Words Mean Things … Or Do They?

Jeff Goldstein continues an ongoing debate with Patrick Frey as to whether those who communicate have an obligation to consider how others might misinterpret their meaning. Whereas Patrick takes a surprisingly politically correct view on the matter[*], Jeff takes the extreme anti-postmodernist position:

To say that words can mean different things to different people even in the same context is to confuse a couple of important issues. First, for a word to be a word, it must have first been signified. Which is to say, we believe we are engaging words in the first place because we believe someone — some agency — has intended to communicate, and in doing so, he has turned a simple sound form (or, in the case of written texts, a squiggle or mark) into language by having attached to it a signified, the thing that gives the now completed sign its (fixed) meaning.

If we didn’t assume such signification took place, we’d have no reason to assume we were dealing with language at all. Which is why when one argues that “words can mean different things to different people even in the same context,” one is really arguing that one can make signifiers do different things in a given context based on their own intent to mean — all the while, ignoring that what they are presuming to resignify by adding their own intent has already been signified by the author or utterer, and so already means.

In the simplest terms, taking someone else’s signs, ignoring their meaning, and then adding your own meaning in place of the original meaning, is NOT interpretation. Interpretation requires that the receiver attempt to decode the message sent by the author. It does not justify replacing the author’s message with one of your own creation and then pretending what you’ve done is anything other than engaged in a bit of creative writing.

My strong sympathies are with Jeff here.   It’s both unreasonable and unhealthy for people to have to be constantly on edge whenever they speak or write for fear that some receiver will interpret words meant innocently in some malicious way.

At the same time, however, many words do in fact have mulitple meanings and the intent of the communicator is not always obvious to the receiver.  This is especially true in the written form, where emphasis and tone are much harder to communicate.   Sarcasm, for example, is much harder in writing than orally.

Mass communication is much more subject to misinterpretation than is personal communication.  When a friend, family member, or other individual with whom one has much experience says something, we naturally interpret their words through a contextual filter.  ( And, frankly, we often screw it up even with family members.)   We lack that sort of context with strangers, making it much easier to misunderstand their intentions.

This is something Jeff has undoubtedly experienced as a blogger; I certainly have.  We write individual posts with some expectation that they’re being read serially by our audience.   Regular OTB readers can interpret my meaning more easily because they’ve got a good sense of my attitudes and what I’ve said about similar circumstances in the past.   But, despite a reasonably large regular readership, most readers of any individual post are likely one-offs or very occasional readers, having followed a link from somewhere else.

I don’t have a solution for any of this.  In an ideal world, we’d give our fellow man the benefit of the doubt and presume, absence experience with the individual that he deserves otherwise.  Since we don’t live in an ideal world, however, we should probably make reasonable effort to avoid misinterpretation and expect that others will nonetheless be unjustly offended on occasion.

*UPDATEPatrick clarifies his position in the comments thusly:  “[I]f you have two equally effective ways to say something, and you know one is likely to offend a reasonable person, you should choose the other way.” That’s pretty much my position as well.

Photo by Flickr user Darwin Bell under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Johno says:

    So… the best approach is “don’t be a dick.” Sound about right to me!




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  2. Carin says:

    At the same time, however, many words do in fact have mulitple meanings and the intent of the communicator is not always obvious to the receiver.

    That makes it a failure on the part of the communication transaction, so to speak. The writer/speaker did have a meaning. The receiver cannot come back and, in effect, change what the speaker intended. He intended ONE thing. Clarifying communication is fine. What we’ve done, as of late, is to simply disregard what the speaker truly meant. “I hope he fails” and all that.

    should probably make reasonable effort to avoid misinterpretation and expect that others will nonetheless be unjustly offended on occasion.

    Reasonable is a fuzzy term; I don’t know what that means. People with a low level of education are bound to misinterpret a whole bunch of what is written or said. How do we apply that reasonable standard with such varied levels of understanding?




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  3. Arcs says:

    This is especially true in the written form, where emphasis and tone are much harder to communicate.

    Emphasis, tone, and most importantly, body language can be used very effectively to intentionally miscommunicate a given set of spoken words.




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  4. Patterico says:

    “Whereas Patrick takes a surprisingly politically correct view on the matter . . .”

    I don’t think I do, and I note that you don’t quote anything of mine to show what my position is and why it’s “surprisingly politically correct.” Can you restate my position fairly, and explain why you think it’s “surprisingly politically correct”?

    I encourage your readers to take a look at some hypos I give here which explore the subject of manners vs. Telling It Like It Is.

    I’d be interested in your readers’ responses to those questions as written. Jeff and some of his commenters seem reluctant to answer the specific questions the way I asked them; instead he and some of his commenters have answered selective parts of the questions to make the points they want to make. But the questions themselves illustrate some tricky points of the intersection between manners and straightforward talk, and I think they should be confronted head-on.




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  5. This is only a partial solution, but I’ll take the time to argue once more (half jokingly, half seriously) in favor of the “sarcasm mark” punctuation.

    It would hardly be the first time new punctuation was added. Remember, the Romans didn’t use any at all (nor did they use spaces between words). The sarcasm mark is something that is sorely lacking in modern print and electronic media.




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  6. James Joyner says:

    Can you restate my position fairly, and explain why you think it’s “surprisingly politically correct”?

    Your position is that speakers’ words mean what a reasonable listener thinks they mean and if they’re offended then it’s the speaker’s responsibility to clarify. The subtext, especially as gleaned from previous posts in the debate, is that we should be aware of reasonable misinterpretations and avoid them.

    I agree with you. But it’s a politically correct position insofar as PC is defined as “language, ideas, policies, or behavior seen as seeking to minimize offense to gender, racial, cultural, disabled, aged or other identity groups.”




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  7. Boyd says:

    Personally, I believe it all boils down to intent, and acknowledge that sometimes the speaker means to hide or disguise their intent.

    It’s kinda like how I define a lie: if someone intends to deceive someone else by what they say, then they’re telling a lie, even if the exact, factual meaning of the words is true (and even if the lie is to protect someone’s feelings, i.e., a “white lie”).

    If you use the word “niggardly” to someone whom you believe will interpret it as a racial slur, then in my mind the fact that the word has nothing to do with race is no protection; your intent was to offend.

    Further down the scale is someone who negligently uses words not intending to offend, but should have known they could be interpreted as offensive. It’s when incidents like this are claimed to be deliberately offensive that we devolve into pointless arguments. They may be similar transgressions, but their difference in degree is significant.




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  8. Patterico says:

    “Your position is that speakers’ words mean what a reasonable listener thinks they mean and if they’re offended then it’s the speaker’s responsibility to clarify.”

    Close, but not quite. More precisel, my position is that speakers’ words mean what the speaker means. But in the real world, interpretations don’t always accurately capture the speaker’s intent: good-faith interpreters will go with their best judgment of what the speaker means. When speech is interpreted in different ways by reasonable listeners, the speaker has likely been unclear and should clarify.

    I also think that if you have two equally effective ways to say something, and you know one is likely to offend a reasonable person, you should choose the other way.

    You could call that political correctness; I call it good manners. There is a difference and it turns on whether the anticipated negative reaction is reasonable.




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  9. Jeff G says:

    Patrick clarifies his position in the comments thusly: “[I]f you have two equally effective ways to say something, and you know one is likely to offend a reasonable person, you should choose the other way.” That’s pretty much my position as well.

    Why? Sometimes being offensive has a nice rhetorical shock value. Sometimes it furthers a debate you wish to see furthered.

    You are making rhetorical judgments based on what you think is best for a speaker/writer to do. But if you don’t know that person’s aims, why presume to make general rules about how he or she should approach a rhetorical situation?

    Oh, and about the sarcasm tag. What if I were to deploy that tag sarcastically or ironically.

    WHOOPS!




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  10. Jeff G says:

    At the same time, however, many words do in fact have mulitple meanings and the intent of the communicator is not always obvious to the receiver. This is especially true in the written form, where emphasis and tone are much harder to communicate. Sarcasm, for example, is much harder in writing than orally.

    Signifiers have multiple signifieds, but the idea here is that the author isn’t responsible for all of those potential meanings that have been attached to the signifiers in the past.

    Tony Snow, we were told, isn’t racist, but nevertheless his use of “tar baby” could prove offensive to someone who didn’t bother to understand the context.

    Is this hypothetical dullard who has been programmed to take offense as a point of political power really the person we want to be building our utterances around?




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  11. James Joyner says:

    Why? Sometimes being offensive has a nice rhetorical shock value. Sometimes it furthers a debate you wish to see furthered.

    Sure. The essence of the debate, as I understand it, is on the reasonable ways in which communication should be interpreted. If one’s intent is to offend and one subsequently offends, there’s no misunderstanding!

    Tony Snow, we were told, isn’t racist, but nevertheless his use of “tar baby” could prove offensive to someone who didn’t bother to understand the context.

    Is this hypothetical dullard who has been programmed to take offense as a point of political power really the person we want to be building our utterances around?

    No.




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  12. sam says:

    Which is to say, we believe we are engaging words in the first place because we believe someone — some agency — has intended to communicate, and in doing so, he has turned a simple sound form (or, in the case of written texts, a squiggle or mark) into language by having attached to it a signified, the thing that gives the now completed sign its (fixed) meaning.

    Of course, 100 years of the philosophy of language, at least since Frege, has shown that theory of meaning to be crap. If you think the meaning of a word is the thing the word refers to, you’ll find yourself in Meinong land pretty quickly. Consider, if Socrates dies, then has the meaning of the word ‘Socrates’ also died? And if so, how can one continue to speaking meaningfully about Socrates? Misunderstanding someone is not usually the misapprehension of some object. Given Goldstein’s fundamental error, I find everything else he says about meaning and communication to be confused and misleading.

    Which is why when one argues that “words can mean different things to different people even in the same context,” one is really arguing that one can make signifiers do different things in a given context based on their own intent to mean….

    Well, yeah. A famous example: I say to you, “Teach the children a card game.” You teach them poker. I say, “I didn’t mean that kind of a card game.” (Well, how was I to know? Moreover, did all the possible ways of taking ‘card game’ occur to you before you instructed me?)

    Which makes the rest hash:

    all the while, ignoring that what they are presuming to resignify by adding their own intent has already been signified by the author or utterer, and so already means.

    If the simple point is we cannot in all cases be held responsible for how our words are taken, fine. But I don’t see how that absolves us of the responsibilty to speak and write clearly and with the sensibilities of our readers and auditors in mind. Meaning something is closely related to intending something. If you don’t want your intentions misunderstood, you should try and make your meaning as clear as you can (even with the knowledge that you will fail on occassion). Which is JJ’s final point.




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  13. Floyd says:

    Go to, let us go down, and there CONFOUND their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech, for dark is the suede that mows like a harvest!




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  14. Jeff G says:

    If one’s intent is to offend and one subsequently offends, there’s no misunderstanding!

    Yes, but I was addressing this prescriptive statement, which you note is pretty much your position, as well: “[I]f you have two equally effective ways to say something, and you know one is likely to offend a reasonable person, you should choose the other way.”

    My point is, why should you, as a rule, choose not to offend. Taking offense is subjective. How would you determine reasonability before hand. Who determines if the offense given was reasonable — particularly in an ethos where being offended is a cottage industry, and we’re told that by attempting to apply terms like “reasonable” to the interpretations of specific identity groups is nothing more than an attempt to colonize their Otherness using the discourse of the white male? HOW DARE YOU PRIVILEGE AN IMPERIALIST VIEW OF REASON OVER THE DIFFERING “REASON” OF [fill in the identity group here, some of whom, like establishment feminists, have even developed their own system of logic]!

    I only raise these questions because I think that prescriptive statements about what we “should” do in rhetorical situations are problematic. Let the speaker determine what’s best. Rush Limbaugh likely knew that his words would be removed from their larger context and used by the media and the left as a cudgel. He also might have known that doing so was baiting them into the kind of debate we’re now having over the media’s attempt to frame the utterances of others, over the White House’s having used its power to go after a talk show host, etc.

    He certainly has gotten the base fired up. Would any of that had happened had he been more careful to avoid a certain type of (I believe forced) “misundertanding” and provocation? — what that was a result of his having been taken out of context?

    Perhaps he knew his intent better than we did, and so we needn’t a set of rules that suggests we “should” act one way over another. What “should” suggests is a judgment, one that I think is predicated on a certain idea of how political discourse “should” work that not everyone shares.

    Not that I have any desire to write any more about this. Trust me. I’m burned out.




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  15. Jeff G says:

    If you think the meaning of a word is the thing the word refers to, you’ll find yourself in Meinong land pretty quickly. Consider, if Socrates dies, then has the meaning of the word ‘Socrates’ also died? And if so, how can one continue to speaking meaningfully about Socrates?

    Are you suggesting I’m some sort of nominalist?

    I don’t think the meaning of the word is the thing it refers to. I’m saying that what makes a word a word is that the mark is attached to a signified. This is done by some agency who has an intent to mean. Words are signs. Signs are created. Socrates can be a sign even after he’s dead.

    See? I just used “Socrates” as a sign. Without any problem whatever!

    Misunderstanding someone is not usually the misapprehension of some object. Given Goldstein’s fundamental error, I find everything else he says about meaning and communication to be confused and misleading.

    Given that I’ve said no such thing, I’m guessing the error might be on your end. Misunderstanding someone is the misapprehension of intent.

    Again, I’m not sure where you came up with this rather ridiculous notion of my argument, but I can tell you that I’m not surprised you find it hash when you begin by getting the premises wrong.

    You conclude: “Meaning something is closely related to intending something. If you don’t want your intentions misunderstood, you should try and make your meaning as clear as you can (even with the knowledge that you will fail on occassion). Which is JJ’s final point.”

    Have you read my post? Meaning is governed by intent, is what I argue. Failure to signal your intent perfectly is not a failure to mean.

    Nowhere have I argued that one needn’t try to signal his intent clearly — though there are times, obviously, when one intends ambiguity or textual openness.

    Please: if you are going to characterize my argument, begin by understanding what it is I’m arguing.




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  16. James Joyner says:

    My point is, why should you, as a rule, choose not to offend.

    My goal in communication is generally persuasion rather than venting my frustrations. I often fail at the former and sometimes engage in the latter. But the foregoing discussion is about speech intending to persuade.

    If one’s goal is other than persuasion, either generally or in a particular instance, then different tactics may be preferred.




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  17. Wayne says:

    “Reasonable” talking about a word that can have multiple meaning even while being used in the same context. That said, even reasonable people can have different interpretations. However a reasonable honest person usually accepts the speaker’s explanation of what they meant if the speaker is given a chance to explain and the speaker is being honest. Unfortunately many are more concern with discrediting the speaker and pushing their own agenda than with the truth. Many purposely misinterpret the speaker’s comments for those precise reasons or to take the speaker off message especially when they are unable to counter the speaker’s comments on the comments merits.

    My experience in blogs and speaking to people in general, is very, very few actually want to talk about things in honest upfront academically manner but in a self serving, self agenda and personal opinion proving manner. To prove their point, they will use any method honest or not including twisting someone words and refusing to take their explanation of original intent.

    P.S. I don’t have problem with people having opinions or arguing their point but there is a difference between an honest debate and slick gotcha dishonest one.




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  18. N. O'Brain says:

    If you use the word “niggardly” to someone whom you believe will interpret it as a racial slur, then in my mind the fact that the word has nothing to do with race is no protection; your intent was to offend.

    No, my intent would be to prove that the offendee is an idiot.




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  19. dicentra says:

    My goal in communication is generally persuasion rather than venting my frustrations.

    However, Jeff mentioned the cottage industry of “taking offense,” which includes “political correctness,” which is a war against speaking the truth about certain things, lest you labeled RACISTSEXISTHOMOPHOBE!

    Such as when Gov. Sanford of S. Carolina mentioned the hyperinflation of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, saying that Obama’s economic policies were likely to result in the same mess over here.

    And then Rep. Conyers (D-SC) “took offense” at the fact that Sanford said something negative about an African nation. Because to tell the hard truth about someone with high cutaneous pigmentation is RACIST.

    Conyers even hedged his words saying his wasn’t exactly saying that Sanford was racist, but then why did Zimbabwe come to mind? Huh? Huh?

    In a world where the intent of the speaker matters more than the reaction of the listeners, Conyers would be laughed off the planet. But no, he gets to make his insinuations about Sanford’s character, even though Sanford was talking economics and not race.

    See? This is what Jeff is arguing against: the ability of the perpetually outraged to use your words against you, using THEIR outrage as evidence of your perfidy rather than your, you know, intent.




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  20. Jeff G says:

    A famous example: I say to you, “Teach the children a card game.” You teach them poker. I say, “I didn’t mean that kind of a card game.” (Well, how was I to know? Moreover, did all the possible ways of taking ‘card game’ occur to you before you instructed me?)

    What is this example hoping to illustrate with respect to my position, Sam?

    If you didn’t mean poker — if you had another meaning in mind — you signaled your intent rather poorly. It doesn’t follow that you didn’t have a particular meaning in mind. In fact, your reaction suggests that you did.

    Were I concerned with best interpreting you, I might have asked you to be more specific. If you left me a note, then all I have to go on is what I believe your intent to be — and I’d have to draw on my experiences with you, the age of your child, the kinds of card games you might consider appropriate, etc.




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  21. sam says:

    Are you suggesting I’m some sort of nominalist?

    I don’t think the meaning of the word is the thing it refers to. I’m saying that what makes a word a word is that the mark is attached to a signified. This is done by some agency who has an intent to mean. Words are signs. Signs are created. Socrates can be a sign even after he’s dead.

    See? I just used “Socrates” as a sign. Without any problem whatever!

    I don’t think you’re terribly clear here. As for you being a nominalist, just the reverse–I think your postion leads to realism (see, Meinong). What else am I to think when you write:

    he has turned a simple sound form (or, in the case of written texts, a squiggle or mark) into language by having attached to it a signified, the thing that gives the now completed sign its (fixed) meaning.

    Which implies that absent some object to which a word can attach, a word has no meaning–and that leads to realism (again, see Meinong).

    By the way, to make your excursion into the philosophy of language more accessible, go look up “use and mention”: There’s a difference between mentioning the person Socrates and using the word ‘Socrates’. And as for the person Socrates being a sign, well that assertion is just a sign to me that you’re in over your head.

    As for the card game. You wrote:

    Which is why when one argues that “words can mean different things to different people even in the same context,” one is really arguing that one can make signifiers do different things in a given context based on their own intent to mean — all the while, ignoring that what they are presuming to resignify by adding their own intent has already been signified by the author or utterer, and so already means.[my emphasis]

    Which, as near as I can make out (it’s probably the most opaque part of the post) says that understanding what someone wrote or said in a way that the author or utterer would consider a misuderstanding is somehow willful. The card game example was meant to show how silly that position is.




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  22. dicentra says:

    Which, as near as I can make out (it’s probably the most opaque part of the post) says that understanding what someone wrote or said in a way that the author or utterer would consider a misuderstanding is somehow willful.

    Misunderstanding is not willful. But the catalyst to this whole argument is first, the notion in academia that “the author is dead,” which leaves the litcrit free to say whatever they fancy about any text at any time, while considering the author’s intent to be an oppressive limitation on their thought processes. In other words, there are no wrong answers, no intellectual rigor, and no way to prove that someone is full of it, because you can’t say, “there’s no way the author meant that.”

    The second catalyst is the tendency of many in our society to willfully reassign meaning to someone else’s words, thus to declare them guilty of racism or some other thought-based crime.

    The fact that people don’t vociferously object to this repurposing of anothers’ words indicates that they’re willing to accept the proposition that “the author is dead,” in the sense that what the speaker actually meant is irrelevant, whereas the outrage of the listener determines the meaning of the utterance.

    In the example of the card game, Jeff is NOT saying that the listener’s failure to clarify which card game is a willful or malicious act. It’s just an example of a listener not digging deeper to find out exactly what the speaker meant. Simple misunderstanding, that’s all.




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  23. Wayne says:

    I have to apologize to Sam. I thought the card game example was a bit lame but it is actually more interesting with thought. The speaker should have known he wasn’t being very specific and the listener should have known that a good portion wouldn’t consider poker as a good child game. I do consider poker a good game to teach kids by the way if done right. In addition to both being right and wrong in a sense there is open possibilities of ill intent. It just hard to know for sure. I won’t go on about the other aspects of the example.

    Dicentra
    Well stated post. I get extremely frustrated with “the author is dead” infliction some have especially when the author is standing right before them. I don’t have a problem when they acknowledge that the author meant one thing but also inspired another thought in them and would be interested in discussing the inspired thoughts. However to continue to insist the author meant something he didn’t is asinine.




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  24. blowhard says:

    “And as for the person Socrates being a sign, well that assertion is just a sign to me that you’re in over your head.”

    From strawman to ad hominem in one sentence, sounds like someone is arguing in bad faith.




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  25. Dutchgirl says:

    “Which is why when one argues that “words can mean different things to different people even in the same context,” one is really arguing that one can make signifiers do different things in a given context”

    No, rather the argument is one of reception: context in communication involves text as well as the receiver of the text. In other words there is no such thing as a “given context”




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  26. guinsPen says:

    good manners

    As if.




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