ill. People who are mentally ill need help and support. When it’s said like “religion is a mental illness” it’s said in a condescending and patronising way that can make those who need help afraid to ask for it, and the religious folks you address in this way will just shut down and not listen to you. You’ve managed to lose two battles at once.
Anyway, hopefully, that explains the issue with using terms that, regardless of their history, form a part of a psychological diagnosis and is not the way they are usually understood. If you want to learn a bit more about delusions I suggest checking out: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3016695/
The conversation did seem to go of the way of people justifying them not meaning it necessarily as a mental illness or others in the thread proclaiming they do think religion should be classed as a mental illness.. so even in the thread, we see people with different takes on the word providing a prime example of how this can be unclear.
The person in question, however, responded like this:
We can see again, the perception of one’s own clarity. It’s natural. We all do it, so this isn’t a jab at him or anything. It is explaining how we can be unclear. You can see, though, he is fueled by “Everyone else I’ve ever spoken that phrase to thinks it’s worded perfectly.”
Hopefully, I have explained why the statement was unclear. Also, from some of the responses he got, it seemed that they too thought he meant they could unintentionally lie too, for example:
It was quite amusing that I had provided quite a lengthy analysis on lying from SEP, though you could easily get any dictionary definition that also shows you need intent to actually be lying:
I took up his offer to discuss and started explaining how his statement was unclear, to which he responded that I didn’t understand what he meant, he was talking about verbal communication. So, for someone that feels they are clear with their language they are again being unclear.
The main issue, apart from lack of clarity, is his instant, “I don’t think you understand.”
He’s right, I didn’t understand. His method of communication here seemed like I should have known he meant speech when he said discuss. We were already having a discussion, on Twitter, a microblogging & discussion platform. There was no way for me to know he meant verbal communication as he was not specific. He was not clear.
Here, he could have easily phrased it as, “Sorry, I misspoke, by discuss I meant a verbal chat?” It would have seemed like someone who was at least someway open to the fact that maybe they are not as clear as they thought they were. I was unsure of their intents here, but I do agree verbal chat can sometimes be clearer, even if my ADHD can make following hard at times.
I did have to decline due to the time but said he could come on a future FFA stream or just a private discord chat, but we have yet to have engaged further.
Whilst I mentioned that all language is defined through use, and have said a number of times before that any definition of a word is valid, it doesn’t always make it useful. Dezley has a very specific use in our circle, but it has no use for the wider world to understand us. That is true for any word. If you want to define knowledge as a four-wheeled road vehicle that is powered by an engine and is able to carry a small number of people and say you have knowledge, that’s fine, but you’d probably be describing what others would call a car and therefore you’re not going to be easily understood.
Some use of languages catches on though.
The Broadening of Terminology
Let’s pretend for a moment that Dezley catches on. Everyone is now using Dezley to refer to the Tony Hawks games. What happens when people start broadening the terminology? What if Dezley suddenly means any skate game?
We actually see this happening. In the UK we tend to call all vacuum cleaners ‘hoovers’ even though that was once just a brand. I didn’t actually know they were not called hoovers till I travelled to America and no one knew what I was talking about. We do the same with rolling papers, they all get referred to as Rizla which is, again, a brand of rolling paper.
But what about when these terms start to become even broader? Let’s imagine Dezley now starts to become all board sports, so it will include things like snowboarding and wakeboarding. That would be like using hoover to also include things like a broom and mop.
This would still be valid because this is how language works, but it’s less clear what people are talking about. We can no longer infer they are talking about Tony Hawks or even skating. All we infer is they are talking about some form of board sport.
What happens if this goes a step further and we start to think of all extreme sports as Dezley. That’s like using hoover to refer to all cleaning apparatus.
Again, this is still valid use, but we’ve gone from Dezley being a shorthand way of saying “Tony Hawks Pro Skater” to now being used as a catch-all of “extreme sports” which is already a catch-all.
This might seem silly, but this happens with language all the time.
Take atheism and agnosticism for example. These are polysemous terms with a rich history. All the various uses of these terms are valid because that is how language works, but some are more useful than others.
If we start with how the terms are usually used within philosophy of religion today, and move on from there, we can see the term becoming broader in various circles.
Theism and its negation, atheism, are ontological positions. Theism is the proposition “God or gods exist” and atheism is the proposition “Gods do not exist”. Therefore, a theist would accept theism and reject atheism and vice versa for an atheist.
An agnostic would be unable to conclude either way and therefore suspend judgement on the proposition. This means they don’t believe gods exist but they also don’t believe gods do not exist.
- Theist: Believes (at least one) god exists
- Agnostic: Unsure if a god does or does not exist
- Atheist: Believes gods do not exist
Both the agnostic and atheist are types of non-theist. Both the theist and agnostic are types of non-atheist.
There have been some that have argued over the years, and still today, that anyone who has considered the proposition and provided an epistemic answer that includes not believing god exists should be an atheist. This would make both the agnostic and the atheist a form of atheist. This is sometimes a split referred to as weak and strong atheism or negative and positive atheism. The irony being, there were two clear positions that got melded together now need a modifier so you can tell the difference between the two.
There are some that take this a step further and will say that any responsive non-believer should count as an atheist. for example, there are those that find the god character so ill-defined and incoherent it would be meaningless to consider it. This is known as being ignostic. They technically don’t believe but rather than answer the proposition, their statement is about the proposition. There are other types of non-theist like this also that would be included.
It’s now become even harder to identify what someone means by atheist here, but it goes further.
There are a few more types of non-theist. There are those that are completely absent of the belief that a god exists or any state in regard to the proposition. This is either because they have never been introduced to the concept or because they are infants. An infant’s mind is not developed enough to consider the proposition of God’s existence nor hold any belief position in regard to it.
We’re now at the point where the entire set of non-theists are regarded as atheists. We can no longer accurately infer anything about their position other than an absence of belief in deities. It’s a set that already exists, much like extreme sports already existed before in the Dezley example.
But it doesn’t stop there either… some folks think anything with a brain that doesn’t believe in gods is an atheist and will assert all animals are atheists. How they know animals don’t hold those beliefs is a mystery, but it’s probably a fair assumption.
You think that’s absurd? It doesn’t stop there. Some people take things further and state not only non-theists & animals are atheists, but anything in the set “not able to be a theist” is atheist too. That means rocks, viruses, buildings, books, vegetables etc are all atheist. We now have a set that is so broad the word atheist has lost pretty much all its power. It is pretty useless in discussion and you have to caveat it so much to explain your specific position.
The word atheist is used by so many people in so many different ways that we can no longer infer what someone means and have to constantly stipulate our use. You then have people that claim certain definitions are wrong and that there is only one definition.
What used to be a label that clearly explained someone’s position on the topic is now incredibly muddy and often gets hung up on a semantic battle over what the word means instead of focusing on the actual topic you wanted to discuss.
We can see that a common language can be a problem. There is often a language barrier we don’t realise is there. We all think we are being clear, especially when speaking our first language to someone that is speaking their first language, but unless we are open to the fact that we might not actually be speaking the same dialect or that what is clear inside our heads might not be as clear as we think to others, then we have made it hard to overcome the barrier and communicate effectively.
The purpose of this article was to address:
- The hidden language barrier within english speaking tongues: e.g. the english you are speaking may not be the same english as someone else.
- People creating a language barrier by using:
- Private language
- Technical language
- Scientific or philosophical language in ways that these terms are not defined within science or philosophy
- People assuming they are being clear.
- People thinking they are definitely clear because of an in-group bias.
- The broadening of terminology which results in:
- The term becoming muddy
- It being used for terms that already exist
- People make silly statements
- It loses impact
- It ends up with a semantic battle instead of focusing on the more important topics at hand
This is how language works, the problem is when people don’t keep these things in mind when they approach conversations and end up focusing on things that don’t matter or just reasserting they are right or are being clear when that isn’t the case.
I do hope I’ve managed to communicate effectively, though I am aware that the folks who preview my articles before I send them out are part of my language bubble and therefore will hold a greater understanding of what I am saying than those outside said bubble might.
I also hope the examples provided were useful, and I managed to show that it is easy to be unclear no matter how clear we might believe ourselves to be whilst explaining the language barrier and the issue with colloquialisms and overly broad definitions. If I have been unclear then please ask me for clarification and, if needed, I can alter this article.