First 100 Days: Liberation through Curiosity: An examination of language

By Nathaniel Amos 


Following the 2016 election, I noticed an uptick in folks seeking ‘understanding.’ Suddenly, we seemed very interested in understanding things like Trump qua Trump, his devotees, his cabinet choices, or whatever new source of incoherence announced itself in headlines. The pull often seemed to reach for Truth, suggesting a kind of conditional logic: if I only ‘just understood,’ I’d feel less afraid, less powerless, or less subject to violence. As I continue to labor in the reality that Trump does, in fact, appear to be president, I’ve become less hopeful that I will ever ‘understand’ in the complete sense of the word. As such, I’ve abandoned that project. Instead, I’ve adopted a practice of ‘attempting to understand.’ To put the practice in more analytic terms, I’d like to offer we, on every point along the political spectrum, begin to engage in a consistent practice of closing intersubjective space. Closing intersubjective space sidesteps the search for Truth, but, rather, begins by acknowledging we each experience the world differently (even if only minutely so). The practice, thereby, incentivizes curiosity in service of establishing shared meaning, which is our best defense against existential annihilation. We might experience the world differently, but, through some miracle, we all seem to experience the world coherently. The practice of developing shared meaning validates that, at the very least, we’re joined together in our attempt to carve out some sense of existential significance in an otherwise isolating and terrifying existence.

Perhaps a project aimed at developing shared meaning is the way out of divisive hatred. However, it is troubled by language. Kellyanne Conway secured her place in absurdist political history when she defended Sean Spicer’s wholly inaccurate representation of inaugural attendance as ‘alternative facts.’ Her subsequent coal raking certainly appealed to my desire for public lashing of very public idiots, but, perhaps, Counselor Conway unintentionally identified a fundamental problem embedded in language. Language is a set of signifiers whose meanings are mutable. In saying ‘alternative facts,’ she seemed to highlight a deeper problem when we rely on language to tell the Truth. Meaning that language tells a truth; it speaks to something refracted through a specific lens, but, certainly, not the Truth. ‘Alternative facts’ seem suddenly an unavoidable part of our post-Trump world. Thus, as a corollary to the project of developing shared meaning, I’d add that searching for shared meaning in language is a persistent exercise in tolerating failure.

Before continuing, there is a difference between the failure of language and misrepresentation. Characterizing language as an exercise in failure is meant to incentivize curiosity around conferred meaning and the maintenance of belief systems, rather than a nihilistic statement permitting carte blanche to radically reimagine agreed-upon reality in service of Orwellian social control. If, for example, Counselor Conway and Secretary Spicer made the argument ‘the true spirit of the American people was felt more strongly at President Trump’s inauguration than former President Obama’s,’ there would be room for curiosity about what was meant by the ‘true spirit of the American people’ and avoiding an (seemingly futile) expedition attempting to define the terms of debate. Disrupting shared meaning is potentially liberatory as it calls into question what constitutes hegemonic tools of discursive control, but casting a confounding series of red herrings as Truth is a disorienting method of social oppression. More simply: it might be legitimate to say that the ‘true American spirit’ represented at the inauguration is more meaningful than a simple body count. However, claiming a higher attendance rate to confer a sense of legitimacy in the face of critics is sloppy. Perhaps it’s the persistent sloppiness that is a source of my existential dread while existing under the Trump presidency: I don’t even know what we’re debating half the time. Language is interpretable, but claiming legitimacy by inaccurately invoking a measurement system is irresponsible.

Here’s a tricky piece about Trump: he’s carefully honed an ability to confuse listeners in the liminal space between two subjects. His tweets, interviews, speeches (really anything in which he speaks) are all an exercise in tolerating the confusion I typically associate with attempting to have a conversation with a psychotic subject. I get lost because I’m trying to take him literally, which is my mistake. Perhaps there’s another way. His followers appear to take him seriously. Herein lies his truly terrifying Orwellian power: he speaks incoherently, but with enough affect that he communicates certainty. Certainty is seductive. It creates a rigid boundary between right and wrong, and eliminates a project of tolerating failure. However, certainty, divides. It induces a kind of amnesia, and erases experiences that don’t fit neatly within a rigid (and arguably Fascist) paradigm.

Acknowledging language is a deeply troubled method through which we develop shared meaning seems essential to repairing the social ruptures made apparent in our brave new world. I’ve noticed fractures begin to emerge when one agent attempts to say a word or a concept means ‘X’ in a fixed way, often in opposition a separate agent. I wonder if we could avoid the fractures if, instead, we asked: ‘how did you come to understand (x concept) as (y definition) because I understand it as (z definition)?’ I find myself wondering about the possibility of starting from a place that one person might indeed believe an ‘alternative fact’ because it’s constituted in a system of signifiers that might be radically different than our own. If we start from such a place, does curiosity become a method of radical liberation? Particularly when tolerating rupture and moving toward repair is embedded as a part of curiosity?

My hope is that curiosity can be modeled across all levels of power as a method toward greater justice. A danger in Trump and Trump’s administration (and, perhaps, in politics broadly) is that there seems to be a fundamental belief that one group of people has access to the Truth. The Truth is a fiction. Tolerating the failure embedded in attempting to understand may be the way to free us. It incentivizes curiosity about experiences that run parallel to our own and confers legitimacy in experiences as they are without attempting to establish a rigid hierarchy of right vs. wrong. We might find liberation in such a project.