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15th November 2016

The failures of communication

Ryan Khurana examines the nature of communication, perception, and the ineffectiveness of modern debate

Language is the most essential characteristic of human thought and communication. In my opinion, all rational thought depends on the mastery of some language. The use of this language, however, is highly personal and varied, and so the interpretation of ideas and arguments raises a whole host of problems within contemporary debate. It is my view that within social and political discourse, those of different ideological backgrounds end up using different variants of natural language, which results in them talking past each other. This may seem like an odd point to make, so I will try my best to clarify my position.

Our communication with each other is a broken telephone from the offset. When we perceive the world around us, we translate our immediate perceptual experiences into the language of the thoughts and ideas that can be recalled by our mind. When we engage in conversation with others, we translate the thoughts in our mental language into the communicable language of the listener.

I am engaging in this act as I write this, translating what I think in my head into the English that I hope will be understandable to all who read it. At this point two translation errors have already occurred: the errors of translating my sensory perception and the errors of translating my thoughts into natural language. Information has been lost or perverted, while details or correlations that never existed may have entered my mind or have been miscommunicated in what I say or write. It is on an act of faith that I hope the interpretation of those on the receiving end is identical to that of my mental processes — and this is a near impossibility.

The translation error then repeats itself in converting natural language into the thoughts of the receiver and the consequent iterations of communication that occur. Without anything else, error is endemic to our communication.

Add to this our theory-laden view of the world and the problem becomes even greater. When we perceive the world, we are not simply receiving data, but rather imposing our particular ideological outlook of how things operate. We look for patterns and create predictions and expectations depending on the particular views we subscribe to, be they scientific, pseudo-scientific, philosophical, or religious. This is possible because the sensory data we receive is compatible with an infinite range of theories about causality and existence.

This theory-laden perspective is not restricted to material phenomena, but also to our social and political observations. We view all social interactions through the prism of our ideological views of politics or economics. In doing so, we filter meaning in language through our theoretical worldview, and we assume that all communication is filtered through the same one, as we cannot escape the institutional framework of our minds. We cannot hypothesise of things outside the boundaries of the theory we have, meaning there is an incommensurability between the logics of various speakers.

In terms of political discourse, this means various theories of meanings float around in the heads of various individuals and groups. It means the same word could mean a multitude of different things, and effective communication of these points becomes difficult. For example, I, an avid free marketeer, consider my first and foremost social concern to be progress for all. I view the free market as the most effective tool for improving the lives of those who are disadvantaged, and can defend my view through the statistical corroboration of things that I believe falsify competing theories and serve as positive evidence for my own.

At the same point, a socialist may view me as an enemy to improving living standards, and view that they have enough evidence to falsify my theories and corroborate their own. Our theoretical frameworks allow us to perceive data and the occurrences of the world in such a way that they must conform to our logic, and it is hard to escape the mental limitations to perception that our theory-laden views prescribe.

As a result of this, most political discourse ends up as talking past each other, because people of competing world views cannot effectively convey their interpretation of the world to those who do not already share it. This problem has only been exacerbated by the identity politics of simplifying the world into neat groups that no individual wholly fits within.

Vacuous terms that are meaningless except to the very groups that would use them, such as “neoliberal”, “Trot”, or “Cultural Marxist,” are used only by intellectual opponents to categorise and systematically disregard the views of those that do not share a particular set of beliefs. This has created more specialised “in-group” languages, which further alter the perception of the world and make one more insulated from competing opinions.

A great example of this is Corbyn supporters who are unconvinced of his inability to be elected because they are only exposed to those who share a particular world view. This dismissal of opposition creates bubbles that only reinforce the most disconnected and extreme of particular views. It further creates barriers to effective communication and discourse.

The purpose of this exposition was not so much to provide a solution to these problems, as I feel that they are simply natural occurrences that have persisted in one form or another in various domains. It is however, in my view, of great value to be aware of your own use of language and the way communication is occurring between you and those you disagree with.

An important tip for all who wish to engage in productive debate is to constantly ask yourself and your colleagues “what do you mean?” One must continuously break down concepts and ideas into more explicit and easily communicable terms until the theoretical crux of the disagreement is reached; it adds a great deal of depth and intelligence to any discussion.

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