So Why Do I Keep Talking?/Othering

Pt 1: Communication

I spend a lot of time bemoaning my ability to get communication wrong. People usually respond with, “Oh, I understand you perfectly.” But often they just think they do, and I’m still left going “Hey… come back… you don’t understand yet…” while they wander off with the wrong idea.

And sometimes, my inability to communicate properly explodes in ways that remind me that I really don’t make any sense.

This week I tried to communicate something, and failed so utterly that I think I had the totally opposite effect. What I was trying to argue against, was instead sanctioned as fully acceptable by people in authority. In the process I may have caused other things and other people to be scapegoated as the problem. An explosion of misunderstanding and miscommunicaition may have been my fault.

If nothing else, it’s clear I shouldn’t have tried to communicate anything at all about the issue. It was one of those times where, when I step in and try to speak, chaos ensues. I’m used to these situations. So why do I keep talking?

Words don’t mean the same things to different people. In communication, words are not the most important thing. Communication is a complex thing, but non-verbal communication seems to account for up to 90% of our communication, depending on the conversation, with words accounting for the remainder of understanding. In the middle, you have to deal with major variations in semantics (meaning), pragmatics (practical intention behind words), context, dialect, and more. What I mean when I sat the terms “bullying”, “social justice”, “disability” or “wardrobe” can be vastly different from what you hear in those words. I can express concerns that we should each be taking more responsibility for what we say, and others can eventually hear that as “Certain people need to stop doing this one thing that we don’t like.” People who are not us. Letting us off the hook.

Pt 2: Othering

Which takes me to Othering. Whether we’re talking about weirdness and ‘woo’ in Paganism, or the causes of mass shootings, or the reasons why society seems to be falling apart — the very FIRST thing we want to do is to blame someone else. Our first reaction is almost always to Other another group. Why?

Because that way we don’t have to blame ourselves.

That shooter has Asperger’s, says the media. Thank god – we’re nothing like him and could never do that. Quick, make mental health policy more stringent! Let’s keep shouting about how we could never do that – the code behind our ‘reform policy’ rhetoric! (Even though ASDs are not mental health problems, and also the shooter turned out not to have Asperger’s – but somehow the media forgot to mention that.)

That Pagan is weird. Quick, we must put them in a group and give them a label (let’s call them ‘fluffy bunny’. Or ‘godspouse’). We’re nothing like them and could never be that weird. Now let’s all condemn them for making Paganism seem more weird to outsiders! While we continue to pray to gods that most people consider long-dead, and go on spiritual journeys inside our heads, and wave wands around and do magic! But thank gods we’re not too weird! We could never do that!

That person is talking too loudly about how they are often oppressed or dehumanized or just plain afraid. We could change our behaviour, but that would take work. Quick, let’s find another cause of the problem! One that doesn’t implicate us as the problem in any way! Maybe the problem is loud feminists, or overly stroppy disabled people, or people who are regularly intimidated by the general atmosphere and tone of a particular internet environment. But at least it’s not us, right? We could never do that!

We’re all human. We’re all capable of incredibly awful things. The sooner we accept that, and take responsibility for our own behaviour, the better.

Maybe we are the problem, and maybe we have the power to do something about that.

This post brought to you by ‘Thoughts I Am Still Working On’ brain radio. Call it a working draft, on both these subjects.

Cross-posted to Accidental Auguries.

8 thoughts on “So Why Do I Keep Talking?/Othering

  1. If you’re talking about the situation I think you are, you aren’t the one who miscommunicated. You communicated just fine, and one particular person in a position of authority chose to dismiss the concerns that were raised by you, me, and others, in order to further a pet agenda that had been just waiting for an excuse. That scapegoating was going to happen regardless of what was said, because this one person has a history of pointing fingers at the people who make noise. The failure there wasn’t yours, and you weren’t wrong to speak up.

  2. No idea what this related to, but what you’ve said here is brilliant. You pay a lot more attention to words and the different ways others here them than the vast majority of people who are supposedly ‘normal’ in their thinking. I think you’re a very good communicator of very difficult things. What you say isn’t what everyone wants to hear, but their trying not to hear is not your shortcoming.

  3. The specific context here isn’t important, except as a starting point for your reflections, which are spot on. Making excuses for others’ behaviour is always a danger not just in the larger frame but the more personal one as well, I know I’ve been ‘guilty’ of the latter and am only now coming to terms with that, which is neither easy nor painless.The dual dangers of excusing and scapegoating are more easily overlooked than overcome. Your ideas and the words you use are well thought out and carefully articulated. When you say things some might not want to hear they will shout over you to avoid what makes them uncomfortable. Don’t let that keep you from speaking difficult things.

  4. I’m acutely aware of the irony in typing this but… yes! Everything you say here makes absolute sense to me. I have had enough conversations with people who share absolutely no language with me to know that words convey only a small amount what we mean to say, and we should always be wary of the weight we give them online. I try to imagine the tone of voice of the person typing – often reading something back in several different tones of voice if it offends me, before actively taking any offence. Easier said than done :)

    But part of this that resonates most deeply with me is that recognition of ‘othering’. Such an important point to make.

    In certain social circles, I think there might also be a slight element of this going on as well… http://xkcd.com/1176/ (“Oh, we would never say that about *you*!” )

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