Search This Blog

CCE in brief

My photo
Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Musings From the Subway: Was Ayn Rand a Prisoner of Her Own Limitation?

Because I've been quoted Ayn Rand a couple times in the past few days, because I've got some time due to a canceled meeting and because I entertain easily, I am currently thinking about the concept of free speech. As I tend to think expansively, this also means considering freedom of expression and freedom of choice.

What is speech? Speech is a verbal form of communication. What is expression? Expression is the broader category of communicative tools, including body language, art, music, etc. What is choice? Choice is the ability to pick between diverse options to (attempt) to acheive a desired (conscious or subconscious) outcome.

But back to speech. For language to serve its purpose, it has to have structure. Sounds are ascribed to letters (or characters), concepts are defined by words, grammar puts the pieces together in comprehensible ways. There's only so much you can play with that structure if you want to maintain your intent. For instance, if I want to tell you "the dog bit the man" but choose to alter the word ordering and say "the man bit the dog" I'm not communicating my intent very well.

Now, the more words you know and the better you understand the nuances of grammer, the more freedom of expression you have. I could say "the big dog bit the frightened man" or "the man was bitten by the dog" - same intent, but expanded meaning or a different grammatical flavour. I could even go further - I could say it in a different language, say, Spanish.

A problem emerges there, though, because whereas "dog" implies no gender, I can't say the word in Spanish without gender clarification; dog will either be "perro" (masculine) or "perra" (feminine). Perra has broader meaning in Spanish, just as "bitch" does in English. If I say, "the bitch bit the man" I'd better have some context to be placing the phrase in, or I'm REALLY going off-message. Even within choice, there are certain constraints. And if I speak English, but NOT Spanish? Joder.

When you get down to it, we aren't really free to communicate our intent exactly - my ability to express myself is limited UNLESS I choose to learn Spanish. While that requires some discipline and training, learning a new language expands by ability to communicate - not only do I gain access to new audiences to speak freely with, but the variances of language will provide me with new ways of looking at concepts + again, expanding my options (choices) for expression.

But if I don't want to learn a new language? If my choice is to NOT expand my ability to express myself because I don't feel like I should have to learn a second language, what then? That's kinda limiting, but there are still options. Let's go back to the drawing board - literally. If I draw a picture of a man biting a dog, that solves a lot of my problems. It doesn't matter what language you speak, a picture is universal. A dog biting a man as a picture looks the same to a Masai tribesman as it does to the guy sitting next to me on the subway. So long as I have tools to draw, I can communicate with anyone.

That is, if I know how to draw. Problem is, art is like speech - it's not inherent, it's learned. I need exposure to materials, opportunity to practice and, of course, guidance helps - nobody learns their first language completely on their own. Without training, if I'm obstinate, I could probably come up with something serviceable. But - what if the person I'm trying to communicate with doesn't only speak English, but is blind? I'm stuck again.

Unless, of course, I think three-dimensionally. If I can't speak to the person, I can't draw for the person, perhaps I can create a bas-relief (from the French) that allows the person I'm trying to communicate with to FEEL what I'm trying to communicate. If I'm not used to thinking outside the box, though - if I'm starting off with a limited number of communicative tools - that idea just might not occur to me.

There is always, always a way to communicate - it just takes a bit of experience, some creativity and a bit of training. Authors like James Joyce or Jack Kerouac broke literary convention and found ways to more fully express the textures of their intent. Film makers like Quentin Tarantino or Chris Nolan play around with the order of story within the three-act structure of a screenplay. Picasso broke ground by inventing several styles of art and even restructuring images like faces to capture more mood than literal representation. But each started within an established structure.

Of course, each of these individuals had specialized training, too; they learned their craft inside and out and voraciously consumed everything they could, both within their own field and beyond. They didn't ignore the existing structures; they mastered them, then added new facets. Along the way each also had relationships, partnerships, teachers and mentors. In one way or another, they were part of social institutions that allowed them access to the tools they needed to innovate and express.

These artists made their living off the sales of their works - but where did they sell them? To who, through which processes? Again, they ascribed to a system that included supply-and-demand, demand-generation through networking, etc. None of their efforts were laissez-faire (there's that French again); each was proactive, driven. Each of the systems these artists ascribed to, including language, was governed by a set or rules that while flexible, were necessary. Those systems provided options; options provide a greater variety of choices and choice, ultimately, is what allows for true freedom of expression.

Of course, you could very well decide you don't want to communicate with a Spanish-speaker (and instead ask if they speak American). You could choose to avoid deaf people, or people who you don't understand or don't agree with you (and call them dumb for not getting you in the first place). Really, you could choose to firewall yourself off from everyone that challenges you to think beyond your existing limitations, if that's your choice. But isn't that a choice that limits your options to choose and therefore express yourself?

If "freedom" implies the ability to express oneself freely, one would think that implies some sort of structure (family, community, society, language, commerce, the church, the state) and exposure (language, science, art, culture, math, etc) to nurture the tools of expression. It's the absence of supportive structure that's truly limiting.

I think the big mistake Rand made was in assuming that structures are imposed. She thought that people were independent units, completely separate from each other and that society was a ruse-word for domination. Yet, I don't think she grew her own food, knitted her own clothes or kept secure her own borders. She certainly didn't invent her own language.

Fundamentally, everything is structure. Ecosystems, solar systems, respiratory systems are all mini-societies that follow prescribed rules. They have to, otherwise they wouldn't function - just like language.

The route to true freedom of expression isn't through limitation, but access. The more you learn, the more you know. The more you collaborate, the greater your number of options. The more options you have, the greater becomes your suite of choices and THAT, truly, is what freedom (and society) is all about.

Perhaps if Rand had expanded her horizons a bit, she could have realized this. Alas, had anyone tried to explain this to her, she probably would have told them to fuck off.

No comments:

Post a Comment