commentary

misnomers, missteps, and meaning

This is the second in a series (see the first below) entitled Rickshaw Musings – little ideas that take shape during the many hours stuck in the traffic here in Dhaka.  On adjusting to the  flow and feel of this city, the challenges it presents and the surprises it holds.  And any other things that may pop up along the way, too.

The other day I was speaking with a Bangladeshi graduate student about the history of the United States when he referred to the U.S. War of Independence as its ‘Liberation War’.  The reference caught me off guard; it has generally been called by the former name back in the States.  Yet walking home later that evening, I paused, realizing that I had been referring to Bangladesh’s war of 1971 as its ‘War of Independence’ rather than the literal translation of Mukti Jhuddho, ‘Liberation War.’  I was making the exact same mistake.  And my misnomer must have sounded just as peculiar in all the conversations I have had since moving to Dhaka.

As an American relatively newly-arrived in Bangladesh, I find myself faced with a whole new set of reference points.  In addition to adjusting to a new routine, a new neighborhood, a new community and new food, I must reconstruct a significant portion of the lens through which I view this new world.

We each have our own personal set of reference points, formed by the experiences that have shaped our minds and outlooks throughout our lives.  This knowledge, commonly referred to one’s referential frame, is vital for effective and efficient communication.  As political scientist Emo Gotsbachner explains, “As most utterances in our ordinary day-to-day conversations are – and have to be – incomplete, allusive or otherwise truncated, whatever speakers leave out as taken for granted has to be added in the minds of receptive listeners.”[i] The events, people, places, and things that compose our referential frames fill in these gaps in all our conversations.

Yet, beyond these individual frames, we are each influenced by larger, shared sets of reference points – ones from the groups to which we belong and by which we have been shaped.  Each school, workplace, or community has its own shared body of knowledge, and in becoming a part of group, we incorporate aspects of its frame into our own.

One of the most important and influential collective frames is formed on the national level.  As Benedict Anderson states, a nation is “an imagined political community,” one that is made cohesive by narratives of its origin and development that instill in its citizenry a unified understanding of themselves, their heritage, and the characteristics that distinguish them from other nations.[ii] These narratives, shaped by shared language, culture, schoolbooks, historical events, key figures, and so on, constitute the referential frame – or national memory – that defines a people.

As a result, each nation’s population views certain events, persons, and movements as key reference points, creating a perspective unique to that community. For example, mention in Bangladesh of the Language Movement[iii] carries a certain significance, whereas in the United States the Boston Tea Party might carry similar importance. Allusion to these events in their respective locales recalls emotions and meanings in ways that likely will not extend beyond national boundaries.

So what happens when you do find yourself in the middle of an entirely new place with a completely new set of reference points?  The national narratives that I carry are, by definition, different from those of Bangladeshi nationals.  We all have similarly disparate reference points, we all make the same cultural faux pas when entering a place where our frames do not quite match – stepping on our own toes in new situations, blushing at our misspeaks.

Yet, as socially painful as these experiences may be, our conversations are, in many ways, all the richer for them. Speaking with an individual who carries a different set of reference points forces us to reconcile these differing narratives and to construct new ones.  We find ourselves adjusting the frames we carry to mesh with new ones, combining diverse sets of knowledge.  Rather than discarding our own known reference points, we find ourselves engaged in a process of absorbing aspects of new frames that we find acceptable, and endeavoring to reconcile the differences that may not be so.

It is precisely these interactions that make the sharing of thoughts and discussions between two people of unlike backgrounds most enthralling.  For if we take the time to explain the significance of our own frames to those who carry different ones, fascinating things can happen. Parallels can be drawn. New ideas realized and innovative possibilities revealed.  Questions and issues suddenly become relevant in other contexts.  And these exchanges can, in turn, take one beyond the confines of one’s own immediate world.

Through such exposure to new ideas, our archive of reference points widens, and imagining concepts and ideas that we have not even seen yet becomes a greater possibility.  By opening our minds to the concept of alternative perspectives, it becomes easier for us to imagine that such things can and do exist.  It causes us to further question ourselves.  To be able to imagine that the world is larger than we can even imagine.

I know well that my knowledge of and exposure to Bangladeshi culture, life, and history is far more limited than that of a long-time Bangladesh resident.  But I am not looking fill the role of expert here.  Rather, I am seeking a different function – I am an outsider asking questions, raising issues without claiming to answer them, attempting to provoke consideration of matters perhaps previously taken for granted, seen as a normal part of everyday life.  I am looking to explore, to question, to discover things I do not understand and to present possibilities that perhaps were not previously in this frame. And, in return, to perhaps have the same happen to me and my perspective.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] Gotsbacher, Emo. “Asserting Interpretive Frames of Political Events: Panel Discussions on Television News.” In Media, Policy and Interaction, eds. Richard Fitzgerald and William Housley.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009.

[ii] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

[iii] The Bengali Language Movement was the political resistance to the imposition of Urdu as the state language in what was then East Pakistan.  Many trace the roots of the Liberation War of 1971 to this political mobilization.  Read more about the Language Movement here.

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