"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

What difference do words make?

“Screw or fuck?” asks a member of Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), to which another responds, “screw, it’s more visceral”.

It’s one of many striking moments in the 2014 film Pride, which tells the story of how in 1984, a group of lesbian and gay activists from London befriended a struggling Welsh community during the UK miners' strikes. 

The scene in question sees LGSM preparing banners for a protest march, contemplating which words will make the most impact.

Their motivation in supporting the miners was powerful in its simplicity: to show solidarity.  The miners, like the gay and lesbian community, faced the same kind of vitriol and demonization at the hands of the press, the public and Margaret Thatcher, during an era when homophobia and union-bashing were the cultural norm.

In another scene, the tabloids, tipped off by a bigoted member of the Welsh community terrified by people she didn’t care to understand, label LGSM as “perverts supporting the pits”. 

Instead of taking offence, LGSM proudly reclaim the word and use it to promote a sell-out fundraising gig, Pits and Perverts.

Words carry enormous social and emotional leverage. 

They have the power to cause damage, to wound and belittle.  Equally, they can build connections and challenge an otherwise dangerous discourse.

As demonstrated by Pride – the movement, the film and the word – just as words can be utilised as verbal weaponry, they can act as extra limbs with which we can reach out and embrace people in need of kindness and compassion

That way madness lies

The language of mental health is a perfect example of how perceptions and interpretations of a perpetually misunderstood group of people have altered not only how they are identified by others, but how they identify themselves.

What we mean by the word “mad”, for instance, has been in a continual state of evolution since the term was first coined in the late 13th century to describe mental derangement, foolish behaviour akin to a person’ being “out of their mind”.  Through to modern and urban usage where it is deployed to describe someone who is wildly excitable, enraged or angry.    

As with the Pride movement, and in fact as a result of being inspired by it in the 1970s, a similar international movement for social change has emerged in which the word mad has been reclaimed to fight the stigma associated with mental health and instead “celebrate the human rights and spectacular culture of people considered very different by our society”. 

Interestingly, Mind Freedom International, part of the Mad Pride movement, uses the term “psychiatric survivors” as a positive identifier.  However, some resist the same term because they would prefer the term mad which is less of a medical diagnosis that they believe dehumanises them.

Clearly the words we use mean different things to the people who use them and those to whom they apply.  What some consider a positive, others experience as offensive. 

Does this lack of shared use and understanding represent a downgrading of the seriousness of language?  Do the words even matter if we all mean something different?

Language as a social practise

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was instrumental in proposing a cultural understanding of language as a fluid system where meaning depends as much on context as it does on the words used. In his Philosophical Investigations, he famously argued that:

“In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

His point was that rather than being rigidly tied to specific facts and objects, words are an instrument of engagement with everyday life.  The meanings of words are not fixed because language, as a shared exchange of the thoughts of flawed and ever-changing human beings, is by its very nature messy, elastic and subject to change. 

Just as cultural norms change, so do the words used to describe them.  How we use words is what gives them their meaning.

This doesn’t make them any less useful.  In fact, it should make us even more aware of the importance of communicating clearly and effectively.  

In essence, Wittgenstein highlighted that what matters is the appropriate use of language in terms of the human impact, the cultural norms and the intentions of the people or group with or about whom communicating.

Meaning is use

Words as labels then, can be useful identifiers where we understand the perspective of the person to whom we are applying them, or what Wittgenstein would call the purpose or the intention.

Words are imperfect, just as we are imperfect, on the continual road to becoming and understanding who and what we are.  But they are a starting point for dialogue.  And they are all we have.

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