Rostov was a truthful young man, not for anything would he have deliberately told an untruth. He began telling the story with the intention of telling it exactly as it had happened, but imperceptibly, involuntarily, and inevitably, he went over into untruth. If he had told the truth to these listeners, who, like himself, had already heard accounts of battles numerous times and had formed for themselves a definite notion of what a battle was like, and were expecting exactly the same sort of account – they either would have not believed him or, worse still, would have thought it was Rostov’s own fault that what usually happens in stories of cavalry battles had not happened with him. He could not simply tell them what really happened; that they all set out at a trot, he fell off his horse, dislocated his arm, and ran to the woods as fast as he could to escape a Frenchman. They were expecting an account of how he got all fired up, forgetting himself, how he flew like a storm at the square; how he cut his way into it, hacking right and left; how his saber tasted flesh, how he fell exhausted, and so on. And that’s what he told them.” “War and Peace” Volume I, Part 3, Ch 7.
Once you learn to control your body enough so that you can reach and manipulate the external things to which vision draws your attention (see the previous post), the next important step in your development as a human being is your acquisition of language. We tend to think that what we say is a reflection of what’s inside of us, that when we speak we are giving voice to our inner thoughts. However, as the above passage from “War and Peace” indicates, this isn’t really the case. As human beings, when we speak we’re automatically inclined to meet the expectations of our audience. You talk one way around your parents, and another around your friends and acquaintances, and another around your business associates; and you shift the way you speak to accommodate your audience without any conscious thought. Suppose you go to see a movie with some friends and, afterwards, they all start saying how much they liked it, and suppose further that you actually didn’t like it at all. Consider how difficult it will be to say so after hearing each of them praise it; it’s very possible that you’ll even come to believe that you liked the movie yourself once you hear all your friends enthusiastically say that they did. We are so inclined to make our words meet the expectations of others that, as in the case of Rostov in the passage from “War and Peace,” we can wind up deceiving ourselves about our own experiences!
In the 1950’s, Solomon Asch, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, conducted a now famous series of experiments which confirm Tolstoy’s point about language. For example, in one experiment Asch showed groups of students lines of different lengths drawn on cards, and asked them a series basic questions about the lengths of the lines – e.g., which were longer, which were the same length, etc. – with clear and obvious answers. He told the groups he was conducting a “vision test”, but in reality all but one participant in each group were confederates of his, and Asch’s real concern was how the lone experimental subject would react to hearing each of the other members of the group give the same wrong answer. The lone experimental subject always answered last, and the confederates gave correct answers to the first few questions but then began to all give the same obviously incorrect answer to each question. To his surprise, Asch found that when surrounded by people giving an obviously false answer, subjects gave false answers about 1/3 of the time, and that 3/4 of subjects conformed themselves to the group’s false answers at least once; some subjects actually came to believe that the obviously wrong answer they gave were correct.
As Solomon Asch discovered and Leo Tolstoy knew, the expectations of others so governs our use of language that they can cause us to misreport and even misremember our own most basic experiences. This is because language is primarily a tool for *communication* – a means for coordinating our behavior and attitudes with those around us, rather than – as we are wont to think – a means for expressing what’s really inside of us. As such, rather than pulling your attention inward, speech generally pulls it outward, forcing you to automatically consider and respond to the expectations of your audience. Learning to speak allows you to co-ordinate your activities with other people and to learn crucial skills; but it also subjects you to the external pull of everyone else’s expectations. As an infant, you learn to walk without any effort or anxiety. But, imagine how difficult it would be to learn to walk if you already had language, already had the tools to express comparisons between yourself and other novice walkers, and to wonder whether you’re learning fast or well enough to please the experts. If we were born able to speak, learning to walk, rather than being natural and effortless, would be an anxiety laden endeavor from which many of us would never psychologically recover!
But submitting us to the judgments and expectations of others isn't the only way in which the acquisition of language pulls our attention outward. When we learn to speak, we also learn to define our very selves in the terms of a common language – we linguistically identify ourselves as being of a certain race and gender, and as being good at certain things and bad at others, and eventually as having a certain occupation, social status, and set of political beliefs. But this constant *thinking* about what we are that inevitably results from learning a language impedes our ability to *feel* what we really are: a human body, much like any other, dependent upon breath and bound by gravity (see 10/1 post). In terms of what we really are, there’s no important or noticeable difference between the most famous celebrity or politician in the world and any homeless person you might see as you walk downtown; the differences between them that seem so important to us, in reality reside only in language.