There can’t be many conversations ‘smaller’ than those between babies and their parents and carers, but that doesn’t mean those exchanges are unimportant. In fact, as we would surely all agree, precisely the converse is the case. It’s no surprise then that a literature review and some direct research reported today (19 October) add credence to this commonly held belief.
Two broadsheet newspaper articles of very different politic have within a week referred to language in relation to our DNA and our understandings of the world.
First came this comment by David Hannan in the Daily Telegraph on climate change and why it is not a ‘socialist’ issue:
The trouble is that that we all have assumptions, scientists as much as anyone else. Our fathers learned, on the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa, to make sense of their surroundings by finding patterns, and this tendency is encoded deep in our DNA. It explains the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. When presented with a new discovery, we automatically try to press it into our existing belief-system; if it doesn’t fit, we question the discovery before the belief-system. Sometimes, this habit leads us into error. But without it, we should hardly survive at all.
And then followed the proposition by Stefan Collini in an article on social mobility (or not) in The Guardian, that language actually ‘creates its own DNA’, in the sense of causing us to understand things in certain and sometimes different ways:
The ideological functions of … language are most tellingly exhibited in the use of the metaphor of ‘the level playing field’. We think we know what this phrase means. But language creates its own DNA that works itself out without our intending or even being aware of it…. Taking a spirit-level to every inch of the pitch is not going to even up a contest between Man Utd and a pub team.
The underlying politics
What is interesting here is that David Hannan writes from a right wing political perspective, whilst Stephan Collini writes from quite a fundamentally left wing position. Hannan’s piece, entitled ‘So SHOULD conservatives believe in man-made climate change?‘, seeks to explain climate change denial and consider alternative conservative responses to the debate; Collini’s article on ‘Social mobility: the playing field fallacy ~ Fashionable talk of social mobility has ideological roots that only seek to underpin inequalities ‘ wants to challenge models of social mobility which are predicated on the idea of meritocracy.
But both Hannan and Collini tell us that how we believe things is in part structured by the language we use.
So is it possible for people from different political positions to have genuine dialogue, or will they generally talk across each other?
Are there forms of communication which move beyond the various ‘DNAs’ of language, to common understandings of the subject matter, if not of the ensuing consequences?