Last week I was asking people if they had ever seen a ghost. Every person I asked said no. Let’s consider the word “ghost”, however. I’m assuming that my perception of the word is more or less like most people’s, that a ghost is an image (the spirit) of someone who has died, and the ghost looks like the person, except sort of white and translucent. A ghost can also appear and disappear, float, and walk through walls. Isn’t that how you see it?
The question as I tried to carefully word it was actually “Have you ever seen anything that you considered a ghost, or have you experienced some strange phenomenon that you couldn’t explain?” I know that’s wordy, but it was a scientific poll. One person immediately answered, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” When I pointed out that this was not an actual answer to the question, he then said that yes, he had seen a mysterious bright light swell then disappear in a dark forest.
And in fact, every person but one who I asked said yes, they had experienced some strange thing that they still can’t explain. I have, too. I think the problem with my scientific poll is that I used the word “ghost”, which carries such a strong image that it framed our conversation about a pale transparent human figure.
So I started thinking about how language can box us in and limit us, and a few days later in the book The Holographic Universe, which I just finished reading, I read this sentence: “To confuse the indivisible nature of reality with the conceptual pigeonholes of language is the basic ignorance from which Zen seeks to free us.”
Just what I said, only more elegant, and it mentions Zen. Language, at its most basic, is literally just noise made with the mouth, nose, and throat. The noise turns into language when we agree as a group that a particular set of sounds will have a specific meaning. The critical element there, what makes it work, is “agree as a group”. Maybe we don’t always agree. Maybe we think we’re agreeing but actually have different ideas. Or maybe we agree to stupid things that don’t have much to do with reality. Nevertheless, that’s language.
Language shapes how we think, to some extent shapes what we are able to think about (because it gives us words to use), and shapes how we see the world. But it’s all based on vague social agreement. Are you seeing a problem here? It’s a bigger problem than whether you’ve seen a ghost.
The worst of this language problem is not that we stumble around in an illusory universe naming things willy-nilly. As far as that goes, who cares? It’s not as if we’ll ever understand reality in this life. Might as well have unicorns. The real problem is that we use this language process, creating categories by creating words, to classify other human beings.
Just like a ghost automatically comes with a certain mental image, what do you get from words like “white man”, “Hispanic”, “lesbian”, “redneck”? With any one of those words, did you get a mental image of someone who makes really good cookies or who shovels snow for the old woman next door? Because all of those words describe some person somewhere who does those things, but when we use words like that, the human being disappears. All we have is a general category, which is rarely helpful in human relations.
We do the same thing with many other types of words, such as political views (conservative, radical, etc.), religious views (Muslim, fundamentalist Christian, and so on). Suppose we had none of these words, and then you meet a middle-aged man. He’s smiling, watching his kids playing in a park, you’re standing there chatting with him, and he tells you that his daughter wants to play piano. He wonders if he can afford the lessons, but he really wants her to do it. And you never suddenly realize “He’s a Muslim” or “He’s a fundamentalist”.
But as it is, we have categories to put people in, and language suddenly draws the darkness across our eyes.