On expression

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. We spend much time, in a myriad different ways, expressing ourselves to the world at large. But what, actually, is it to express an idea? And does a thought change when we verbalise it, from some abstract inclination to something more concrete? If this does happen, it’s a process we often don’t pay enough attention to.

On expression

By: Gareth van Onselen

12 October 2012

To give life to language is to not merely to transfer ideas from the dreamy realm of thought to a more concrete reality but, in doing so, to give public expression to one’s own identity. That is not easily done.

Inside our minds words are felt as much as thought, each one attached to some emotion particular and unique. Connotation and denotation, experience and understanding, all merge in a word or idea. Expressed, however, that thought is placed in a public space, where its literal meaning must compete with those personal emotional attachments every other person feels in a way particular to them.

In turn, often it forces us to address an idea as it stands detached from our psyche. Much can be learnt from that too. Some words evoke a more universally felt response, others are contested and their affect varied. And so, being able to convey accurately what one actually means takes some skill and, very often, words can serve to confuse rather than elucidate what one actually intends to communicate.

When that happens, it is as much ourselves that feels misunderstood as the idea proffered. Rationality is important but if it fails to account for subjectivity its message is denuded of its worth.

Reason should never be made to suffer because of this, but always it should be aware as to the nature of the environment into which it is introduced. This might all seem fairly obvious but the simple act of expression is so fundamental to our being as to constitute the cornerstone of those core principles which govern freedom and liberty.

To take it lightly is to underestimate our very right to live a full and good life. For what is it to live without the ability to be understood? Likewise, those that would seek to suppress expression seek to limit the freedom to define who we are. Few principles are worth greater protection than freedom of expression.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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