Saturday, June 14, 2014

Negotiating Meaning

-in my meditation garden-

Yesterday I listened to an interview in which two Iraqi citizens were discussing the rising military tensions in their country. The discussion got pretty vehement as they expressed their opinions- one person said, "What's going on in our country has nothing to do with religion," -  while his fellow countryman argued, "it has everything to do with religion." As I continued to listen to the interview, I quickly came to understand that these men were using the word "religion" in two very different ways. For the one man, "religion" was a spiritual path, while the other understood religion as a political institution. Yet because they were using the "same" word, they assumed they were talking about the "same" thing.

 It makes me think about how important it is for us to understand words, language and how we communicate if we are ever going to be able to enter into any sort of reasonable and respectful dialogue with one another.

Most people think of communication between human beings in a very mechanistic way. Communication  between human beings is understood as the transfer of information between senders and receivers. One person, (the sender) has an idea, packs up his ideas into words, and transfers those ideas to another person (the receiver) who unpacks the ideas.  This may be exactly what happens with computers, but when it comes to people, nothing could be further from the truth.

Words by themselves have no inherent meaning at all; and even though we may use the same words, everyone brings his or her own baggage, understanding and experience to every single word and gesture we use when we communicate with one another. This is true from the most concrete to the most abstract level of language.

I talk to you about my "dog" and as I do so, you bring all your "dog" baggage to this word. I love my dog; he is sweet and cute, but you may have been bitten by a dog and you fear dogs and can't stand to be around them. So we may be using the same word but bring very different meanings to it.  

So in a very real sense whenever we interact with one another, we are "negotiating meaning" not transferring information. In every interaction we all bring our own experience and understanding to the negotiating table of everyday life and attempt to arrive at some shared meaning. Sometimes people will negotiate similar meanings; sometimes they will use the same words, but the words will have such very different meanings that the negotiations won't be all that successful. 

In my daily blog post I often use words like "God" or "religion," and I am virtually assured that every day some person or other will read these words and will launch an attack against me, especially in the online world, filled with so much anti-religious animosity. 

Almost every day someone will (sometimes very angrily) ask me, "How can you be so childish as to  believe in a superman deity in the sky?"  Or they will lash out, "Look at the pain religion has caused by launching wars, persecutions, inquisitions?"

In all these cases, there is an inherent assumption that since we are using the same words (God, religion) we are talking about the same thing, but in fact we are using the same words very differently. 

I use the word "God" and I mean "an Abiding Energy of Love,  a Holy Presence flowing in and through all things, not a man in the sky. I use the word "religion" as a word to describe a "spiritual pathway" and not an ethnic or political institution.  

Interestingly enough, when I am able to actually have an online dialogue with people about "God" or about "religion," we often discover that we both don't believe in the same thing, and that the "God" I believe in may not be that unreasonable after all.

Just because we use the same words doesn't mean that we are talking abut the same thing.  


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