Sarah Federman, PhD Complimentary video on Narrative & Conflict
I help people better understand the role of language in conflict production, transformation, and prevention so that they may be more effective leaders in their career of choice. More about Language & Conflict
Plato wanted us to consider that a world existed beyond our cultural understanding of it. In other words, he believed in a world independent of the words we use to describe it. For him, words simply referred to one another without necessarily corresponding to any objective truth or reality.
Whether or not Plato is correct about this objective world, the way we describe our own experiences and desires has a very real impact on the world in which we find ourselves. Rather than erase culture as Plato might like us to do, I work with the cultural constructions and their metaphors to lead people to new understandings and new ways of inhabiting their lives.
I take the position, along with Levinas and others, that what we consider significant (material or immaterial) derives from the language we impose upon it. Simply said, through language we make meaning. The meaning we ascribe to events and the identities we impose upon others impact how we interact with them and ultimately how we solve problems -- or do not.
You know from experience that the words used to describe the Other (be that your ex-spouse or neighboring nation) has a very real impact on the kinds of solutions that emerge. If, for example, you call someone a "terrorist," this limits the kind of approaches you might consider. Torture, for example, might seem a legitimate approach with someone so dangerous as a "terrorist." Remember that Vichy France called French Resistants, during World War II, "terrorists." Eventually those French "terrorists" were called heroes. In Indonesia and Cambodia in the 1960s-70s, being labeled or not labeled a "communist" led to almost certain death.
I want to make visible some of these taken for granted ways in which we articulate our world and the problems within it. For example, if you kill someone it is called "murder" -- if the government kills someone it is considered simply a "casualty" of a troubled world. Is there a difference? How do our word choices lull us into feel or not feeling a certain way about killing people?
Using Language to Change Our Lives
Considering language means looking beyond labels and word choice, it means considering how we construct our stories about world. This requires greater reflexivity and responsibility. Rather than changing our stories about the world to reflect the pure world Plato believes exist, we can change our story to help create the world as we want it to be.
Words can shift our material experience. Surely you know examples in your own life when your words worsened a situation and times when your language improved a troublesome dynamic.