Language Does Not Equal Reality

Recommended Reading

Every Saturday, my friend Jim Grey publishes a “recommended reading” list of interesting blogs from the previous week.

Today’s list linked to an article about the benefits of speaking multiple languages. Jim explained:

“I used to speak German very well. For years there were concepts that I felt I understood more deeply because I could articulate them in German. The language gave me nuance that English lacked for those concepts. My skill in the language has waned from disuse, and with it went those enhanced understandings.”

I think he got it exactly right. Different languages don’t change the facts, but they do change the nuances, such as:

  • Focus and viewpoint
  • Emotional associations of words and phrases
  • Cultural references that native speakers recognize
  • Sound, rhythm, and euphony

The nuances can be important. British writer Daniel Hannan, who served in the European Parliament from 1999-2016, observed that:

“Working in that multilingual environment [the European Parliament] has convinced me that there are intrinsic properties in English that favor the expression of empirical, down-to-earth, practical ideas.

I often listen to the interpretation with my headphones covering one ear, so as to improve my language skills. Frequently, a politician or official will say something that seems to make sense enough in his own tongue but that, when rendered into English, turns out to be so abstract as to be almost meaningless.”

He adds:

“Plenty of academic papers in English are now written in unintelligible [gibberish], the authors evidently confusing opacity of expression with profundity of thought. But such authors generally also look to statist European thinkers when it comes to their view of how to organize society, which rather proves [the] point.”

Nuances change, but the facts stay the same no matter how we talk about them. For example, the Chinese language has some surprises for Western speakers:

  • Chinese nouns have no singular or plural forms.
  • In spoken Chinese, the same word can mean “he,” “she,” or “it.”
  • Chinese verbs have no tenses, such as past, present, or future.

Even so, Chinese people still have to distinguish between singular and plural, male and female, past, present, and future. They just do it in different ways.

The practical reality is the same, but there are inevitably minor differences in how they see it and feel about it. In a few situations, it probably affects how they act.

(P.S. In a couple of months, I’m taking the Chinese language proficiency exam: the Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì. Wish me luck, which in Chinese is zhù nǐ hǎo yùn. I’ll need it.)

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Somehow, We’ve Survived

Insane

For a couple thousand years, people have been trying to prove that God exists.

None of those proofs are much good. They can only convince people who already want to believe in their conclusion.

But maybe the best proof of God’s existence is hiding in plain sight: We’re still here. The human race hasn’t destroyed itself yet.

I say that not in sarcasm, but in a genuine sense of optimism and hope.

We tend to think that the lunatic beliefs of our own era are uniquely bad, but they’re not. People have always been crazy. The only changes are how they’re crazy, how crazy they are, and how much damage they do before their insanity burns itself out.

Until the 1970s or so, you could get fired for showing disrespect to the American flag or for being gay. Now, you can get fired for showing respect to the American flag or disapproving of gays. Until 10 years ago, nobody outside of a mental institution believed that a man could become a woman just by putting on a dress and calling himself “Loretta.” Now, it’s a sacred dogma that’s dangerous to question. In another 50 years, all those beliefs will probably reverse themselves again.

Back in 1903, Yale University sociologist William Graham Sumner observed that:

“The motives from which [people] act have nothing at all to do with the consequences of their actions. Where will you find in history a case of a great purpose adopted by a great society, carried through to the intended result, and then followed by the expected consequences in the way of social advantage? You can find no such thing.”

Humanity keeps blundering from one nutty obsession to the next, and yet we’re still here.

Thank God. I think.

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A Science Experiment About Life

Science is basically about observing the world and trying to deduce its fundamental laws.

It can get a little more complicated, but that’s the essential method.

So let’s try a science experiment about life. It’s easy, it’s informative, and you can do it in a few seconds.

Hold your hand at eye level and extend your arm as far away from your face as you can. Look at your hand.

Now, bring your hand closer to your face, six inches from your eyes. Look at your hand.

You’ve now made two observations. Between the first observation and the second, you changed only one variable: the distance between your eyes and your hand.

What happened?

Your hand seemed to get bigger.

Sure, as an adult, you know that it didn’t really get bigger. But it did look bigger. It took up a larger portion of your visual field.

Based on the experiment, we can deduce a simple but surprisingly far-reaching conclusion:

When things are closer to us, they seem bigger.

And that leads to an important truth about life:

Very few things are as good or as bad as they seem at the time they occur.

Maybe you’re worried about the state of society or the state of the world.

But remember our experiment. The scary things are close to you in time. They’re happening now.

As a result, they tend to look bigger and scarier than they really are.

Yes, some of them actually are bad, but we often overestimate their significance.

Face life with courage. And trust in the fundamental goodness of the universe. It will work out as it should.

Posted in Life, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Don’t Live Like a Victim

Don’t live like a victim.

Even in the most fortunate life, some bad things will happen. To you. To me. To everyone.

Sometimes, it’s because of what other people do. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of luck. And sometimes, it’s because of what we do.

From those facts, people jump to opposite conclusions that are both incorrect. They believe that either:

  • We have total control over our lives. If we think positive and work hard, we’ll inevitably succeed.
  • Or we have no control over our lives, so nothing we do makes any difference. External forces (other people, society, “the system,” etc.) will always thwart us.

The first belief sometimes pays off. Hard work and positive thinking can take us a long way — if we’re lucky.

But if we’re not lucky, we can “do everything right” and still fail. In that case, the first belief leads to the second.

From believing that we control everything, we go to the other extreme and believe that we control nothing.

And that is living like a victim: just sitting on the ground, whimpering, waiting for the cruel world to hit us again.

Don’t do that. It’s not a good way to live.

Sure, there are things in our lives that we can’t control. But there are also things that we can control.

Hard work and positive thinking don’t guarantee success, but they make it more likely.

And even failure can be our friend if it inspires us to think about what went wrong. If the problem was something we can control, then next time we can prevent it.

The bottom line is the same as always:

  • Do your best, but be realistic. You won’t always win.
  • Even when you lose, stay positive and constructive.
  • Always look for ways to do better.
  • Don’t live like a victim.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

Posted in Human Relations, Life, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Forgive Us Our Microaggressions

I have a question, but please don’t take it in the wrong way. I don’t mean to offend anyone. I’m just curious.

How is a microaggression different from nothing at all?

“Microaggression” is one of those new words made up by people with an axe to grind. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as:

“a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.”

“Subtly.”

Sometimes very subtly. Sometimes, so subtly that you can only perceive it if you’re looking for reasons to take offense.

Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in The New York Times that she took her sick dog to the veterinarian’s office. She felt that the receptionist was rude to her because she was black:

“As I completed the forms, the receptionist — a young white woman — turned to me and said, pointing a finger, ‘Go sit down.’ Her voice was flat, with none of the cheer or empathy she’d just shown a white pet owner.”

Really? That’s what she’s got? And that’s a racist microaggression?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been treated rudely by all kinds of people.

Maybe it’s because I’m so darned good-looking. Or too tall. Or too short.

Or maybe it’s just that people are rude sometimes.

Of course, I’m not a member of a “marginalized group.” You know what that is. It’s any group except the box you don’t want to check on a job application.

If you’re looking for reasons to be offended, you can always find them. A few will be real, but most will be imaginary.

Taking offense at imaginary insults will make you unhappy. Other people will avoid you, and that will make you unhappier.

If that’s your choice, well, okay. I won’t take offense.

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Perfection or Nothing?

The French philosopher Voltaire warned that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Pursuit of “perfect” but impossible goals makes us reject possible goals because they’re imperfect. And we often make things even worse than they were in the first place.

That spotlights one of our basic disagreements: Can we accept a society that is good but imperfect? Or should we insist on “perfection or nothing,” and end up with nothing?

It’s not really a dispute between left and right. It’s between realism and magical thinking.

History shows that utopian fantasies have failed every time they’ve been tried. We can’t create a perfect society with imperfect people. The only question is whether or not we’re willing to accept the fact.

But some people are so intolerant of any imperfection (in others) that they can’t accept the fact. Their attitude reflects a famous quote from the Vietnam War of the 1960s: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”1

Norman Podhoretz, who for 35 years was editor of Commentary magazine, explained:

“The Left of the 1930s had a positive alternative in mind — what they thought was positive — namely, the Soviet Union. So America was bad; Soviet Union, good. Turn America into the Soviet Union and everything is fine.

The Left of the 1960s knew that the Soviet Union was flawed because its crimes had been exposed, so they never had a well-defined alternative … Their real passion was to destroy America and the assumption was that anything that came out of the ruins would be better than the existing evil.”

Some people demand “perfection or nothing.” Whether in politics or personal life, it’s unwise and destructive.

Footnote

  1. The quote is disputed and probably apocryphal.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

Posted in Human Relations, Life, Political Science, Psychology, Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why Is This A Banana?

In today’s media landscape, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit something that’s partisan and biased.

Whether you believe that “Trump Is Literally Hitler,” or you call him “the god-emperor,” or you’re somewhere in between, there’s a site for you.

But even biased partisans occasionally get things right. For example, CNN wants you to know that a banana is a banana.

And I agree with CNN.

In other news, Hell froze over, there’s peace in the Middle East, and it rained frogs.

But still. A banana is a banana.

Did you ever wonder why a banana is a banana?

Why don’t we consider it two things instead of one? Why not think of it as a peel with a banana inside?

And why couldn’t a banana be a special kind of rabbit? It would be just like all other rabbits, except for being a yellow fruit that’s nothing like a rabbit.

The answer is that we can define words any way we want. We could think of a banana as either of those things. But it would be clumsy, confusing, and impractical.

That’s why a banana is just one thing, and is a fruit instead of a rabbit: it’s useful to think of it in the way that we do.

And that’s why humanity has the general concepts that it does. Millennia of human history have proven that they are useful for the normal purposes of life.

Of course, we’re free to re-define the word “banana” so it applies to anything that’s fruit-related. A banana could then be:

  • An actual banana
  • An apple
  • A tangerine
  • A bunch of grapes
  • A quart of orange juice
  • A fruit smoothie
  • A box of Froot Loops
  • A fruit delivery truck
  • Anything else related to fruit

But then if you asked for a banana, you’d never know what you were going to get.

Of course, such an objection would be made only by banana-phobes who are full of hate. There couldn’t be any other reason. Right?


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

Posted in Life, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments