Is Language Helping Us Reach Our Goals as Humanists?

R.E. Frank submitted this article through the Call for Voices program.

This time last year, I was eating ice cream for every meal, and had been for some months. I was living with someone who worked as an ice cream scooper at a high-end parlor. For me, this entailed cookie dough sundaes for lunch, root beer floats for dinner, and cookies & cream milkshakes for dessert. Followed by a stomachache for breakfast.

I never woke up confused at the source of my pain. I knew I had brought it on myself by consuming only cream and sugar for weeks.

I feel similar physical pain without confusion at the source after I have spent too much time perusing social media comments. I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure, because it provides no satisfaction. I frequently draft, but do not send, replies to some fake account with a fake picture and a fake name, saying incendiary things they may not even believe.

To be clear: these are not real debates happening online. No one changes their opinion. Fact is relative. If someone spouts facts, one can choose to simply not believe the original source. No one knows who it is exactly they’re arguing with, nor the exact impact that person may or may not have on others’ lives. For example, I recently came upon a transphobic Twitter account which claimed to belong to a licensed therapist, and made posts claiming to indirectly encourage gender-questioning patients to revert or kill themselves.

But who knows if that’s actually true or a random person getting off on stringing together threatening words in a brand new way. Or maybe that account wasn’t even created by a person, but artificial intelligence, or spam bots.

Or maybe we’re not arguing at all. Most of the time I’m not a participant. Like a student who’s more into “dark academia” than actual studying, or childhood me, who preferred my Time-to-Ride computer games more than the two horses in the backyard, I argue vicariously through reading other people’s arguments. I see more death threats than acknowledgements that the character limit or lack of in-person communication may be contributing to the disagreement, which can become as equally heated during an argument about dissolving prisons as it can during a debate about whether the season finale of a show that came out a decade ago was good or bad. With all our fancy phrases and evolving language, including new words and new meanings to old words, textual disagreements have become no easier to resolve.

Over 5,000 years ago, we began to develop written language, for the purpose of trade. Later, it became a vehicle to share religious thought, and after that, thoughts-at-large. We now use a millenias-in-the-making form of communication to bicker with strangers. At times, it feels like the right words, the most perfects words that would allow you to project your feelings directly into the mind of the reader/victim, are just out of reach. It feels as if consciousness is brushing against the key to affecting someone’s opinions.

There are countless situations beyond arguments in which language is insufficient. Anyone who has tried to explain an abstract concept to a curious five-year-old can understand the gaps in language. There’s a shortage of perfect words that express exactly what is necessary. How do you find the perfect word when no such word, in any language known to you, suits the situation? How to give condolences that don’t feel vacant? How to write wedding vows that express the boundlessness of love for this specific person? How to assure a wailing four-year-old that you’re not leaving forever? How to use words to impact people’s opinions and choices, how to impress a meaningful change upon the world? How to find the perfect word that doesn’t exist?

You have to create proof of what you say. Keep stopping by the house of the bereaved with casseroles and cleaning supplies. Be committed to your spouse for the length of your marriage. Pick-up the four-year-old at the end of the school day. You have to make your body a conductor for change.

Humanism is a desire to improve the world (including your world, your daily experiences, your daily thought patterns) without the aid of religion. Unlike missionaries and religious disaster relief aid, we work toward a better world for us to live in, for future generations to enjoy. And we do it without the carrot on the stick: the promise of an eternity in Heaven. When I die, I want to rot, and make fertile soil for future-kind to run over, dance atop of, grow on, feed off, etc.. There is no ‘after’, only now.

Language can help us communicate nuance, but it is not the role of language to encourage action. It is the duty of the body and the mind to take action. The creation of art can combine language and action, like sculptor Nick Cave’s response to the murder of George Floyd and the resulting riots: “If you want to march about it, you have to talk about it. If you want to talk about it, you have to march about it.” I won’t assert which is the more viable option toward affecting change. Participation in activism in which words go little beyond an Instagram caption implies a partaking in action without meaning or intention. Movement caused by the flow of the crowd more than the decision of one’s own feet cannot inspire movement or change in others. Words detached from action imply stasis. Language can be regurgitated, while each action is new and informed by past experiences. If the mouth is the most experienced part of the body, the words come from an empty place, unable to change others and unable to be changed.

Things MATTER in this world. You may feel small, exposed to billions of voices by the internet, billions of articles and social media posts (written to varying degrees of thoughtfulness). But you don’t exist as a voice. You’re not limited to what’s possible within the realm of your social media profile. You’re a person, capable of continuous evolution, beyond updating your profile picture or changing the pronouns in your bio. You’re a person, capable of calling upon government representatives, finding first-hand evidence, taking to the streets and bringing about the change you crave. Make yourself heard beyond your voice. Make your mind matter. Humanism is based in action, not in prayer, not in debate, which is the illusion of action. If we are not marching, educating, demonstrating, working to improve the world, we are not humanists—just individuals identifying under a common name, not under a personal pursuit.