The Paradox of Changing the World with Words

Words and how we use them to relate to the world can be, as Andrew Lehman discussed in a post last year, somewhat paradoxical.  Although we use words to describe and frame our relationship to our surroundings, we may feel most strongly connected when we simply experience life as it happens, without using language to mediate our connection to the world.  We tell ourselves stories constantly, but we also cherish the rare occasions when we are fully present in the moment without placing any imaginative gloss upon it.

There’s a further paradox in our use of words to connect with one another as part of a social species.  The large-scale changes in our environment that we call civilization are dependent upon our ability to communicate with words.  Animals are capable of speaking to one another through chirps, gestures, and the like.  They can effectively communicate such basic concepts as danger and where to find food; but without more sophisticated language, they are limited to merely reacting to the world around them instead of working together to shape the environment into new and complex patterns as humans do.  Without words, we couldn’t be a civilized species.  But there is also an underlying intuition that goes beyond words, an instinctive knowledge of ourselves and our environment that forms the wordless foundation of how we relate to the world; and it, too, is an essential part of our civilization.

I recently read an entry on Countering that raised the often-debated question of whether one person can change the world or whether that is impossible.  In keeping with the autistic tendency to see multiple options, I’m going to answer, “Both.”  As with animals that lack complex language, we can’t change anything beyond our immediate environment on our own.  When we seek to do more, we must communicate with others and gain their cooperation.  Words are the tool that we use to accomplish this, and words can be very powerful.  One person’s words can be heard throughout the world, bringing about far-reaching changes.  And yet, for language to have that much impact, it must resonate with its audience on an instinctive level that goes beyond words.  It has to draw from our collective imagination, from the deep well of shared ancestral experience as to which words can do no more than touch the surface.

To borrow an image from our illustrious autistic forebear Archimedes, words are a lever that can be used to move the world.  But we must also find a place to stand, a firm ground that is discerned not through words, but through an intuitive sense of our surroundings that goes back to a time before words existed.

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on 10/6/10 in featured, Language | 5 Comments | Read More

Comments (5)


  1. Stephanie says:

    “Both” is an excellent, and I would say an accurate answer. I am a person of words, and as such what you say resonates with me. However, communication isn’t “words.” They are not the same.

    People communicate through music and art, through touch and presence, and probably in other ways we don’t really understand.

    A human being-even a non-verbal human being-can communicate in such a way that it changes the world by influencing those around him or her.

    It’s the communication that matters; not the means of communication.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    That’s a very good point, Stephanie. Words and communication are not at all the same. Art, music, photographs, and other forms of expression often influence people’s views, and they can have a very strong emotional impact. As I mentioned, other species can communicate effectively through nonverbal means. Humans can do the same, as you pointed out.

    What I was trying to get at in my post (and perhaps not doing the best job of it) was that words are necessary, but not sufficient, to build a complex civilization. The other means of communication that you discussed are all part of the mix too.

  3. Stephanie says:

    What I got from your post was that one person cannot change the world alone, but that the influence one person can exert on others can change the world-therefore, we should not discount the influence we each can exert to make the changes we’d like to see happen.

    Of course, my interpretation of your message is filtered through other messages (particularly that of Stephen Covey), so I may be reading more into it than was meant or misinterpreting it entirely.

  4. Gwen McKay says:

    Yes, that’s part of what I was saying, but I was also pointing out that a world-changing level of influence on others (through words or, perhaps, some other medium) first requires the development of a social structure that is sufficiently advanced to enable communication beyond one’s immediate social group. And those advances have happened through the use of language.

    Modern-day humans wouldn’t be able to change the world through art, music, and other non-word-based communication if our ancestors hadn’t learned how to use words; but relying solely on words is not enough to change the world if we don’t have our ancestors’ intuitive sense of how the world ought to be. Hence the paradox.

  5. Stephanie says:

    The social structure-and the language that (probably) made it possible-is definitely a necessity.

    Though, sometimes it feels like an evil necessity. I’m not entirely sure that the good society does for people is worth the harm it does for people. Society allows for a greater number of people to survive and it allows us to live fuller lives. However, it also ensures human beings are each others’ biggest threat-war, hatred, prejudice, environmental degradation, toxic accidents, and the list goes on and on. We hurt each other in so many ways, and it seems most people don’t even think about it.

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