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Language and moral dimensions

I was just reading Andrew Hinton’s blog – whose thinking usually floats on a plane above the average smart person – where he quotes from an article discussing the ideas of Jonathan Haidt and talks a bit about Lakoff, and it made me think of a recent observation.

Mel and I argue all the time. It’s not negative, vicious or combative, on the contrary, it’s often energetic, positive and leads to growth and enlightenment on either side if not both. Though I’ve known we are a good match for each other for over five years, it’s been only a couple of months that we have lived together in the same house and this physical closeness has cemented that assumption. It has also created more opportunities for conflicts to happen. And by conflict I simply mean A expresses something different from B’s worldview and a negotiation needs to happen to resolve the mismatch.

99% of the times that we get into a debate, regardless of the origin or the resolution, we have meta-discussions about the way we are talking (what we are saying as well as what we are not saying). I have attributed that to a) Mel being the best-read person I know and having a wealth of knowledge and vocabulary that results in me learning a new word or meaning in every discussion, and b) my interest in the link between thinking and language, and therefore it’s impact in people’s behaviors, c) we were each raised in a different cultural setting with a different primary language (ok, ok, and d) the fact that lesbians are notorious for processing everything).

We can be in the middle of a discussion about something really important or emotional and one of us will go off on a tangent about the word usage in the sentence one said to explain why they were acting in manner X. When you’re already pissed off, that can be quite enervating, but it’s also fascinating (scientifically), so as painful as it may be (to get your very important topic interrupted by linguistic analysis), the scientific interest often wins.

Which gets me back to Haidt and Lakoff. As Andrew points in his post, Lakoff is very influential in IA and, to me personally, opened the doors to a part of science that I’m very fond off. To Lakoff everything in our thinking is grounded in metaphor (and therefore, language is how those metaphors are expressed). I feel that personally being bi-lingual and knowing how thinking about the same thing in English versus thinking about it in Portuguese affects my judgment and interactions – the metaphors are not quite the same when the language, thought translatable, is not quite the exact match.

But there is something about that fundamental assumption that language plays such a large role in our actions that bothers me. I always felt like it was accurate but insufficient. There is something else, something related to moral dimensions that affects behaviors as strongly as language, if not more strongly.

Living in the US for the past three years, having been raised in Brazil, gives me a perspective on the US society that I don’t believe a native would be able to appreciate (likewise, I lack that perspective about Brazilian society). I see incredible debates about social issues where it’s easy to spot how the specific use of language wins or loses the argument. At the same time, I see debates where the use of language is “at the same level” (if there is such a thing – roughly equivalent) and yet, one side is absolutely more successful than the other in the behaviors they affect. I see the same issues being discussed in Brazil and all things being equal, the outcome is entirely different. It would be easy to encapsulate the difference as “cultural”, but that doesn’t explain much. I believe the fundamental difference, which makes up the ‘cultural’ difference, is about moral dimensions.

I wouldn’t know who to quote to support this argument, but I firmly believe morality is personal. It’s informed and reflective of cultural and social morality, but cultural and social morality are just aggregates of the “majority”.

Mel (I think because of being Jewish – her social/cultural morality?) has very high standards for social interactions, specially how to treat people. People who are rude, people who are vicious, people who are unfair and people who try to take advantage of her upset her to a degree I find unbelievable. Any of the resulting behaviors that I would consider small and quickly dismiss, like talking louder or “making a face” or sounding dismissive, upset her to the core. I get frustrated because I don’t want to see her upset and will say something like “Why do you let something so small get to you?” or after I feel it’s been sufficient time, “Why can’t you let it go?”. Though I may agree about how other people’s behaviors were indeed negative, I cannot internalize the values that drive how she interprets people’s behaviors. I can certainly appreciate that perspective, but the extent and intensity of the reaction makes no sense to me.

That’s one example, there are hundreds of things like that. When I can’t solve a problem to my satisfaction, even if it is not my problem, I get extremely frustrated, much the same way she does when subject to someone being rude to her. In my thinking, there is no problem without a solution. I have always been the kid that had an answer for everything; whether or not that was the answer people were looking for. That drive is what led me to the career I now pursue. In my head, everything has a next step and every question has an answer: If you don’t know the next step or the answer, you haven’t looked hard enough or you haven’t asked the right questions. So, this past month when we had 5-8 flies flying around the house at any given time (I HATE flies), I cleaned every nook and cranny, ensured every window, door and access to the outside was sealed and eliminated any possibility that flies could get in or grown in the house. Plus I killed all the flies currently roaming. And the flies continued to appear. This kind of situation gets me at wit’s end and leaves me feeling overwhelmed, disappointed and distressed. It’s a violent reaction. I like this example because language has no impact in the issue. I hate flies in English, Portuguese and French and I can’t understand where the flies are coming from in either language. Thinking about the problem in any of these languages leaves me equally distraught. There are people I know who respond to a situation like this with “oh it’s a mystery” and “we’ll never know” or something else of the sort and are able to let it go; some can dismiss it immediately even. My reaction makes no sense to them.

Moral dimensions are so central to how we think that it is not surprising how much impact it has in how we behave, including how we express ourselves through language. All this thinking is telling me I need to study this further because Lakoff is not quite cutting it anymore. One initial question that comes to mind is: if language is the basis of our thinking, we can identify and de-construct it with something like speech analysis or a similar tool. If moral dimensions are the basis of thinking, how do we analyse it? what methods capture that level of abstraction?

Thanks Andrew!


Donna Maurer said,

October 1, 2007 @ 6:05 am

Great post Liv. So great I don’t even have any comments. Lots of good thoughts here ;)


Livia Labate said,

October 4, 2007 @ 11:57 pm

Thanks Donna :)


LĂ­cia said,

November 3, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

Very well written; I identify myself in many of your thoughts. I am sure people interpret what you wrote in many different ways, but I believe I totally got you. It is about time you read Mikhail Bakhtin. He looks at language as culture; language is social, an ideological product and affects society. Meaning is constructed by two people that interact.

about “…we have meta-discussions about the way we are talking…” well, I think it runs in the family :)

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