RN/language for Social Change

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    • #28698
      JD Stillwater

        A quote from this NYT piece that spoke to me about RN and RNA:

        “Language tends to evolve to better accommodate experiences of the dominant social group, leaving other experiences obscured from collective understanding, and thus silently perpetuating bias and harm. When these gaps are filled by new concepts, social change can follow.”

        The “dominant group,” Europeans and their colonists, like me, have evolved languages that place nature (why do we even have a word for it?) at a distance from ourselves. RN offers an evidence-based language of interconnection/interdependence/interbeing. Can a new relationship with reality follow?

      • #28700

          “But on principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.”
          >—Albert Einstein, as quoted by Werner Heisenberg in “Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations” (1971) quoted by Peter Coy https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/24/opinion/unemployment-inflation-federal-reserve.html

        • #28704

            NOTE: I am posting this on behalf of vandermude as he was having a problem with posting it here.


            Here be demons.

            This is an area of active research for me. This whole discussion has multiple layers of meaning and nuance. Don’t be too sure that Religious Naturalism has a better answer.

            Language is a fundamental part of humanity. But too often language itself becomes the reality. This is a fundamental error that you see, for example, in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

            Well, no, not really,

            One of the big problems with language is that our language distorts and constrains what we can think about. This was what Orwell warned us about with his description of Newspeak. Language is the box that we are urged to think outside of. But even if we do, we end up having to force our thoughts back into the box to communicate it.

            “But on principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.” – Albert Einstein, as quoted by Werner Heisenberg in “Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations” (1971) quoted by Peter Coy https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/24/opinion/unemployment-inflation-federal-reserve.html

            The paper you mention alludes to this problem.

            “But recent events have reshaped the national conversation on power, privilege, gender norms, whiteness and systemic racism. Together these ideas have pushed us to think, talk, argue and become aware of the many implicit biases we all carry about our identities, unconscious assumptions that privilege some and inflict harm on others. These insights have also made it easier for people to realize there may be plenty of other unconscious assumptions undergirding their positions….There has, of course, been ferocious pushback against many of these ideas, claims that they are divisive or exclusionary. #MeToo, B.L.M. and trans rights have been weaponized in service of the culture wars dominating the media.”

            This does not get to the heart of why there is a pushback – it just does not identify the deeper problem. For example, there is no analysis here about which implicit biases are correct and which biases are in error. The pushback is sometimes framed as a reaction to “Politically Correct” language. It is more than politics. The author discounts the other side as “weaponizing” the ideas. What is actually happening is that they cannot even understand what the other side is saying because their theory forces them to observe only the implicit biases that is expressed in language that the national conversation has become.

            As an example, there is a debate going on the last few years about sex and gender. Because our view of reality is distorted by our thoughts and language, both sides are in error. The right sees sex as binary. This is incorrect. The left believes that gender is socially constructed. This is also in error because it downplays biological essentialism.



            Part of the problem is language itself. Sexual binary is based on a view that sex derives from the genes. The XY chromosomes are male, the YY are female. But sex determination is not static. It develops in the fetus through the process of epigenetics, which turns on and off the genes in the cell, so that undifferentiated stem cells become fully differentiated muscle cells, liver cells, neurons and so on.


            How the genes are expressed is called the transcriptome. The naive view is that male and female differ in only 1 gene in 23, so the difference is about 5%. In actuality, recent research has shown that the expression of genes differs by as much as 30%. This is a huge difference.

            A popular press description is here:


            For the relevant paper see:


            So the right is incorrect in calling sex binary. Actually, it is more like a logistic function. Most people are one or the other, but there is an intermediate area. But the left is just as bad. Back in the 1990s it became clear that there was a biological basis for homosexuality. It was not a choice. To some extent you are “born that way”. So, obviously, gender as a social construct is just flat-out wrong. There are social aspects to gender as well as biological. Sex and gender are part nature, part nurture.

            But questions about sex and race are radioactive. We are constrained by the language of our individual tribes. We cannot deviate from the group consensus, and we cannot understand what the other side is talking about.

            As to Religious Naturalism, don’t be so sure that we are any better. One of the ideas passed around is Loyal Rue’s description of an underlying myth as the heart of a religion. We have this too, in the form of Evolution:


            But this myth becomes our reality. The way we talk leads us to view the world in particular ways. We are forced to pick and choose certain facts because we cannot even state things differently. For example, Religious Naturalism uses Evolution as a central metaphor, so we force our discussion into those terms. But that obscures reality. For example, you cannot use the metaphor of evolution to base a moral code. Evolution can describe how social animals like humans develop morality, but it cannot be used as a basis for morality.

            “Every mythology, every religion is true in this sense, it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery. But when it gets stuck to the metaphor, then you’re in trouble.” – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Episode 2, with Bill Moyers

            The problems with language is one of the reasons why I like Taoism. It warns against making thoughts and language superior to reality. The Tao te Ching starts with the warning: The Tao that can be written down is not the Tao.

            In Zhuangzi, the story of the wheelwright points out that direct experience is more important than the written texts, which are “just the dregs of the once living-spirit of an ancient”.


            Too often we just repeat what we are told without looking deeper. We tend to take what is said and pass it along without deeply thinking about things. For example, I hear a lot about “humility” as something we should do and be. But I can’t, for the life of me, see why this is a virtue. I just don’t get it. It seems to me that we pass this word along, like some smooth stone, from person to person without really thinking about it.

            So to sum up:

            “When these gaps are filled by new concepts, social change can follow.” Yes, this is true. But if the new concepts are not a true reflection of reality, than the social change could be a disaster. The way I like to express it is this:

            Language is power. But it is not truth.

            “RN offers an evidence-based language of interconnection/interdependence/interbeing. Can a new relationship with reality follow?” Yes, but be very careful. Look at the evidence carefully. Is it really there? What are you leaving out? And, like Einstein says, your theory decides what you will observe. Your language may be forcing your response to reality into a limited relationship. In that case, the language will have to change, because reality is what it is.

            In any disagreement between theory and reality, reality always trumps theory.

            • #28705
              JD Stillwater

                Tony, I agree with everything you posted here. The kind of social change I was referring to has to do not with morality directly, but with our descriptions of reality that might inform it. For example, Religious Naturalism, through the lens of evolution, offers concepts related to deep interconnection and interdependence that do not yet have language in English. “Interbeing” is the closest approximation I’ve heard, and that term comes from Thích Nhất Hạnh. “Emergence” is another. It’s a single term that expresses libraries worth of understanding about how the cosmos got this way, understandings that are only a few decades old.

                You and I have spoken about humility before. I think humility (as I understand it) is essential to any kind of growth or learning. I don’t equate humility with humiliation. Humility’s antonyms include arrogance and pretentiousness. So when you see me use “humility,” please read it as the opposite of arrogance, or as a willingness to learn from one’s mistakes rather than doubling down on them, a willingness to deeply listen to different views, rather than dismissing them unheard. It’s nothing like self-abasement or groveling. It’s a form of courage.

                When I read the quoted NYT article, I did not get the sense that the author was taking any political stance. I thought she was making the point that new concepts, with language to express them, open up new space in relationships for people to relate to their partners’  different experiences. You made a similar point: language limits what we can think. New language that expresses new concepts makes space for new thinking. I doubt the author would disagree with anything you wrote here.


            • #28706

                It would be interesting to delve deeper into interconnectedness and evolution. I would be interested in the evidence. How interconnectedness comes out of evolution is not self-evident. As to emergence, I posted something on that elsewhere in this discussion group. You will probably find that your viewpoint about emergence and mine are radically different.

                The topic of humility should be a separate discussion thread.

                As to the NYTimes article, I found it very political. I’m sorry to say that this points out what I am getting at. I would suggest that you do not find it political because it is written from a point of view that you live and breathe. Therefore it seems very natural. It is the environment you swim in.

                As a contrast, I have been a Unitarian Universalist since 1984, but up until 2005 I considered my self to be an Ayn Rander and politically a Libertarian. The beliefs and attitudes that my fellow UUs took for granted I could see are not in any way universal.

                This political viewpoint comes across very strongly in that article. Consequently, it is hard for the author to understand a competing viewpoint. The whole discussion of privilege is from a particular viewpoint. It includes assumptions about race and class – the way that it is being expressed is relative to a particular viewpoint. There is an assumption of universality, that this particular viewpoint is shared by everyone. It just ain’t so.

                As to your belief that the writer would agree with me about language, I have my doubts. Too often, I have experienced people who believe that if you can name it, that in itself is change. My impression is that this person believes that. I do not. Reality cannot be changed just by changing the language. Heaven knows I come across this every day in my professional work as a software engineer. We programmers are very susceptible to this illusion that language changes reality, because software is pure mind-stuff. No, naming it or changing the language is insufficient.

              • #28708

                  I don’t have a NYT subscription so I can’t read the articles, but I’ve found the language of RN to be very powerful. Specifically, the idea that we all have a central story and are deeply interconnected in a global society. A goal being to reframe these inherently political discussions with language that emphasizes the well-being, interconnectedness, and sustainability of all life.

                  I agree that language alone will not bring about necessary social change by itself, but it has to be the first step. Without the right language, the capitalists running the world will go on believing we have infinite resources and that we can solve all of our issues if we just innovate a little harder and keep AI from taking control of the resources. They will use language to divide, abuse and enslave all life until they’ve used the last drop.

                  I’ve spent countless nights of my young life scouring the internet for inspiration and answers to my sense of justice. The language of Religious Naturalism has given me a stronger will to act than any other I’ve come across. I feel a sense of duty to spread this language to inspire others to act and play their essential part in creating a more sustainable and just future.

                  My generation is ready to take action. My generation is taking action one way or another. We have the urgency needed to bring about social change. The weight of the human race has been placed on our shoulders and we all feel it. The limits of our change will directly correlate with the limits of our language. We need the language to inspire, connect, and provide purpose, community, and responsibility.

                  I have recently read a lot more about sex, gender and language as you talked about above. I came to learn about the Hirschfeld Clinic.


                  This clinic contained a treasure trove of information and language that helped people understand sex and gender in a way like no other. It was the also one of the first and largest Nazi book burnings. All of that language was lost, and it has taken us 100 years to relearn and redevelop that language into our society, creating avenues to exploit and divide us again because so many lack the language to understand a different alternative. Hell, many European descendants like myself are just now beginning to reappreciate the language and ideas of the indigenous people we genocided centuries ago.

                  We have got a treasure trove of this kind of language on our website, especially if you include our extensive library of resources like books, videos, other websites, etc. We need to spread our best language, learn from others, and adapt as much as possible before these ideas are lost to history once again.

                • #28711

                    So exciting that you sense an RN affinity in your generation, Jack!

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