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September 17th, 2020
Part I of this two part series can be found here.
In the Bible, Adam is given one simple task: to give everything a name. Now, what exactly is a name? What is it for, and most importantly, what does a name mean in relation to other things with names? The act of giving something a name is the instance of creating a category, which is -in relation to other things- a division.
Adam’s task wasn’t just an odd naming exercise, it was in fact the invention of language altogether, which perhaps lends a new lens to the idea of the word being so important in such religious traditions. It’s of further interest to note that such religious and spiritual traditions exist primarily through the medium of language. If for example language didn’t exist at all, how else would you be aware of such religious traditions? From a secular point of view, it’s not much of a stretch to see religion as a reverent nod first and foremost to the invention of language, and the way it has pervaded and guided us. Because language does guide us, far more than we have the ability to guide it. This can be a deeply unsettling revelation.
We need only ask: can you have a thought that exists outside of your language’s ability to describe it?
Part I of this two part series on The Social Impulse ended with an examination of the divisions that exist between people and how we seem to be hardwired to resist groups that are not our own. To phrase the issue more simply, we might notice that:
100% of human problems boil down to the fact that we have natural systems of thinking that are in accord with just two words: us & them
The word ‘them’ represents perhaps the most insidious and potentially destructive concept we’ve ever invented. This vague category shifts and slips between different levels constantly. A country can become united against a common enemy, against them, but in the absence of a common enemy, we are primed to try and find a new group to call them, as can be seen with a civil war within a single country. This tendency to subdivide further in the absence of a clear and obvious other can go all the way down. It can even go straight down to the individual level where a person feels divided and starts hating themselves due to the illusion of this new division, at which point suicidal ideation can arise, and of course: suicide, when the illusion of division finally collapses in on itself.
This fragmentation is always occurring. It is the growth and operation of language itself, which is why it’s so important to monitor the way we use language. To do so is in fact to monitor the way language is using us…
Language is a double-edged sword. It allows us to cleave the universe into modules that we can conceptually manipulate and in so doing discover more about how the universe works, but it can also be a tool turned against ourselves - one that can quite literally lead to the cleaving of heads from bodies.
Our hardwired social impulse is to belong to a group, and woven in with that urge is a natural tendency to identify who is part of the others, part of them.
While this default programming most definitely served a survival function in the past, it has quickly outgrown its utility, especially in modern times. If we don’t start thinking about the entire planet as THE in-group, and the only group, we risk a communal suicide as the capability of such wide-spread destruction becomes more and more available. Simply put, we need to get rid of them - not the people we might temporarily plaster the word with, but the actual word itself.
What’s perhaps even more curious is that if the word them suddenly vanished as a concept from the minds of all people, the word us becomes pleasantly meaningless.