Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Definition by negation

I've had several folks from my past come back into my life recently, and it prompted a conversation last night. It was a lengthy and weighty conversation about unity, humanity, fear, control, and perception. For the next few posts, I want to share with you some of the more important points. It really will lead/connect back to our usual gayness, I promise.

I learned something in Senior Seminar with the English Department. Language, words, and most symbols are all quite arbitrary. There is nothing inherent about a tree that says "the word for me is tree." Think about the myriad of languages that exist in the world today, and those that have "died out" in the past. They all have different words that represent "tree." We have chosen arbitrary words and arbitrary spellings in order to communicate with one another. The combination of letters t, r, e, and e doesn't have anything to do with what makes up a tree, where it grows, etc. They are connected only because of a mutual agreement and understanding that gives us a mental picture of a tree.

There are problems with this, of course. When I read or hear the word tree, I might envision a pine tree. Sharp needles, rough bark, tall, hearty, and green year round. Someone standing next to me, hearing or seeing the exact same word, might picture an aspen tree. Dormant over the winter months, smooth bark, broad leaves, and changing colors throughout the year. If we were both to describe the process for climbing the tree, uses for the wood, the smells, the textures, etc...we would probably be on two different pages, though the books would be related. It's why you learn about things like "specificity of language" in school. It helps to remove some of this confusion.

But how do create the image for tree in our heads? How do we know what a tree IS? We create a definition by what something is NOT. "Tree" is not "cat." It's not rock, or river. It's not a taco, and so on. Because "tree" can be more than one thing to us, we only what it means in relation to what it isn't. With words or images, this can be fairly simple.

We can only define things based on our own knowledge and experience. If you see the word "Hund," you cannot pull meaning from it unless you have something filed away in the rolodex of your brain that matches it. In this case, it's a word in German. If you've never learned German, you won't have much luck searching your mental databases. If you're lucky, a word will be similar to something else. (For the geeks in the room, these are called cognates.) Hund looks and sounds like the word "hound," and means dog. I can usually pull some meaning out of something I read in Dutch, because the written language is similar enough to German that I can make educated guesses about the meaning it's trying to convey. We create definitions through comparison.

The problem with this is that we do the same thing with people. We're quick to create distinctions about "other." Black vs. white. Republican vs. Democrat. Young vs. old. Jewish vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. We assign these labels to people quickly and easily, and use them to define that which is different from "us" or "me." We focus on these differences, even though there are far more similarities to be found. No matter the color of your skin, most people are born with the same number of toes, fingers, eyes, etc. We have different blood types, but they're made of the same thing. Yet we continually focus on what separates us or sets us apart. More often, we focus on what sets someone else apart. They are not like us in X way, so they are "different" or "not normal."

We then assign value to "normal." "Was the baby born normal?" "Why can't I have a normal job?" "Is that normal?" And normal is always defined in relation to ourselves. It doesn't matter if a majority of people in the world are not "white," that is considered "normal" to us in the US. Normalcy is like us, largely because we want to believe that we are like others, that we are normal and that we are operating in the natural state and ways.

Think about how you define things around you, and then how you define the people around you. How do you describe someone if they're not present. "You know Linus, the guy in the kilt." "Squid, the one with pink hair." "Big Gay Jim." Don't we use the differences as a basis for ruling out the things we're NOT describing? At what point do those differences become a definition? And do you want a part of you, one singular difference, to define you? Am I ONLY gay?

Coming next - Control: Why do we feel the need to categorize everything and everyone?

No comments: