Every autumn Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine offers a course called ‘Foundations of Western Herbal Medicine’, meeting ten Wednesdays from 5:30-9:30, part of the level one herbal holistic medicine program – ‘Cultivating the Healer Within’. First class I compare two prevalent health viewpoints of our time – allopathy and holism. Here I’ll share one part of that topic, something often overlooked in such conversations, that being a conversation about language itself.  

Herbal Holistic Medicine, Allopathic Medicine, and the Inherent Bias of Language:

‘Reality’ is shaped largely by the language we use to describe it: histories, philosophies, ‘ologies’, ‘isms’, our personal life narrative, words we use to communicate with others, and so on. When we break words down to their roots, we find nuances and connotations shaped by deeper lens/paradigm biases that are left unexplained, biases that members of respective paradigms do not even know to question and automatically assume that other parties see the same way.  Deeper scrutiny reveals that words we use in our conversations contain meanings not necessarily shared by the person listening. Same words with different definitions based on worldviews shaped by different lenses/paradigms.

Football vs. football is a good example to explain this. Most people picture soccer in their mind when they hear the word football, except in the US, where people think of American football, and use the word ‘soccer’ to describe the other sport. The games are played in similar stadiums on fields of nearly identical dimensions, same number of players on the field, same aim of the game. But after that, everything else is different: the way the game is played and officiated, how time unfolds, rules and strategies, what kind of athlete excels at the sport, equipment and uniforms, etc. People talking about American football would not expect to be understood as if they were talking about soccer, and they would not force American football concepts onto someone thinking about soccer. Common vocabulary shared by each sport is instantly and correctly translated for each sport with no argument. To continue with this analogy, Americans must also agree that, regardless of opinion, soccer is by world standards the more popular sport by far.

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The same is fundamentally true for allopahy and holism, except hardly anyone gets it. ‘Allopathy’ is a term used to describe what Western-biased people call modern conventional medicine as commonly practiced in the US and a few other countries. Holism, which includes herbal holistic medicine – also practiced in the US and these other countries — is a term used by Western-biased sources to lump together what they describe as alternative or traditional medicine practices. Many people ascribing to the allopathic medicine paradigm believe that their idea of medicine is the norm, which is why they call it conventional medicine. Statistics clearly show that allopathic medicine is not conventional as judged by the number of people worldwide currently ascribing to its principles and theories, or practicing it or being diagnosed and treated by it. Same and more goes from a historical perspective, as allopathic medicine is only about 150 years old. It is a recent medical development ascribed to by a minority of the world population.

Many words and phrases used by each of these healing paradigms are the same, but the underlying viewpoints shaping the respective definitions are often different, as are axioms and truisms upon which each paradigm bases itself. Yet, unlike American football and soccer, people discussing human health and medicine do not make the necessary adjustments when communicating. Most are unaware that this is a necessary first step before proceeding with any conversation or debate. Followers of allopathic medicine in the US inherently believe they are (at least) the dominant and more correct view, and (sometimes) the only view. It is, however, by current world population and historical standards, a hollow belief with no actual substantiality. If, however, by dominant paradigm we take to mean bullies trying to enforce their view on others, then allopathy is correct in claiming this title. These are, in truth, the biases of a small, entitled minority that doesn’t feel the need to understand other viewpoints, let alone regard them as equals.               

Advice for Practitioners of Herbal Holistic Medicine

As a practitioner of herbal holistic medicine, I am often asked to defend my viewpoint. Personally, I do not engage in such debates until certain ground rules are collectively understood: One, vocabulary in each camp is to be translated and understood in all its nuances  by all parties involved; the severe limitations of language as a descriptor of reality is to be clearly and transparently understood by all parties. Two, no one view sits in a superior position atop a hierarchical pyramid to which other parties aspire; each party has an equal place at a round-table discussion where the collective goal is to understand an infinitely complex reality better. We would all instantly agree to this if we were discussing football vs. football.

Next up: the deeper implied meaning underlying the words ‘allopathy’ and ‘holism’. Wait for the next blog, or if it fits your geography and schedule, consider signing up for the Foundations of Western Herbal Medicine (starting 9/28) and hear it firsthand.

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