How to see when language fails

How we miss the forest for the trees & the trees for the forest

Imagine a friend posts a blanket condemnation of police violence on Facebook. (This may not require much imagination.)

If your feed is like mine, it won’t be long before a more conservative friend incredulously replies that condemning all police as violent is unfair and illogical. Sure, violence occurs for a few bad apples, but condemning every cop is ludicrous.

If they’re in the mood for it, our more socially-minded friend might buttress their view with another blanket claim about the racism infecting America.

This reply will undoubtedly rile up our individually-minded friend. Now they’ll feel personally (and underhandedly) attacked as racist; They’ll proceed to defend their side vigorously, and by extension, themselves.

If you’ve seen this kind of conversation play out, you already know there’s no winner.

But who’s wrong and who’s right?

Before we settle that, let’s take a look at an underlying gap in our language:

The Vantage Point Gap: are we thinking at the forest or tree level?
  • Forest level: Our collectively-oriented friend hears the words “violence” and” racism” at a zoomed out social level; From this perspective, bias and harm aren’t limited to a punch in the face or a racial slur. These words are umbrellas that also include subtle, psychological, and systemic forces that lead to physical harm. From a broad collective view, the conservative view feels myopic, old-fashioned, and lacking in nuance.
  • Tree level: On the other hand, our conservative friend hears “violence” and “racism” at an individual, practical level: the harsh reality of person-to-person racial slurs or physical harm. To our tree-focused thinker, the “socialist” view appears disconnected from reality, handwavy, and vaguely threatening.
The tree & forest level views.

So again, who’s wrong and who’s right?

I think that’s beside the point. Both friends are more or less correct from their vantage point.

The bigger problem is that neither sees that they’re speaking from entirely different places (though both might label the prior sentance as “moral relativism.”)

We can replace the words “racism” or “violence” in this example with any other charged term - “religion,” “science,” “marxism,” “capitalism” – and watch some vantage point confusion violently play out (but only at that subtle, psychological level, let's hope).

Some folks approach a conflict from a collective perspective while others fight from the individual-level. They’ll duke it out as if they’re arguing in separate realities, and in a sense, they are.

From high up, it’s easy to look down on people who “miss the forest for the trees.” But it’s just as easy for us to miss how every essential element of the world plays out at the tree level. The Devil is in the details, so somebody had better be watching.

We need more tree-tenders than forest-flyers.

But from the forest floor of reality, it’s easy to dismiss the abstract, lofty opinions of folks with their “heads stuck in the clouds.” Their vague words are confusing at best and seem full of underhanded personal attacks at worst. But without our impractical dreamers finding patterns from the cloud level, we're left blind to world-changing insights and existential threats alike.

How to bridge the Vantage Point Gap.

While we’d each benefit from being more precise with our words, I doubt that’s an adequate solution. The problem seems more fundamental – with language itself.

We have tenses that signal if we’re speaking in the past, present, or future but lack grammar indicating the vantage point we’re speaking from.

Are we talking in the realm of broad philosophy? In proverb-like general principles? Or down in the weeds?

It’s usually unclear, so we talk past each other like ships passing in the night.

Mental maps help us bridge language gaps.

A decent mental map is an upgrade to memorized models or information: it’s like using a GPS map app instead of directions scribbled on the back of a napkin.

When I hear views on politics, religion, or a work project, I see where it lives in the Chaos Map as if it's a radar screen. A dot flickers into space inside the fine details of order, flying in the clouds of chaos, or in the emergent space between.

Seeing someone’s perspective in space may sound odd, but with a little practice, it’s a lot easier than force-recalling a memorized model or principle to navigate diverse perspectives.

Mental maps help me meet a conversation where it’s at in someone else’s mind instead of wherever my mind happens to be.

Suppose there’s an important higher-up pattern or lower-down detail. In that case, it’s easier to steer the conversation in that direction incrementally than expect someone to warp to wherever my head’s at.

I still fall headfirst into the Vantage Point Gap more often than I’d care to admit. But at least I can see in hindsight what I’d have previously have chalked up to yet another unbridgeable disagreement.

While the Vantage Point Gap muddles up daily communication well enough on its own, there’s another gap that’s every bit as easy to stumble into: the language gap between the heart and the head.

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

Thank you. Stay tuned for an introduction email.
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