The Beautiful, Treacherous, Complicated Art of Communication


“Kris, tell your dad it’s dinner.”

I can’t count how many times in my childhood I played messenger for my mom while she gave my dad the silent treatment. That phrase is too sterile in my opinion. “Silent treatment”, it sounds like a type of therapy. “Give him the silent treatment and if his cough isn’t better in a week come back to see me.” It should be called silent punishment or silent torture, something that more closely resembles the damage it does. Silence can be as much of a weapon as a fist, as aggressive as shouting.

In my family, I learned all the worst ways to communicate. The more difficult the emotion, the worse we communicated. It is a legacy I have yet to fully outgrow. The irony of being a wordsmith who struggles to communicate effectively with the people she loves most does not escape me.

Lately, the topic of communication has circled in my brain like a curious and hungry shark. Once more we find ourselves in a place where politics are impossible to avoid, aided by the ease of public discourse the internet provides. Masks of civility have been ripped away—not necessarily a bad thing in some instances—and conversations become battlegrounds with a single syllable. The question I keep coming back to is: Can peace and good ethics exist in the same space?

I make no secret that I am, by most people’s standards, a liberal. Moderate, not extreme, to be clear.

What liberal means to me (small “l” liberal, for my Canadian friends) is that I believe we’re all in this together. I believe humans need to balance the logistics of running a prosperous society with compassion for the members of that society. I believe in equality and equity regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. I believe—no, I know—that we are all flawed to some degree and that means it is important to put into place systems to prevent our worst instincts from doing too much damage. I believe that we must be good stewards of the planet that sustains us, even if that means some kind of sacrifices in the present to benefit those that come after us. I believe our problems are often complex and demand thoughtful, intelligent solutions and a willingness to put aside our own biases and prejudices.

I do not consider myself an extremist, about anything. So it has surprised and saddened me this past year to have been called “liberal” as an epithet by people I know and care about.

This is the slippery nature of language and communication. What liberal means to me, as it regards my political leanings, is not what it means to others. Dictionary definitions don’t apply. This is language in motion, linguistic anarchy.

I could say the same of many current hot-button words, feminism being the one that comes most readily to mind.

How can we hope to reach consensus on big issues if we can’t even agree on the meaning of a single word? Or, more accurately, if we can’t separate the word from our feelings about it?

I recently re-watched the brilliant film “Arrival” (based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) and was awed by how well it captured the dangers and pitfalls of communication.  For those who have not seen it (you really should see it, twice), the central figure of the story is Louise Banks, a renowned linguist, who has been recruited into a team of specialists after alien ships land on earth. As teams across the globe scramble to decipher the alien’s intentions, international tensions flare and global war seems imminent. Without spoiling the film, it is Banks’s determination to fully understand the alien language and to communicate on their level that makes all the difference.

The film is not only filled with insights about language and communications—the stories we believe we are being told and the stories we are actually being told—its structure is also such that the second viewing tells a completely different story. A good reminder of how a few key facts can change everything we think we know.

But there was one passage in the movie, a few lines quoted from a book written the main character, that stuck with me and have echoed loudly as politics invade my personal life.

Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

Right now, the divide between “our story” and “their story” grows wider every day. Weapons have been drawn. And I find myself at war…with myself.

I am not without my opinions but I have always tried to keep an open mind, to encourage conversation, to recognize the complexity of social issues, to see things from all sides and strive for common ground. Lately, that’s changed. I still believe all those actions are important but much of what I’ve witnessed since January is beyond common ground. I can’t be neutral in the face of white supremacy, I can’t encourage conversation with people who are filled with blind hate and rage because men love other men or women love other women, I can’t stand quietly by when sound science is denied or when women’s bodies are treated like property.

I don’t want to simply jump into a shouting match that goes nowhere but neither do I want to stay silent in the face of cruelty.

Remember my mom’s silent treatments? Do you know what they accomplished? Nothing.

My mother never learned to come out and state her needs clearly and so her needs were never met. By not speaking, all she did was let anger fester and infect everyone around her.

Silence is not inaction. Silence is not a lack of communication. Silence is a statement: “I refuse to engage”. Silence is a weapon too.

It feels dangerous to me, an act of rebellion merely to speak up and say “You are wrong.” I’ve already lost friends in this conflict, I’m sure I’ll lose more before it’s over. I’ve given myself permission to be okay with that.

Will I change the world? Unlikely. But I will change myself and that’s worth something.

Dr. Louise Banks: “If you could see your whole life from the start to finish, would you change things?”

Ian Donnelly: “Maybe I’d say what I feel more often.”

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2 Responses to The Beautiful, Treacherous, Complicated Art of Communication

  1. So well said!
    I was in a social situation when someone, in my opinion, started flirting with racial comments. Faced with the dilemma of being silent so as not to make everyone uncomfortable or staying silent, well I just couldn’t . But I did make a concerted effort to keep my voice calm and moderate. Asking questions, listening and then rebutting. I’m sure there were discomfort but I was proud that it was a much calmer discussion than I would have been capable of 10 years ago. 🙂 But it is tough.

    • clubfredbaja says:

      I think we all imagine we would do the right thing when faced with overt, aggressive racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or…) but it’s those subtle “not quite” conversations among friends, co-workers, and family where our voices are most needed. And those are tough! Sometimes I step up and do the right thing, other times I fall short for whatever reason and I always hate myself afterward. These days it’s even trickier.

      Good for you for doing the right thing, no matter how awkward!

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