Can semiotics, language, and education trap us?

Education frees us from whatever ignorant state came before it. But it can also trap us in a different sort of ignorance.

For example, someone who feels lost and alone may join a street gang and learn many new things while forming new alliances. But that same person may well trap themselves in a criminal life-style. Once learned, the education a gang provides can prevent gang members from learning even better things.

I believe all education can be like that if we are not careful. To be clear, education in this context refers to learning anything.

Another way to say the above is once we learn or take on a new semiotic matrix or code, we may become trapped by it. Many people who fell for the semiotics of the Obama campaign retained their “belief” in him long after he had shown himself to be a disappointment. Because many of his supporters are good people, they were trapped in his attractive, but false, semiotic matrix of hope and change.

Similarly, another person may learn that his religion is wrong and take on the semiotics of “science” without realizing for many years that science has limits and that it can operate in ways that resemble fundamentalist religion.

I think we can say with few reservations that it is axiomatic that semiotics, language, and education can trap us even as they free us from whatever state came before them. They do not always trap us, but they almost always can trap us if we are not careful.

A microcosmic example of how language can trap us might be this: you say something sort of muddled, get called on it as if your statement were much more specific, and before you know it you find yourself trapped in defending a point of view you never held.

A teenager might want to learn about psychology and in doing so learn what the word personality means. Then they might decide that their personality is of some type. Then they may get trapped in molding themselves according to their understanding of that personality type. The same thing can happen with astrological signs—you read yours when you are young and retain for many years, if not a lifetime, some sense that you belong to the semiotic matrix indicated by that sign.

In good science, real skeptical science, bold science that demands explanations of facts, traps are usually discovered and overcome quickly. But science has a limited range and it cannot do very much for the emotions, subjectivity, or authentic uniqueness of each individual.

Individuals can overcome some individual or subjective traps through science and general learning, but they can never overcome them all in those ways. Our deepest and most significant subjective states can never be well understood through generalities.

And if those subjective states contain errors or traps (as they surely do), they can only be cleared up by observing those errors or traps as they function in real-world situations.

An especially alert and intelligent gang member might gain insight into what his gang membership is doing to him and how it is trapping him. But he will surely retain many of the gang’s subjective interpretations of the world around him even after he has left the gang. His comprehension of cultural semiotics—the semiotic matrix that he perceives around him—will remain deeply imbued with the gang’s interpretations long after he has left.

For example, the former gang member may retain a  sense of pride that makes him quick to anger. He may retain feelings of fear or non-belonging after leaving the gang. Psychotherapy may help in these areas, but a practice like FIML will do even more because FIML will allow the person to see how their former interpretations of the world are still actively functioning even though they may have repudiated the general semiotics of those interpretations.

Joining the gang liberated him from his former state, and then leaving the gang liberated him from the strictures of gang life. But in both cases, his new education has imposed a new semiotic code that can easily trap him in new mistakes and miseries.

The same can be said about all of us concerning almost anything we learn, which means practically anything we do. If we do not come to fully understand how our subjective states—our interpretations–actually function within the semiotic codes we have taken on, we will be trapped in the new state even as we have been liberated, partially, from the former state.


Edit: Just found this: Negative effects of joining a gang last long after gang membership ends.

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