Virtually every act of communication that takes place can be seen from a moral point of view because the way one behaves has implications for those around us and is often judged by standards of right and wrong. So, in a way, our daily discourse is permeated with moral references and a moral sense which is guided by corresponding notion(s) of truth(s). So that if I want to be considered a proper user of a particular language, I must remain within the rough boundaries of conventionally accepted grammatical structure, the conventional meanings of words and sentences and the common understanding of truth.

Jürgen Habermas (1970:134) had already labelled the correct usage of a language “an ideal speech situation”where there are a series of a priori speech conditions embedded with meanings that encourage and facilitate dialogue. For the “ideal speech situation”to lead into true dialogue it is essential that no side by privileged in the performance of its role. Dialogue will not be hindered as long as symmetries between partners in communication are guaranteed. For that to happen, those involved in a communication process will have to ensure that their usage of a language suits, more or less, linguistic and cultural norms.

However, it is true that a common respect for one and the same sense of truthfulness is not present in all communicative exchanges. This is the case particularly, but not necessarily, when communication is affected by cultural differences. When the message interpreted is being encoded in another culture, cultural experiences and influences and the conception of truthfulness that produced the message, may have been entirely different from the cultural influences and experiences that are being drawn on to interpret and respond to the message. Consequently, unintended errors in meaning attribution may arise because people with entirely different backgrounds are unable to understand one another accurately.

Lost in Translation

Because of its cultural base, the ‘meaning’ that emerges in a conversation is likely to be different for participants who are not members of the same speech community. Hence the problems faced by culturally different individuals in managing and achieving their goals in public encounters.

But I choose to see these differences in ideal speech situations as only one of the contributors in causing a block in communication and leading to repeated miscommunication, frustration and pejorative stereotyping.

Yet, when mis-communication has resulted in conflict, participants in these situations are often encouraged to resort to deep-seated and deeply believed stories about themselves, which I believe are but small cells in large bodies of institutions, political manoeuvres and international relations. Very often, people are instructed by institutions to believe that certain vocabularies are incommensurate. Dominating institutions learn to shape parties in conflict at their will and forge antithetical stands such as the East and the West, Male and Female. Then, the inability and the unwillingness of these parties to rise above their own worlds, their own truths and their incapability to see new positions reinforces the line between the community and the outsider.

In order to reinforce those boundaries and to protect their own stories, people then tell and retell stories about ‘us’ and ‘them’. But, as Habermas (1970:92-95) wisely said, human beings are not just objects of political order but the subjects, if not the authors, of that order. Politics presupposes prior interactions, backgrounds of shared understandings and recognised norms and institutions. Once norms and meanings are inter-subjectively understood, they are collectively accepted and hold a potential for transformation. When political norms and meanings are changed, so are political language and meanings.

Habermas, J. (1970) Towards a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science and Politics, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.


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