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.
*UPDATE: 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.
Photo by Flickr user Darwin Bell under Creative Commons license.