Language, concealment and #Birkman

29 11 2010

Been taking a slow but very thought-provoking wander through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (London, 2009), a book largely about the profound differences between the left and right sides of our brains – and what those differences mean for everything from the structure of ourselves to the structure of society. Here is just one snippet:

…language … is the perfect medium for concealing, rather than revealing, meaning.         (2009:106)

This comes in a section arguing that language is not a pre-requisite either of communication (think of all the non-verbal ways both we and animals communicate) nor (perhaps more surprising) of complex thought. (We may choose to think in words about the process of thought, but actual thought is often pictorial, visceral, etc.)

So language lends itself to concealing meaning as much as to revealing it. Why would we want to conceal meaning?

“To deceive, in order to gain unfair advantage”, is one obvious answer. There are others, which help explain why language does get used in precisely this way so much of the time, without any necessarily nefarious intent.

“I am very conscious of your self-esteem and your feelings, so even though there is a pretty black and white issue in which you are at fault, I need to find a way of breaking this to you in a way that preserves your dignity.”

“My expectation of myself is that I should be a team-player, so that even though the demand you have just made of me is totally unreasonable and is definitely not meeting my need for being valued, I will say ‘sure, no problem’ even though, in my heart of hearts, I mean quite the opposite.”

“Although I believe it is very important to take account of how people are feeling, I have a strong need to come up with objective solutions to emotional problems; so although I am saying ‘there, there’ and ‘you poor thing’ I am actually going to really flip out in a moment if we can’t move on from how you feel to what practical steps we can take.”

And those are just three of my own quirks, all described in terms a Birkman user may well recognise (high Esteem Need, low /high Advantage and high/high reversed Empathy). None of those are attempts to deceive for unreasonable advantage; but they are precisely the uses of language to conceal that all of us are surrounded by – and contribute to – every day.