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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

While watching Waybuloo

The other day as Granddaughter sat on my knee watching Waybuloo on the TV, I began to think about her memories of childhood. As she’s not yet two years old she has yet to lay down any long term memories, which is odd when you consider how much mental development goes on at her age.

I wondered if there is a connection between our lack of early childhood memories and adult mental processes. Well you have to think about something during Waybuloo. If you’ve watched it you'll know why. Granddaughter can't stand it for long which is promising.

Anyway, If I remember rightly B F Skinner once wrote that we don’t acquire early long-term memories because we cannot remember what we cannot articulate. In other words Granddaughter cannot form long-term memories until her language reaches a certain level of development – until she can describe things to herself.

So here’s the issue I mulled over.

If we need language to imprint ideas on our minds then what about ideas with which we don’t agree? Do we disagree with them by avoiding, distorting or modifying the language in which they are expressed? Do we actively avoid something analogous to the imprinting of memories via language?

Obviously we don’t always do that, but it seems to be extremely common as far as I can see. Online Guardian comments are an entertaining example. Many Guardian readers simply reject ideas by distorting the language. It isn’t only the tiresome non sequitur crowd either. On the other hand, accurate language sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

So as I see it, we often disagree with an idea by not describing it accurately, even to ourselves. It may be as subtle as altering the tone or the style in which the idea is usually expressed. A touch of sarcasm or incredulity, a hint of exaggeration or a slight shift in a crucial emphasis.

Just as Granddaughter can’t use language to imprint long term memories on her mind, we seem to avoid the language of ideas we don’t like. As if we are avoiding the imprinting process because we know the power of it. As if we are aware of the dangers of accurate language, aware that accurate language is powerful language.

So we use language to understand but we also use it to misunderstand where allegiances are threatened. We may name the idea, name its proponents and tag both with pejorative associations, but we avoid accurate language because we must avoid it to maintain the argument. Often for good reasons of course, but the reasons have to be derived from pre-existing allegiances. We can’t get too close to ideas we prefer to deny.

Obviously these things are diffuse and vary between individuals. Yet whenever a contentious subject attracts lots of online comment, one side seems to understand the issue and one side seems to misunderstand it – deliberately as far as I can see.

It’s interesting to watch – better than Waybuloo at any rate.


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Paddington said...

Perhaps our early memories are in a 'language' that we don't speak later.

Sackerson said...

Hence Orwell's Newspeak.

Bertrand Russell (I think) said you had to propose to yourself your opponent's case in its best form before answering it.

A K Haart said...

Paddington - if so, it would be great to relearn it. Or would it?

Sackers - I'm sure Russell was right, but doing it is quite a different matter. We might change our minds!