I have been thinking a lot lately about community. A community can be just a collection of people in a geographic area, or it can be a group with shared values or interests. Do we choose our communities? Or do we exist in them without actively choosing to join? What are barriers to joining? Is there an opt-out for the ones we don’t really want to be in? Can someone be located physically in a community, but not of it?
Until I started thinking about community for this post, I hadn’t really thought of how language can bind a community, or be a barrier.
Author James Baldwin went to Paris in 1948 hoping to find a community without the racism and homophobia he’d experienced in the United States. When he got there, he found barriers not related to his race or his sexuality. The barrier was language. “The necessity of mastering a foreign language forced me into a new relationship to my own. My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reﬂected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. … What I began to see — especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French — is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience….” For Baldwin, French language revealed French experiences that were to an extent unknowable by non-French people – an unavoidable barrier to being fully immersed in a French community.
He goes on to say that the English he knew was the English of his own African-American experience and community. “The language with which I had grown up had certainly not been the King's English. An immense experience had forged this language; it had been (and remains) one of the tools of a people's survival, and it revealed expectations which no white American could easily entertain. The authority of this language was in its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me…. My relationship, then, to … language … revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.” (From “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” excerpted from The Cross of Redemption by James Baldwin.)
The idea of language controlling experience and experience shaping language really drew me in. Our ability to understand and process an experience may be controlled by our ability to put it into words. When the words don’t exist, language evolves to help us describe the experience. #MeToo has united a community of women with a common experience and allowed us to put into five letters – five letters! -- what may be so raw and violent that even if the language exists, we still can’t put words together in a way that releases us from the experience, or helps men understand it. #MeToo is becoming shorthand for our resilience. As Walt Whitman says of the English language in his prelude to Leaves of Grass, “It is the chosen tongue to express growth faith self-esteem freedom justice equality friendliness amplitude prudence decision and courage. It is the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible.” It’s just taken a while for the language to evolve. (#MeToo, incidentally, and likely every woman you know.)
While language can bind us as a community of humans with some shared experiences, we can be divided by a common language. #MeToo has cast a sharp light on men – even the well-intentioned -- who can’t understand because it isn’t their own experience. African-Americans, 70 years after Baldwin’s quote above, still need a language as a tool of survival that I can’t begin to comprehend.
If language controls experience, a shared language – including a non-verbal one - can go a long way to creating a community. Today I ran across this Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote: “The person who is in love with their version of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.” Love is about both words and actions. It’s Rev. Martin Luther King’s “beloved community,” where language and actions express ordinary virtues like respect, kindness, connection to each other, and a common good. A community without a language (verbal or otherwise) to express a common good or shared values, or where the language lacks empathy and respect, may be a collection of individuals, a community of sorts. But if it doesn’t talk the talk, it probably doesn’t walk the walk either. And when members lack connection and ownership, the community is only about self-interest. We may still be in the community because of geographic or other circumstances, but we opt out by not caring, not contributing, and in that way we are in the community but not of it.
What do you think? Please post a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bonus Material: After all that heavy stuff, we need 10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had.
And a blog post without music is incomprehensible! This is from the best movie ever about language controlling experience.
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