Every day we talk to friends, family, coworkers, even strangers. We make calls, send emails, text messages, post comments online. We crack jokes, sprinkle in some sarcasm, add a dash of opinions. Most of the time those we engage with understand what we attempt to convey and the interaction is smooth and seamless. Why is that? Simply put, you have a common ground from which to build up a mutual understanding. Your circle of friends tends to consist of like-minded people who share your enthusiasm for music, bar hopping, political views, and whatever else happens to join your kindred spirits. I know what some of you might be thinking, that you have friends as diverse as Costa Rican rain forests. While this may be true, I urge you to list the differences and commonalities and you will find that one side outweighs the other. There is nothing wrong with seeking and surrounding yourself with like-minded people; this is after all, how relations, a sense of belonging, community, and culture are built and we have been studying how these relationships developed over time since we became curious about the nature of our existence.
While many social sciences are tackling how we became the animals we are today, it would be wrong to assume that all scientific interests are benign. Fields such as Marketing for example, were developed out of a desire to tap into the psychology of target audiences. The research collected has helped companies successfully place their products in the homes of millions every year. While I have my quips with Marketing it is still an incredibly fascinating field, able to group us into broader categories we obliviously subscribe to while lulling us into a false sense of independence. We seldom challenge the categorization and how we come to adore the products we buy but, admitting we are susceptible to having our fundamental values corrupted would mean acknowledging our sense of self can be influenced which would surmise, there is no such thing as a free will. This stubbornness—as like to call it—gets us in trouble because it allows us to maintain a distance from the type of reflexivity necessary to protect our core-self from the kind of influence we so actively ignore and deny.
So, what does this all mean? For starters, it means that we are not only very good at categorizing our experiences, but that the very act of categorizing comes naturally to us (this could have huge implications on how we understand the formation of racism, sexism, and all other isms which I will discuss in a later post). Arguably, we have been categorizing experiences since birth and the associations we've made along the way with the very objects, people, experiences, and ideas we have encountered undoubtedly, have shaped us and our worldview. To add another layer, we are creatures who adore recognition and thrive in positive reinforcement. We tend to gravitate towards whatever makes us feel good and having like minded friends increases the chances for those feel-good experiences. Homogenous relations therefore, are a great way to reinforce and reaffirm that our worldview is good because others share it. In these groups, we are reassured, we feel safe, we feel understood.
According to Semiotics (the study of signs and symbols, how they are assigned meaning, and how we engage with meaning), words can have an abundance of meaning because the symbols they represent will differ slightly for each and every single one of us. Let's say you were asked to visualize an 'apple,' what colour would it be? If you imagined it to be 'red' I might suggest that the first images you had been exposed to would would have coloured the apple red. Say I had never laid eyes on an apple and one day I was presented a green one, it wouldn't be wrong to assume that every time I visualize an apple it would appear 'green.' Why is this worth considering more deeply? Because understanding each other heavily relies on associating the same meaning to a shared vocabulary and ideas. It isn't the only thing that is required for successful communication, but the importance of a common understanding is imperative to bridging differences and to systematically eradicating the misconceptions that spur or racism, sexism, and any form of negative associations we may have about a person or a group of people.
This will be no easy task. Language is in constant flux as each generation evolves and reshapes the vocabulary in their image while the world simultaneously continues to shrink through globalization via increased interdependence. Then of course, there is technology, the great enabler, which allows ideology (both positive and negative) to be widespread and accessible like never before. These are literally the best of times, but also, the worst of times as populations grow weary of the shifting marketplace, the geopolitical issues that steadily appear less and less solvable, while a growing fear of assimilation is brewing in the nationalities who feel the pressure of a new form of colonization. On the bright side, technology is gifting social scientists with an influx of data on human behaviour, culture, and the opportunity to study the 'ego' and it's rawest form: the internet troll.
Scaling the topic back down into our homogenous groups, instances where communication break down can also occur every now and then. Benign examples include but are not specific to heading out to meet your friends only to realize you are in the wrong place, at the wrong time, etc. It's important to note that I am not referring to instances where language is purposely used to mislead each other, but rather to those instances where the phrasing of instructions, of emotions, of opinions are interpreted to mean vastly different things--this for me, is the at the heart of misunderstanding. This might suggest that we may never be able to work the kinks out of misunderstanding one another completely but, we are certainly on our way to bridging this gap with worldwide interest in learning a common tongue (English). In theory, this is phenomenal as it would give us a leveled ground from which to build up understanding and though many would argue that the loss of culture would be far too great, we cannot deny that the more we depend on each other the more inevitable the change will become. To ensure there is no confusion, I adore our differences because I believe they make the world a far more interesting place but the level to which we are capable of misinterpreting each other is alarming and it is my opinion that we need to elevate ourselves and our thinking. We cannot allow ourselves to wallow in ignorance any longer, the stakes are far too high.