the dream of a common language

This is a different post. I’ve been going back and forth on whether to write it, but it occurred to me after joining in a few conversations on Instagram that ignoring it isn’t a solution.

In this kind of blogging we strive to be apolitical. And with good reason. We want to talk to people about the things that connect us, and we don’t want our differences to prevent us from it. I think that’s a very important aim. But I think that the true dream that lies there, unspoken, is not to create community by being quiet about divisive issues at all cost, but to have a shared language — and by that I mean a shared set of concerns and values — that we could use to talk. To really hear each other. Not to debate but to talk in a way that makes it possible for us to understand the other arguments, the ones we can’t yet understand or relate to.

I’ll be honest and say that the result of the referendum in the UK caught me by surprise. I still don’t know how to wrap my head around it. The split is so profound — almost 50/50, although there is, indeed, a result, and one that carries as yet not entirely known or knowable consequences… And we’re observing a similar split in so many different countries.

For years now we’ve been living in an increasingly divided political reality. There are some differences between specific countries, but the depth of the division is comparable. We have been developing political labels that need to be translated from the lingo of one side of the divide to that of the other — otherwise, they don’t have meaning.

So what tools do we have for crafting conversations rather than debates in which we yell our ideas over voices from the other side?

Everyone wants to be happy and wants to avoid suffering. I’m not saying that to sound Pollyanna-ish. I think that’s what we genuinely share. I also think that that’s easily forgotten when we enter debates in which we act as it’s possible to convince the other side to capitulate (it’s not because we’re never truly addressing each other’s concerns). I think it’s where we need to start because it means acknowledging the pain caused by profound rifts.

This post is not only about what just happened in the UK — though it will have an impact on us all, echoing around the world, though in different degrees. Here, in the US, the Supreme Court has just issued a ruling that puts the lives of many people in jeopardy. We are, in different corners of the world, debating immigration without a shared language and without a shared recognition that we are talking about people who, like us (whoever “we” are in this conversation), want to be happy and to avoid suffering. The vision of immigration that emerges from the debates is polarized between outrage over the lack of tolerance and outrage over the incomers imagined as a hive rather than individual people. I wish we were able to talk, not to debate. And to include in the conversation these people who are like us even if we don’t acknowledge that in our divided language.

I’m still hesitant about posting this because I really don’t want to alienate anyone. I don’t want to alienate people who disagree with me. I hope there is a possibility we can start finding that common language and that we can begin to heal the divisions that are turning us into each other’s enemies.


*the title of this post is an allusion to the title of a volume of poetry by Adrienne Rich.


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I write about sewing, knitting, and may sometimes be tempted to talk about books.

2 thoughts on “the dream of a common language”

  1. Thank you for your words. It’s strange to see the tendencies in people that want to devide: Us against them. What does that even mean? We recently had a series on Flemmish television in which a group of Flemmish people followed the route taken by (Syrian, African…) refugees to get to Europe and got to talk to individual refugees on their way to Europe. It was heartbreaking to watch, but the most important thing I remember from the episodes was this: we are all human beings, looking for happiness and safety. This seems logical, yet, we might forget. We cannot see each other as things, we need to see eachother as people. As long as we can talk, we can grow.


    1. Thank you, Hanne. That series sounds very interesting, but also difficult to watch at times, I imagine.

      The way I try to understand these tendencies is that when in distress, we try to make sense of our situation often by assigning blame. It’s not a good psychological mechanism, but it’s a very old one. In that moment of anger and confusion it’s the first one that comes to mind. If we stop ourselves and let the wave of strong emotion pass, we’re able to think more clearly, and to gradually pursue an actual analysis of the situation rather than assign blame.

      Now, if in the grip of those emotions we get stuck on assigning blame so much that we begin to make up stories that pin the blame on someone and uncover more and more connections (often irrational ones and quite improbable), we fuel the emotions further. The anger that would have otherwise dissipated, leaving us with a clearer mind, stays on. And the confusion deepens.

      I think that what we’re seeing around the world is demagogues fanning the flames of that anger. It begins with real distress: economic recession, unemployment, debt, violence. In terms of immigration, the sudden influx of a larger number of people into an area is certainly destabilizing and stressful. That much is true. But the hateful stories about these people, ascribing to them all manner of bad intentions, are a way to pin the blame for that real stress of the situation. They amplify that stress. It all becomes surreal. And the people are turned into scapegoats, dehumanized. They are turned into “unreal others” for whom there is no sympathy. It takes work to make them seam real again after that’s happened — you have to hear them talk, make sense of their choices and circumstances.

      It’s really sad how much harm can snowball from an initial event if we ignore the good advice not to act in anger.


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