ELAYNE RIGGS: On the same page
Just as with the Twilight Zone, I have a favorite Star Trek: Next Generation episode that’s stuck with me for years. It’s called "Darmok," wherein Picard & co. attempt to communicate with the Tamarians, a people with an incomprehensible language. Blogger Barbara O’Brien picks up the plot synopsis: "Captain Picard and Dathon the Tamarian have an adventure together battling an invisible beast, and during this adventure Picard has a ‘Helen Keller at the water pump’ moment and realizes that Tamarians speak in metaphors taken from stories. For example, ‘Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra’ refers to two enemies, Darmok and Jalad, who became allies at Tenagra. As a phrase, it means ‘Let’s put aside our differences and be friends.’ So after much suspense and drama and the death of the unfortunate Dathon, by the end of the episode Picard knows enough Tamarian to say, ‘Bye. It’s been real.’"
One of the reasons this show resonates with me so much is that I’m keen on the necessity of communicating, whether through stories or essays or conversation. I wouldn’t have majored in English and linguistics at college if this idea weren’t one of the driving forces in my life. I’ve always believed that there has to be a way of making myself understood to anyone — probably as futile a notion as my childhood ambition of wanting every single person I met in my life to like me, to never make any enemies. But you know, I haven’t necessarily given up on that one either! And as I’ve noted a number of times, much of my life has been spent in trying to find the key, the conversational Rosetta Stone, that would result in my late father finally being able to understand me — a quest at which I never succeeded, but which led me to become a writer.
Communication is the implicit goal of storytelling. If you’re not making some connection with your readers or viewers or listeners, you may as well be writing in a secret diary. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I have a small tolerance for things like Easter eggs and other pop culture references stuck into TV shows, comics, etc. as a wink between writer and audience; you’ll notice those stories are often the first to become dated as well because their references are so time-specific. But that’s a far cry from deliberately not communicating at all, but faking it in a way that makes your audience feel as though they’re stupid if they admit they’re not in the know.
Fortunately this deliberate communication breakdown doesn’t happen with most stories I read, as I tend to choose my entertainment rather than having it (and any accompanying trendiness) choose me. But it does happen in real life, particularly so in this century so far. I don’t think I have to tell you what series of events brought this on.
Barbara’s Darmok post linked to above was followed up by her talking a bit more about the myth-based Bush presidency. To me, what Darmok symbolizes in our current political discourse more than anything else is the public’s willingness to accept superficial catchphrases and buzzwords and references without asking that they be defined. A government cannot connect with its citizens unless both ends of the conversation are using the same reference points. This is why I repeatedly stress the pressing need to make politicians on all ends of the spectrum define their terms.
Every time a member of the press hears a vague word phrase like "terror" or "freedom" or a mush-mouthed phrase like "family values" they need to ask the speaker, "What do you mean by that?" What does "freedom" mean to George Bush? Something completely different, I’ll warrant, than what it might mean to a New Orleanian two years after the deluge, or a New Yorker staring at a huge scarred hole in the ground for the last six years. What does "government" mean to the people currently governing? Biding one’s time until re-election (as seems to be the case with too many Democrats elected last year with a clear mandate to get the US out of Iraq and bring an end to corrupt cronyism)? Enriching one’s friends (as seems to be the definition used by most neoconservatives eager to "drown government in a bathtub" and then, after breaking it utterly, point and say "See, we told you government doesn’t work!")? Or working in concert with others to carry out the will of the people whom you represent and serve? Every time we hear these sound bytes deliberately undefined and unquestioned by a too-complacent media, we need to be the ones to loudly demand, "What do you mean by that?"
Jargon is the enemy of understanding. One of the reasons I get so frustrated with many feminist websites and no longer read much feminist literature is its unnecessary overuse of academic-based jargon. It not only bores me silly, but it doesn’t serve any purpose other than making the writer sound self-important and the reader feel like an idiot. That’s not communication, that’s dismissal. Jargon lets people get away with saying whatever they want to because it sounds good or important or inspiring, and best of all (to them) they can’t be held accountable for their words because the words themselves have no intrinsic meaning. Meaning is implicit. Meaning is Darmok. We’re all supposed to know and accept the same mythical definitions, which never actually get defined any more, they just become absorbed into the lexicon while we anticipate the next "where’s the beef?" moment.
LOLcats and Easter eggs are fine for entertainment but, when it comes to talking about the things that actually affect our lives and the world around us, we deserve nothing less than full disclosure. Ask your representatives to define their terms, even (especially) the ones they feel should go without saying. And keep asking, until we’re all on the same page.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor and apologizes for being so overtly political this week but, considering that what happened six years ago yesterday still affects her greatly, she begs your indulgence. She wishes her Muslim readers a joyous Ramadan and her Jewish readers L’Shana Tova.