The Power of a Definition
GUEST POST: CHLOE FRANCIS
When Rob asked me to write, from miles away over skype, I had a weird idea. We’re after insights you see – and what on earth do I have a unique insight on? Solar Panels (my job)? Britain (my home)? German language (my interest)? Actually, the theme I landed on, the thing I really wanted to write about, was definitions. So thank you Rob for the chance to do some thinking and some writing, and here’s a few musings on the power of a definition.
During my first week at secondary school (named middle school in the US, I believe) I let a new friend drag me along to a lunchtime club called “writers club.” I’m not sure why, as at that time there were a thousand things I would rather do with my lunchtime than pen poetry, but I was 11 years old and needed friends, so off we went to writers club. Across the splintering wooden desks (this was in the days before they painted them all purple…) appeared an English language teacher whom I soon learnt to be both kind and severe – but most importantly for our story, she had a bit of a creative streak. I believe it was that very same creative streak that led her to set us the following homework a few years later: write a list of words that define you. Writing a list is easy, I thought – what a great task! My list looked something like this:
The only word I might add to it today would be graduate. As with many good lessons, I only managed to chase down the complexity of what I’d learnt a while later…
How can I be defined in a list? I’m not sure I can even be defined by words so a list definitely won’t do.
Surely I’m more defined by my actions than my words?
Can I even define myself or do I need a less biased outside force to do it for me? My self-image isn’t going to be the same as my unwarped, plain self after all, right?
At which point does one of my characteristics or interests qualify as something that defines me? I’ve put dancer on the list, but not skier. Why?
Does the order matter? Why have I put friend before my family-based definitions like daughter and sister? (I personally don’t think the order matters, no)
Why am I even doing all this defining anyway? Why do we define things?
That last question, at least, I decided I could answer. I’m a scientist, and in science we really like definitions. For example, if I wanted to look at the properties of a gas (its pressure, volume etc.), the very first thing I would do is define that gas. What are its molecules like (hard spheres maybe?) and if it were in a closed container would its molecules bounce off the walls or would they transfer energy as they collide with the walls? Only once we’ve got all the definitions of the gas sorted can we use some maths to look at its properties, not before. Throughout my degree, if I was braindead before an exam I would focus on learning the definitions – they contained so much of the important information that would be needed in the exam hall. In science, definitions are more than helpful, they’re necessary and we use them to make a framework within which we can carry out scientific enquiry.
Whether they’re necessary outside of areas like science though? I’m not too sure. Their power in science is so helpful, their power elsewhere could be misused. My example for this comes from a kayaking trip along a river. In Cambridge (UK) it’s not entirely unusual to find yourself in a kayak or a punt on the river. It’s even less unusual to find yourself entering into discussions…it is a university town after all. This time we were discussing race and sexuality, but more specifically my newly formed opinion that neither need be defined. Reading about the recent riots in Charlottesville, what shocked me (beyond the obvious) was actually how people still voluntarily define themselves by the colour of their skin. I wouldn’t say that I’m white – they’re just not words that I ever need say! It’s not something that defines me. I’m a friend, a daughter, a sister, a dancer, an optimist, a traveller, a scientist, a linguist, a graduate and I happen to have white skin – but that’s a descriptor, not a definition. The same applies to sexuality – if we take away the need to declare (aka define ourselves by) a sexuality it removes the power that definition has. For medical forms, sure, for everyday life – not required! So much prejudice is based on things that people have declared themselves to be or society has defined them as. If we can loosen the power of those definitions can we also shake off the prejudice?
I can’t claim to know the answer to that one. I would like to think I’m right, but I don’t want to say we should loosen up the definitions at the expense of talking about these things at all. I think the key thing is to know how much we influence our own experiences with the vocabulary we use. This became obvious as an exchange student in Germany – there are simply some German words that capture an experience that English words can’t. Fernweh for example, which means the opposite of homesickness (it’s the longing for foreign lands and adventure!), is something I’ve experienced much more since I’ve had a word to assign to that feeling. Going back to our initial examples, saying “I’m white” carries more power that saying “I have white skin.” Saying “I’m straight” is a definition, saying “I’m attracted to the opposite sex” is not.
So I did end up writing about German language after all! It’s unavoidable really. Doing the thinking behind this piece has brought up more questions than I’ve been able to answer, but that’s what all good discussion topics do right? As the graduate, linguist, scientist, traveller, optimist, dancer, sister, daughter, friend……and writer, that I am, I will sign off here and say thank you for reading, I hope it has given just a little food for thought
Chloe Francis is a research scientist in the field of solar technologies in Cambridge, UK. She is a graduate of the University of York (UK) with a master’s degree in Chemistry. Outside of the lab she’s a keen dancer and traveller, in fact this is the first time she’s ever attempted to blog about something other than travel!
10/5/2017 02:06:06 am
Thanks Chloe for sharing your thoughts on this. I have never thought about which influence definitions have on our thinking, behaviour. It is an interesting question. I think we need definitions to put everything in an order. This is what we learn from the beginning of our life. However, I see it the same way, when you are not aware that there could be more definitions than just one and we stay open it can also be a very small world, right? All the best, Claudia
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