Obama will be president for the next four years, and as the politicians hopefully strive to bridge the partisan gap, we continue with bridging the generation gap (Part 1 here). Well, what is the generation gap? Is it a linguistic divide? Or is it a cultural divide? In the summer of 2003 when I was interning at a physical therapist’s office, I had been motivated to follow my heart and passions after reading Wild At Heart by John Eldredge (which I don’t recommend). Then I mustered up the courage to write a letter to my parents explaining my intentions to put aside physical therapy as a career and follow my dream of trying out for soccer teams and striving to become a professional soccer player. My father responded in one of our conversations with a startling question, “What good will you do for other people as a soccer player?”
I paused…. and the best answer I could come up with was, “I’ll give joy to people who watch me play.” My statement was true, if I were to be a soccer player, spectators would be entertained, whether they cheer or jeer, nevertheless entertained. But my father was unconvinced and rightly so, because my answer was not my primary motivating reason but rather a statement to justify my actions. But even in my false justification, I was still frustrated. I was frustrated that my father was not understanding me and my desires. Was it because of a gap in language? It couldn’t have been. My dad was perfectly able, maybe not 100% fluent, in English. The words I used, he understood their meaning, and vice versa, the definitions of the words he used, I understood. Some say the generation gap can be bridged through the gaining of linguistic skills. If one generation makes the effort to learn the primary language of the other, then this would increase quantity and quality of communication. There is validity in such a claim, as I have friends who would highly benefit in their relationships with their parents if they were fluent in the Korean or Chinese language.
But in attempting to narrow this language gap, one must be mindful that the gap is not merely narrowed by the filling of letters, words and sentences. Language at the core is a tool of meaning. It’s function is to convey and receive meaning, and thus, can be distinguished in that way. One can say “Shoot!” and intend to convey the meaning of ‘Darn! I messed up!’ but if that person says the word while situated in a football pitch, then the received meaning could be ‘Kick the ball!’ But not only is the situational context important for the transference of meaning, so also is the cultural context.
‘Lost in translation’ is a common phrase because it is highly likely at times to have words change meaning when they enter into a different cultural context. But what is interesting that David Hollenbach, a Jesuit ethicist, points out to us, in The Common Good & Christian Ethics, is that language is inextricably tied to the common good of the community and our individualistic expression is actually not very individualistic at all. He says using the work of Charles Taylor:
Every act of speaking, of course, communicates a specific message with a particular meaning. Cultures do not speak; people do. And when people speak, they do not communicate whole languages but specific meanings. But actually communicating any meaning at all would be impossible unless both the speaker and the hearer already shared knowledge of a common language…
The social good of the language and the individual good of speaking are internally connected. They are aspects or dimensions of each other. What is common and what is individual are both required in any successful communication. The common and the individual mutually interpenetrate and mutually determine each other. This suggests, more generally, how the common good and the good of an individual person can be mutually determining in a similar way.
Hollenbach reminds us that to write, read, speak, listen is not an individual endeavor. Embedded in the structure of language is the sense of ‘for another’. So then, for those who are not willing to learn the language of our parents’ generation, before the question “Why is it so hard to communicate with them?” is asked, one must inquire of oneself “Do I not care enough about my parents that I have no willingness to learn their language? To convey and receive meaning for them?” Many times the frank answer will be, “Yeah, I don’t care enough.” And this further enlightens us to the ethos of our generational culture and how different it is from previous generations. The difference in cultures between generations goes far deeper than the difference in languages, thus leaving us with another aspect of the generational gap: the cultural clash.
But that… to be continued in the next post.