- a. :weakness, failing.
I want to know who screwed up.
Everyone seems to have an answer: millennials destroyed loyalty and boomers the environment. Politicians point to the previous administration, who previously pointed at the other in an endless loop. In Canada, this political carousel has been spinning for 150 years; with the division of populations along generational lines going back 2,500 years, and divisions along named visual modifiers such as race, sex, and ability far before. Some receive the benefits of society, while others toil without a voice.
It feels like a political treadmill, and upheaval becomes more of an appealing option each election cycle.
These divisions have been faced and fought all over the world. In South Africa, apartheid was fought by protests and international pressure, while in revolutionary France, the blade was meant to heal the class divide between the bourgeois and proletariat. But the guillotine has never worked to bring about a stable state of change. The blade separates – the head from the body: life from death – and reinforces ideological lines along those who drop the blade and those who lay beneath.
This history of attempts to build a new whole by destroying one side is not restricted to division between people, but is a prominent topic in philosophy, famously summarized in the 17th century by Rene Descartes. While he could see his body, he argued that his sight could be an illusion, yet it would be an illusion we would be rational in trusting, reinforcing the importance of our visual cues. Humans are visually biased, our brains forming patterns and relaying the important parts so that we can construct narratives. Descartes’ major conclusion was summarized in the famous statement:
Cogito Ergo Sum: I think therefore I am.
Descartes doubted his body, for there was only proof of his mind. In doing so, he rationalized a rift between the inseparable.
This dualistic view of the human laid the foundation for Enlightenment ideologies of reason, division, and categorization.
Seeing is often metaphorically related with truth, from the adage of “seeing is believing” to the more modern “pics or it didn’t happen”. Even the word ‘evidence’ is based on the latin to see. This has led to a saturated scientific bias that attempts to break down and explain everything as a sum of its parts, echoing into the modern goal of the internet to create a holistic brain of the world’s information.
But Descartes was the one who abstracted. This wealthy, white man was able to break with his body and see it as separate because it didn’t direct the course of his life and interactions. His contribution to philosophy resonated through time because alternative worldviews were deprioritized, their speakers stolen and enslaved based solely on the colour of their skin, rationalized through white supremacist notions of division between people.
Our language is based on divisional ideas that fall short of wisdom throughout history – from the Tao’s description of yin & yang to Kierkegaard’s dialectics: dualities exist as part of a whole. We cannot know light without dark, motion without rest, but assume that a world based on the views of a single group can effectively move toward harmony. Language has been wielded as a tool of manipulation and division, securing power for those who have classified themselves as superior. Our linguistic conventions stop at simply naming and dividing, the primary steps in description, but leave out the hard work of synthesis.
Languages that encouraged an understanding of the unity of life were largely eradicated in the western world alongside the concentration of power and resources.
In Canada, this was done by kidnapping indigenous children and forcing them to speak English, erasing and overwriting their worldviews. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer holds a quote that changed my perspective on the language we’re currently communicating in:
English is a noun-based language, somehow so appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30% of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70%…A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is deﬁned by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa— to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. (53 & 55)
In the English categorization of the world, we rob it of life. People are grouped by identifiers in the same way we organize clothing, while the earth remains a static object that can be exploited. While Potawatomi is seeing a resurgence in speakers, there are largely spoken current languages such as Arabic which have nouns that can act as verbs, a trait that is carried through languages that use it as its root. English and other languages formed in cultures that accepted the Enlightenment goals of reason and division are unique in their projects to objectify what they discuss.
These categorizations take on new life with enhanced digital communication that blends public and private life. Our categorizations can be monetized as people amass followings for their lifestyle; the choices they make, and the ones they are born with. This further binds our self-expressions into economic use, while reinforcing the ideals of individualism. Individualism serves existing power structures by encouraging separation between people who then don’t discuss systemic issues, but their issues with each other.
Finding fault is the fault line in our language: the fracture that transforms and separates the whole. That we can create and rationalize division from nothing enables exploitation and ownership. It encourages the creation of the self, an illusion that results only in contrast to the group. This illusion is reinforced and cemented as a consumer, a product; an unpaid but endlessly exploited prosumer. An individual responsible for their own fate, forced to compete against other individuals to earn the means for their survival. This is not a language problem, but a power problem, as power has co-opted our means of communication and change to build static barriers between each other when we are all randomly placed expressions of existence.
Language matters. Words are always a vessel for culture, and increasingly have little to do with the words themselves but the ideologies they uphold. Boomers and Millennials are often grouped and pitted against each other, like countries, religions, and other named modifiers we choose and don’t choose. To make actual steps toward unity, we need to see this division as false. As serving power. As keeping a lot of people underfoot. As intentional.