On communication, language and meaning

Last night I watched a movie on DVD called Where the green ants dream.  The film came out in 1984 and was directed by noted German director Werner Herzog.  I remember seeing the movie at the cinema back then and not quite fully coming to terms with the storyline.  When I saw the DVD of the movie in a shop recently, I bought it to have another look.

The film is about a land claim by a clan of Australian aboriginals of a sacred site in an area where a mining company is prospecting and drilling for uranium.  The aboriginals claim the land is sacred because it is where the green ants live until they are ready to fly east, after which the cycle of renewal begins again.  The story is couched in terms of birth, death and rebirth.  The mining company, with all their drilling and explosions, are at risk of waking and disturbing the green ants and breaking the dreamtime cycle.

The first observation about the land predicament is the difference in the explanations given by the aboriginal people and the white mining company representatives concerning the importance of the land in question.  For the aborigines, the land is a sacred symbol of life while for the white man, the land is something to be exploited and used for riches.  The meaning surrounding the same patch of land is totally different and dependant on the contextualised stories of each group – the green ant story from the aboriginals and the development and progress story of the white people.  This is a common point of difference between indigenous populations and settler groups in North America and Africa as well.

This isn’t a film review, so I just want to point out one particular scene in the film when the aboriginals and the mining company representatives are in court.  They are in court to settle ownership of the land in question.  At one point, an elderly aboriginal man stands up and walks to the witness box in the middle of another witness’s evidence.  The witness steps down and the aboriginal elder takes his place and starts to speak in his own language.  The judge is confused but sympathetic and asks if the man can speak English or whether anyone can translate.  The judge looks at his notes and identifies the elderly aboriginal man, saying “I thought this man was mute!”.

One of the other aboriginal men, one of the plaintiffs, stands and tells the judge that there is no one in the court room, or in the country, or in the world that can understand this man – he is the last living survivor of his language and that is why he is referred to as mute.

If we cannot understand what people are saying (or writing for that matter) we do not have communication. Unless somebody can translate the meaning for us, it will be as if we are mute.  In all our communications, we must try and put ourselves in the shoes of the other so that we can find the best way to ensure the meaning of our message is understood.  At the same time, when we try to put on the shoes of the other person, there will be times when we also have to look beyond just the shoes, but to consider the whole contextual environment in which those shoes have walked.  This is not always easy and usually forgotten in our rush to speak.

Without good communication in all its forms, there can be no knowledge management.

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