photo of 2 men playing chess in a train station in Northeast Thailand by Bryon Lippincott

I have a growing fascination (some might say obsession) with the words we use to describe and construct our world. To most of us, the idea that we use words to describe our world is a given, a fact of human interaction. When I say that we use language to construct our world, and our reality, that may sound foreign. You might be more likely to call that my opinion rather than a fact. 

There is ample academic research supporting the idea that we construct our social reality through the use of language. If you are interested, you can look up The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman. (It’s not light reading, but the ideas are really important) The short version is that the words we use shape how we perceive the social reality around us. They impact how we understand ideas, social debates, and conflicts, even how we view our friends and family, social groups, and the entire demographics of people. How we describe people slowly becomes our understanding of who they are. That understanding impacts how we interact with them. The language we use to discuss social issues shapes the tone and nature of those discussions and informs our beliefs about the nature of those social issues and the people involved. It also shapes the creation of our institutions and the public policy that emerges from those institutions.

When we choose to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants who are trying to defraud the government, we come to believe that is who they are. If that is our understanding of who they are, our perception of how they should be treated will be much different from seeing them as asylum seekers in need of humanitarian aid. When we choose to describe people with more liberal political views advocating for better social welfare problems as Marxist, communist, and socialist we are not only judging their ideas, we are solidifying how we see them and our opinion of who they are. When we label a social safety net as socialist we are creating and solidifying a belief about the people whose survival depends on those programs. If we describe people with more conservative political views as overly moralistic, biased, or uninclusive we are creating and solidifying our perception of them. Even labels like “the poor” can influence how we think about and value the people we see as fitting under those labels.

The words we use matter. As the famous saying goes “With great power comes great responsibility”. Often I feel like the words we use to articulate our reality are not intentionally chosen but emerge from our habits, and are regurgitated from our recent social and more often (social media) interactions. I think about the implications of our words and word choice a lot. I want to have deeper conversations about the words we use, the implications of those words, and their potential impact on our thinking and our actions. 

This post is the beginning of a series of posts examining the words we use to discuss and debate the critical issues in our society and how those words frame our reality and influence our thinking and beliefs and the thinking and beliefs of those around us. I would love it if you would join me and make this a conversation and dialogue rather than a one-way communication. The goal is not to make judgments about the issues themselves but to better understand the words we use to talk about them and the implications of those words on how we think and act. Understanding the meanings we assign to words and what those words mean to others is the first step in more healthy discussions.

There is one overlying principle that we all need to embrace for a discussion like this to be healthy. That principle is that we all need to approach the conversation with the assumption that those around us mean no harm. We all must assume good intentions from those around us for a discussion to continue in a healthy manner.

To start off the conversation here is my first question (questions and answers are both welcome in reply).

What is your initial reaction to the idea that our use of language constructs our reality?