Michelle Cottle, a member of the NYTimes editorial board, recently wrote about the divide between Democrats and Republicans over what an increasing number of words actually mean. In “Democrats and Republicans No Longer Speak the Same Language” she wrote that “decades of polarization, turbocharged by the us-versus-them philosophy of former President Trump, have left the nation so divided that it can feel as if the two political teams are not only talking past each other but speaking in entirely different tongues. There are increasingly fierce disagreements over what it means to be ‘canceled,’ what constitutes ‘bipartisanship’ – and don’t even try to figure out what counts as ‘infrastructure’ … Think of it like a French-to-English dictionary, only angrier.”

Cottle’s article reminded me of one I read last summer in TechnologyReview.com, “How to Talk to Conspiracy Theorists – and Still Be Kind” by Tanya Basu who listed some “bear this in mind” points that seem applicable to all contentious conversation. “It’s very human to believe in conspiracy theories,” she wrote. “It’s a defense mechanism: we’re primed to be suspicious and afraid of things that can’t be explained.” She also cited the “third-person effect, the hypothesis that people tend to think the average person will be much more influenced by fake news or conspiracy theories than they are themselves … while there is evidence that education combats belief in conspiracy theories, the truth is that none are immune to them.” She added that the conspiracies always contain kernels of truth and involve a dangerous “other,” social distancing makes them more appealing, and no single demographic is most prone to believe them.

Basu’s recommendations for talking kindly should apply to all civil discourse: always speak respectfully, discuss things in private instead of a public setting, like any social media, “be very careful with loved ones,” and “remember that kernel of truth.” “Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on. Establish those to help build trust and an ‘I’m on your side’ vibe to prep for the stickier stuff to come.” Then try the “truth sandwich … the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff: State what’s true, debunk the conspiracy theory, and state what’s true again.” For instance, believers of the theory that the 5G internet towers are the real cause of the coronavirus pandemic. “You could structure your argument as “Coronavirus is an airborne virus, which means it is passed by sneezing, coughing or particles. Because viruses are not transmitted via radio waves, coronavirus, which is an airborne virus, can’t be carried by 5G.”

Two other worthy pieces of advice are to “realize some people don’t want to change” and “if it gets bad, stop.” But Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, a Russian writer in the latter 1800s came up with another way to communicate, a little trick he called the Aesopian language, which is defined by Merriam-Websters as “conveying an innocent meaning to an outsider but a hidden meaning to a member of a conspiracy or underground movement.” Shchedrin, “the most prominent satirist in the history of Russian literature, was a well-educated nobleman who didn’t mind pointing out what was wrong in his country, such as serfdom and a despotic, tyrannical monarchy. The Tsar Nicholas I didn’t like it, and when Shchedrin’s first novel “Contradiction” which was published in 1847 and contrasted “one’s noble ideals with the horrors of real life,” he was promptly exiled the first time.

Shchedrin found that by using characters and actions derived from Aesop’s fables and “irony clothed in tactfulness” to create covert allusions to the Romanov dynasty he could avoid censorship. It’s no wonder that Shchedrin was Lenin’s personal favorite; he cited Shchedrin’s symbolic characters repeatedly in his speeches and writing to attack his adversaries, such as landlords, capitalists, and especially his rival, Trotsky.

Millions of Chinese women throughout the ages, who suffered educational and social repression for millennia, knew the validity of Shchedrin’s approach. Although kept illiterate and silent, since women expressing their own opinions – even about personal loss or regrets – were considered dangerous, sometime around 1000 CE some women in the south-eastern Hunan province created Nushu, a secret written language known only to women that provided “a freedom of expression not found in many communities of the time” according to a BBC article by Andrew Lofthouse. He described it as “a phonetic script read right to left that represents an amalgamation of four local dialects … Each symbol represents a syllable and was written using sharpened bamboo sticks and makeshift ink from the burnt remains left in a wok. Influenced by Chinese characters, its style is traditionally more elongated with curved, threadlike strokes … and was sometimes referred to as ‘mosquito writing’ by locals because of its spindly appearance.” Though not spoken, it was written onto fans, scarves, belts, etc. and exchanged with other Nushu readers.”

Nushu was such a closely guarded secret that its existence wasn’t publicly known until the 1980s. A man named Zhou Shuoyi “heard about the script in the 1950s after his aunt was married off to a man who lived in a village with Nushu speakers. Zhou began researching the coded language for the Jianyong Cultural Bureau in 1954, but when Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution erupted in the 1960s, Zhou’s work became targeted by the state. ‘I was labeled a “rightist” because of the research I had done … They burned all of my research files and I was sent to the labor camp and wasn’t released until 1979” twenty-one years later. “But after his release, Zhou continued translating the script tirelessly into Chinese. In 2003, a year before his death and that of the last surviving fluent native ‘speaker’, Zhou published the first Nushu dictionary … and remains the only male to have ever mastered the female-only script.” His legacy is “the elegant Nushu Garden and Museum” that provides classrooms, exhibit halls, videos, and calligraphy classes, as well as a library of Nushu writings.

Few institutions are better suited to improving communications than our public libraries, with their wealth of instructive examples and techniques. However, as the Dalia Lama pointed out, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”


Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.