Language, communication and the social

A mid-week (and mid-pandemic) reflection; my words for thought

(Text page in Arabic Naskhi script and embellished panels as line fillers. Image taken from ff. 18v-19 of Fragments from Exodus (1:1-8:5). Written in Hebrew in Arabic characters. Public domain image sourced from here.)

Since I last wrote the world has been turned upside down and inside out. Digital technologies have offered a lifeline for many, a safe way to stay connected with friends, family and collaborators. With the help of platforms, tools and apps, we can share all sorts of media – images, audio, video, text – to express ourselves and communicate with others. Here, I want to briefly muse on one medium: that is the technology of language man has now long been equipped with.

Language is the way we communicate with each other. It has a social role to play. And yet, it can quickly morph into the asocial once the crafting of the written word is weaponised to further an individual or organisation’s agenda. Here, I am speaking about the abuse of rhetoric.

Rhetoric has an important role to play in literary traditions. In schools across the world Martin Luther King's ‘I have a dream’ address is studied as a powerful example of speech. For many, the pandemic has permitted the time to return to favourite œuvres; we have found ourselves rediscovering the power of the written word to whisk us away into different times, places and experiences whilst enjoying the comfort (and safety) of an armchair.

But what happens when language in its stylised form – what we might see as rhetoric – is not just used but abused? What happens when words are abused to give the semblance of fact? What happens when words do more to portray individual opinion than shared truths? 

In other words, what happens when words conceal a bias which we then adopt and encourage in our turn?

This is one element of our ongoing information crisis, a crisis which has been grimly exacerbated by the Covid infodemic and one which we urgently need to address.  

It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to develop awareness of this (ab)use of language if we are to become communicators with integrity, if we are to understand the impact of our words as we rein language back in and ensure it truly plays its social role.

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