A Japanese Psychiatrist’s Takes on the Trials of Life

Crisis in Communication: The Ominous Rise of Language Without Meaning


The language we hear being used in public discourse in Japan seems to have been drained of its meaning. Psychiatrist Izumiya Kanji discusses how true dialogue requires respect for others and a mutual readiness to change.

An Ominous Current

When I see the stories about scandals and harassment that are filling the news these days, I often sense an ominous current running through them. I imagine many others have the same feeling. Watching press conferences and the like, I perceive a qualitative shift toward the use of language that fails to communicate. Superficially, the answers match the questions, and the speakers apologize repeatedly. However, the language produced does not convey the meaning that it should inherently have.

Language is the vehicle used to express the various rules and agreements established to manage human society. These range from great to small—from the laws and treaties of states to the promises of individuals—but all are premised on the maintenance of order based on a shared understanding of the meaning expressed by the language used. Nowadays, however, I fear that this basic premise is under threat.

Four Conditions for Dialogue

The ancient Greeks identified people as the only animals that possess logos. The word logos derives from the verb legein, which originally meant “to pick” or “to gather,” and thereby implies putting scattered things into order. Today, logos is commonly translated as “word,” but it also carries a wide range of nuances: reason, cause, explanation, law, order, meaning, grounds, and rationality. An exchange of logos between two people is a dialogos, or dialogue.

Two people may have a conversation without it being a genuine dialogue, which requires four conditions to be met: It is necessary for both parties (1) to recognize the person they are speaking to as “other,” (2) to want to know more about him or her, (3) to be seeking mutual change through dialogue, and (4) to keep considerations of rank out of the discussion.

The first of these conditions, recognizing one’s counterpart as being other than oneself, is the one that is most likely to trip us up. I wrote “other” rather than “another person” because I wanted to emphasize the sense in which the other participant is an unknown quantity. We have a tendency to treat other people as extensions of ourselves, and often fall into thinking that what is obvious to us must also be obvious to those to whom we are speaking. As a result, we underestimate the possibility of misunderstandings occurring in conversation. However, each individual uses language slightly differently, and we can only achieve a rough form of communication through a casual check of each other’s words.

The second requirement is to have an interest in others. If we are satisfied with our own feelings and values alone and cannot view them relatively, then we will not achieve that interest. An inability to see ourselves relatively makes it impossible to even recognize the existence of the “other.” Thus we have no desire to hear what the “other” might say. In other words, the idea of seeking dialogue does not arise.

The third point, mutual change, requires flexibility on both sides. The motive for dialogue comes from intellectual humility—the recognition that one’s perceptions and values may be narrow or immature—and from curiosity and the desire for self-improvement, which makes one aspire to expand one’s horizons by encountering the unknown.

And fourth, keeping rank out of the discussion is a matter of one’s basic view of human beings. Those who think of themselves as being superior rarely consider it necessary to listen to the thoughts and feelings of their supposed inferiors. People with a hierarchical view of society are unlikely to welcome the open communication that is characteristic of dialogue. And if someone they see as an inferior ventures to express a frank opinion, they are liable to respond with indignation, rebuking the speaker as impertinent and telling him or her, “You need to know your place.”

To sum up, dialogue requires a basic attitude of receptiveness. The participants must recognize and respect their mutual “otherness,” and they must open their windows to each other and share their worlds, seeking experiences that they have not been able to have on their own.

A Crisis in Trust

When people are very young, they live in a world consisting entirely of themselves. Then they start moving beyond this self-containment. They gradually come to perceive how others feel about what they say and do, as well as how others’ views of particular things differ from their own. They learn the meanings invested in in words and actions. Through their experience of dialogue, they achieve a mature view of humanity, gaining the ability to act socially and follow publicly shared conventions. This is how people learn universally understood logos.

But the ominous current I observe so often recently is the lack of logos with publicly shared meaning. For example, one hears absurd evasions like “I made a promise, but I didn’t say I’d keep it,” or denials of wrongdoing based on dismissing successive pieces of evidence as “fake,” or abdications of responsibility for false statements along the lines of “There are no records,” or “I have no memory of that.” And in various harassment cases, the sentiments of the victims have tended to be given short shrift, with the main element of the proceedings consisting of claims by the accused perpetrators that their intentions were misunderstood.

In the Great Depression, the value of currency plummeted. This is because monetary economies are based on trust generated by the state, and when that trust was lost, a crash became inevitable. And now I fear that our trust in logos is beginning to be shaken.

The Need to Restore Trust in Logos

People’s common understanding of the nature of human beings underpins the universality and publicly shared nature of logos. As I wrote in the second article of this series, humans operate on the basis of a hybrid system consisting of the head, working on non-natural principles, and the heart/body, working on natural principles. The head, which is the home of reason, functions like a computer. Although it can gather and process information, it must call on the heart in order to determine the meaning of things. The heart is also an essential part of such processes as finding the order and principles underlying what we perceive.  In sum, we can only form logos by using the heart.

The head only understands questions of quantity and tends to concern itself with the reckoning of matters like superiority/inferiority, victory/defeat, and profit/loss. It is strongly oriented toward control and possession, and is the site for the emergence of egoism. If the head comes to rule over someone’s personality, he or she will be motivated only by superficial values like money, position, power, and glory. Such people are only interested in themselves.

Society today places too much value on development in the economic sphere, and its infatuation with results and efficiency has allowed the values of the head to become dominant. As a result, it seems to me a succession of compassionless people, lacking in logos, have come to the fore to win mistaken respect and power.

This is a crisis of both logos and the heart. To prevent the ominous current in society from gaining further momentum, it is important that we devote ourselves to ongoing dialogue—both internal dialogue with our own hearts and external dialogue with others. And we must revive the strength of a more human version of logos.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 2, 2018. Banner illustration by Mica Okada.)

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