Like achievements in video games, the true meaning of some words can only be truly understood after years of experience.
This is a topic which has animated my thoughts several times over the last few years, usually while on my bike reflecting on human interactions on the workplace, in the political sphere, and in all manners of “adult behavior.”
There are words with meaning that cannot be truly understood by simply stating the meaning using other words, and their significance is too often underrrated.
Do not let this introductory description fool you; although it could very well otherwise apply to niche vocabulary, semantic designators of fields of knowledge and skill that you will never come in contact with, today I want to focus specifically on words that are largely important—truly, words of power.
The textbook example, which I actually hadn’t really thought about before I started to write this, but which comes handy to illustrate, is “freedom.” Everyone has a vague notion of what the word “freedom” means, and as some educated folk will even have read or heard at least once, the true meaning of “freedom” is only available to, as the saying goes, “those who had to fight for it.” What is meant by this is that the word “freedom” carries apart of its meaning in the realm of human emotions, wisdom, state of being and whatnot, outside of the reach of pure language, and therefore its full meaning cannot be transcribed into words (at least in English)—one has to experience things in the physical world to come in touch with the full scope of its sememe. Meanwhile, even a casual study of history quickly reveals that the word “freedom” is an immensely powerful vector of societal change.
What I mean with “words that are underrated” can also be illustrated for “freedom.” In “free” societies, the word has lost its lustre; mass media and twisted politics often conspire to ensure obedient citizenry doesn’t spend too much time thinking about discovering the true meaning of “freedom.” Too much intent to experience it would be a danger to the established order, so a stable society naturally tends to dull the interest people may have in it. But again, never let yourself feel or believe that the word “freedom” is overrated—it is truly underrated, for the feeling of regret and loss if you ever lose your freedom will too escape the realm of what can be described with words.
Yet, what makes the word “freedom” comparatively uninteresting relative to what I wanted to write about is that it is extremely well-documented. Despite the fact its full meaning cannot be transcribed, it is certainly being written and talked about regularly, and the fact it needs to be exercised and experienced is usually not lost on too many people. While not everyone may truly know what “freedom” means, mostly everyone certainly knows about freedom.
Meanwhile, there are words that are comparatively less often used in language and culture; and when they are, they are either over-used or apply to dull and niche circumstances, ensuring that eyes and ears close out of boredom before they can truly perceive their true nature as words of power. One can easily, as I have done, let years if not decades pass, hearing and reading these words regularly but without realizing their importance, hidden in plain sight.
And then sometimes, one may experience an accidental event that reveals a new plane of feeling, of existence, a new reach of the human conditions where all the words one was using so far are not satisfyingly applicable. Grasping for new lexicon, trying to recall where in past linguistic encounters one was ever in touch with something remotely similar, it may be possible to recognize what one had missed; but the most common process is a temporary feeling of literal lack of words until further life experience, until really the next encounter with the suitable words of powers that can give meaning to the new state of being.
The first such enabling event that befell me was my stride against a university’s administration for several years. I had been working to resolve my cognitive dissonance between the observation that highly skilled labor seemed to attract a large amount of economic power in some places (in particular, where some of my peers happened to be active), and the observation that this wasn’t made true at the university despite the availability of organisatory and economic mechanisms that could make it true. “There must be a different form of compensation for that labor,” was I hoping, “which I don’t yet perceive or understand,” did I think to rationalize my strong feeling of unfairness and inequality. But then candid me did something unthinkable, I went and asked those in power what is the rationale for not compensating people in the ways that are usually considered economically fair? And through these discussions, the truth was revealed—they simply didn’t want to, and were actively working to ensure by various mechanisms that this inequality and unfairness could be maintained over time to their great benefit.
Besides some other feelings (anger, dejection, etc) this interaction caused great curiosity:
- what made it possible for such an organization to be allowed to foster in the midst of a society which otherwise values and promotes a free market of labor? Truly what was demanded of society as a whole should equally be demanded of its parts? Should the rules, checks and balances not be applicable in the same ways at every level?
- what was the precise mechanism that they were using that was so effective at preserving the status quo, to the great expense of otherwise highly educated, highly skilled workers, of whom I would not expect to be easily fooled in an economic transaction?
And so I observed, I studied, and I gradually built some understanding of what was happening, but I was truly lacking words to explain what was going on. More concerning even, most of my peers, and, in fact, most of general culture materials I ever had access to in the past and still had access to at that time were completely silent about this particular circumstance. I was feeling excessively alone in my quest for understanding, isolated by my lack of words to share this quest with others. Without words, one cannot query the Internet and discover a community of peers sharing the same stride, elsewhere in space or in time.
But then I kept on reading, and my new state of understanding made me sensitive to language where, between the lines, I would sense circumstances vaguely similar to my own. And as I continued to read, to hear, to observe, I discovered them—two words hidden in plain sight, whose stated meaning in dictionaries is simple and boring, but whose secondary, more important meaning is so crucially necessary to understand, and ultimately (re)gain control over systems that perpetuate unfairness and inequality.
- in my initial understanding, “the right and ability given by a larger society to a part of itself to decide its own rules, checks and balances, even possibly maintaining a separate value or moral system to justify those rules that would be otherwise abhorrent to other parts of the larger society.”
Dictionaries usually limit the scope of the word “governance” to designate the group of people who actually implement the governance. But let not this fool you, governance really designates the shell that protects the part from the whole; it is hard to break, and its main purpose is to hide what happens within from eyes outside.
The true meaning of “governance” also encompasses other things, even organisatory choices that are actually beneficial to get some important things done. For example, the governance of water works in the Netherlands is separate from that of the central government, ensuring that the safety of the country is not vulnerable to the whims of changing political climates. Yet, my first personal contact with the true meaning of “governance” revealed that there is a tremendous human hazard to create and allow local governance, one that is rarely talked about and even more rarely truly understood.
- in my initial understanding, “the ability of someone or something to effect their decisions.”
Agency is what makes it possible for you to want and do.
With agency, one can decide to step outside of their home and walk to the grocery store, and subsequently just do that. Agency is removed when someone else e.g. locks their door from outside, but also when the television inside convinces them groceries stores don’t exist.
To discover the true meaning of agency, one must simultaneously want to do something that appears reasonably attainable in advance, especially something that others have actually already attained before, and be prevented to do it in a way that’s conspicuously the decision of someone else, ie. when one observed that one’s agency has been removed.
And that is how I truly discovered that the bulk of economic and social control exerted by some people on others is enabled by removing agency.
The concept is difficult to understand at first. There is something in the human biology—actually, mammal biology—that provokes a strong response to the observation that something that ought to be possible is prevented by someone else. Surely, people would be angry and would fight to regain their agency if this was truly the mechanism by which control is exerted. The crux of the idea, as I slowly understood, is that removing agency can be done inconspicuously by ensuring that the victim never actually attempts to act on their wish to do something—either by convincing them that “it is not a good or valuable thing to want” or by keeping them distracted. One can remove someone’s agency by simply hacking away at their will to act on their desires or perverting their value system.
For example, universities remove the agency of inexperienced highly skilled workers by brainwashing them into the idea that money would corrupt their self-worth and that only the ascetic quest for knowledge is conductive to positive self-worth, thereby both ensuring that they don’t get a desire for fair compensation within the university, and maintaining a fear that they will not be worthy of anything out of the university.
Gradually, I also understood that the corruption of agency has more severe and insidious consequences in society than the relatively non-violent predicament of university workers. The removal of agency of women by society in particular, is horrendous, too often with fatal consequences. I suspect that many more women than men have an acute understanding of the true meaning of the word “agency,” from an early age.
The most significant related realization, one that is never revealed in school books, is that a society can be largely “free,” where freedom designates the absence of actual barriers between individuals and the target of their wishes, and simultaneously largely “agency poor” so that some individuals or groups exert full control on others in relative impunity.
There are several words of power which I am currently studying. Only recently did I discover several layers of hidden meaning behind “leverage,” “wealth,” “debt” and “risk.” Economic principles are currently the strongest vectors of power systems, but they have not always been. I also have started to suspect there is more to “information asymmetry” and “cultural tradition” than meets the eye looking at the dictionary definitions. With this newfound acuity, I might resume my past studies of the history of religion.