Posted by: Shula Asher Silberstein | 8 May 2011

Why Don’t We Have a Common Language?

I just realised I haven’t written in this blog in nearly two months. I’ve been avoiding blogging because of a situation that came up about a month ago, and I didn’t want to write about it in case the people involved read the blog. My intention is not and was not ever to make things worse, so I didn’t want to write about it but at the same time I did.

So I said nothing.

I decided to break my long silence tonight because I want to talk about communication. I am coming to believe more and more that the majority of conflicts occur because PEOPLE USE THE SAME WORDS TO MEAN DIFFERENT THINGS. People keep redefining words to mean something other than what they mean and it causes all sorts of confusion, and then we begin fighting each other because we think we said the opposite of what we were trying to say.

Let me give you an example. I’ll use the Incident that I didn’t want to talk about (since at this point I want to talk about it anyway.)

About a month ago, I wore a shirt that Hadassah made for me to temple. The front had the asexual heart. The back said “Asexuals party hardest.” Somebody complained that I was exposing children to the word asexual. Throughout the conversation I tried to have with the rabbi and a few other people about it, it was clear that we were not communicating.

For example, I was trying to explain that by being told that I should cover up such shirts or just not wear them in the first place, I felt that the temple community did not accept me. The rabbi insisted that I was accepted and that I had just used poor judgment in wearing an “inappropriate” shirt.

We were using two different definitions of the word accepted. For me, being accepted means being accepted as an open asexual and having the right to express who I am without fear. For the rabbi, being accepted means being welcome as long as I follow his rules, which apparently and suddenly meant not wearing shirts expressing that I am asexual.

Since we were using the same word to mean two different things, communication was impossible. Even though we were both speaking English, we were not speaking the same language.

Now, there are going to be times when people misunderstand each other. But when we misunderstand each other instead of clinging tightly to our words and insisting we’re right, I think the important thing is to try to understand what the other person is saying. I have a theory, as I said at the outset, that a lot of fighting comes from NOT doing this, from continuing along in our non-communicative path. I believe that a lot of in-fighting in particular comes down to fighting over words and labels instead of stepping back and seeing what those labels are attempting to convey.

The main reason I’m writing this blog is something that happened last night. I was talking with some Bisexual activists about pansexuality. I consider myself panromantic because I am attracted to the soul regardless of gender and because as a gender neutral asexual, I am most romantically attracted to other gender neutral people as well as transpeople.

Well, apparently there are some people in the Bisexual community who are offended by the suggestion that Bisexual and Pansexual are two separate things. According to these people, it is Biphobic to say that the prefix bi = two or to suggest bi people aren’t attracted to those who don’t fit into the gender binary. These activists believe that it is an act of erasure to suggest there is a difference between being attracted to people who fit gender norms and people who don’t, and that the transgender community is trying to force gender identity politics (whatever that means) on them. I was also informed that asexuals are bisexual if they are attracted to more than one gender.

I’m going to leave aside all the erasure that was being done to asexuals, gender neutral and transgender and transsexual people in these comments, even though it pissed me off last night. What really struck me is that people were getting insulted and offended over the definition of a word. No, not even the definition of a word. The definition of a PREFIX.

The prefix bi means two. It does not mean “two is inferior to three” or anything of that nature. Yet somehow it is “biphobic” to state that if a prefix means two, it is illogical to expect people to understand that YOU mean “indefinite number” by it. These same people get offended by the suggestion that they are attracted only to men and women because they have decided that bisexual means “anyone who does not identify as gay or straight”. Thus, they are offended that a gender neutral and asexual person such as myself chooses not to use the term bisexual to define hirself. Communication totally breaks down because if I say “I am not bisexual” they hear “I am not attracted to more than one gender.” while I mean “I am attracted to people who fall outside the gender binary.”

The thing is that there is absolutely no REASON for bisexual people, pansexual people and asexual people to be fighting with each other. If we look at what each other is saying, we are all saying the same thing. So in essence, people are offended because of a difference in LANGUAGE, not a difference in IDEAS. Are there not more important things we could be spending our energy on than this?

I see this in all areas of my life. It’s difficult enough for me as an asexual to explain what I mean by romance, attraction, relationship; I don’t have the same reference point as sexual people and therefore there is confusion. But it just seems like every time we try to talk about anything, someone misunderstands based on using a different definition of a word and that leads to lots of straw man arguments and anger and frustration for no reason.

I don’t know what the solution is, but please, can we find a common language? And can we take the time when there is a misunderstanding to back up and figure out what the other person means?

Isn’t what we are trying to say far more important than if we use the exact right word to say it? Isn’t the idea behind the word the point?



  1. A breakdown in communication is the cause in most conflicts. You are right. The entire acronym needs to stand together and discuss these things

  2. I would actually side with your rabbi on the shirt issue. Unless you go to a specifically Queer shul or service where those kinds of bold statements might be the norm, a slogan like that does cross the line. My shul is very Queer-friendly and people keep any overt messages on the more subtle side — rainbow flag kippahs or pink triangle buttons on the lapel etc. Ask yourself if you think such an overt hetero message would be any more acceptable. For me the answer would be no as well. That doesn’t mean people aren’t accepted, it just means that temple isn’t really the place for such overt statements about personal things. So yes, I would say that being a member of a community does, on some level, involve limits on expression — and that goes for everybody. Again, a “Heterosexuals Party Hardest” would be just as inappropriate.

    Where pansexuality / bisexuality is concerned, you are correct. I don’t know of anyone off the top of my head who conflates the two. Someone can certainly be bisexual and not pansexual, pansexual and not bisexual, or both. But they aren’t the same. That’s not erasure. It’s just a fact. Pansexual includes the possibility of other forms of attraction and expression outside of / along with gendered and sexual forms. It also includes people whose primary preferences involve paraphilias, fetishes, kinks, etc.

    In any case, there is no need to fight about it. These definitions are always contextual. No two people are going to behave and express their preferences in exactly the same way even when they do share the same definitions, so everyone needs to relax, argue less, and listen more.

  3. I can kind of understand where bisexuals are coming from on this. I know how irritating it is when people insist on a strictly dictionary/scientific definition of asexual as being the only valid one. Yes, bi means two, and the bisexual label has come from a time and perspective of there only being two accepted gender identities. I don’t think it’s necessarily biphobic to say that bi people aren’t attracted to people outside of the traditional gender binary, but if they want to expand the meaning of bisexual/romantic further, I guess it’s ultimately their decision. In a way it’s problematic to do so though, because there are undoubtably plenty of people that consciously choose the label bisexual to make it clear that they aren’t attracted to non-binary people…

    About the t-shirt… sounds like some seriously misplaced priorities. Going to a religious place and worrying about what other people are wearing… And it’s such a bunk argument. If it’s not an awful slur what point in there is hiding it from children? Even unpleasant words [poverty. rape. suicide] have to be introduced and dealt with by everyone. I don’t know that it’s so much a matter of different meanings for words as it is people getting an idea in their heads and then closing their ears and refusing to hear otherwise about it.

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