Patterico's Pontifications

3/14/2009

What Words Mean

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 6:05 pm

This is an argument for speakers taking responsibility for making themselves clear.

On Saturday Night Live there was a great skit that went something like this. The safety chief for a nuclear reactor is retiring and giving instructions to a group of remaining employees. She says: “There’s really only one rule you have to remember. You can’t turn this dial too far to the right.” Then she leaves.

The remaining employees stand around for a few seconds. Then one of them goes to the dial and starts turning it all the way to the right.

Another one grabs the dial and says: “Didn’t you hear her? You can’t turn the dial too far to the right!” The first employee yells: “No, she said you can’t turn the dial too far to the right! You know, no matter how far you turn it, it can’t be too far!”

Like many Saturday Night Live sketches, it took a single funny premise and went on ten minutes too long. But it makes the point: sometimes people express themselves in an ambiguous or unclear way.

If I say something, and you don’t understand what I meant, is that your fault or mine?

Who bears the responsibility for clear communication?

I think the answer is clear. Communication is a two-way street. Listeners must try to divine the true intent of the speaker. Speakers must clearly communicate their intent if they wish to be understood.

Speech always must interpret speech. If speech is unclear, people often disagree on the correct interpretation. Some interpretations are reasonable and made in good faith, and some aren’t. When they aren’t, speakers and other listeners should tell the world why they aren’t.

When multiple interpretations are reasonable, we should favor the most reasonable interpretation offered by a reasonable listener honestly attempting to divine the speaker’s true intent. Ideally the listener will be armed with all necessary context, including (but not limited to) the author’s expression of his own intent.

I have stated this in the past in a more shorthand way: “Words should be interpreted the way a reasonable person would interpret them.” But that formulation is subject to misinterpretation, as it could be read to suggest that the speaker’s true intent is whatever a reasonable listener would divine it to be. The thing that I have learned from the intentionalists is that this is not so: words mean what the speaker intended, nothing more, nothing less. But when it comes to interpretation — when there are multiple reasonable interpretations of the speaker’s true intent — we have to decide which to favor.

You might think that all you have to do is to ask the speaker what he meant. But the speaker might be lying about what his intent was.

For example, the safety chief might have intended to tell people to turn the dial as far as possible to the right. But later, when it emerges that such an action caused a meltdown, the chief might lie and say she meant the opposite.

So we can’t uncritically accept the speaker’s statement about what he meant.

Again: when multiple interpretations are reasonable, we should favor the most reasonable interpretation offered by a reasonable listener honestly attempting to divine the speaker’s true intent.

Once you understand this, it’s harder to argue that you get to say what you want the way you want, without being open to criticism for reasonable misinterpretations of your intent.

In his Hot Air post, Jeff Goldstein said: “[I]t is a fact of language that once you surrender the grounds for meaning to those who would presume to determine your meaning for you, you are at their mercy.” I agree that a speaker’s meaning is what he meant. But unless we’re prepared to simply take the speaker’s word for what he meant, every time — and I showed above why we can’t (e.g. the speaker might lie) — then we have to recognize that the world’s interpretation of our words will sometimes be determined by others.

Listeners’ interpretations may be wrong — but we may not have given them insufficient clues to interpret our intent correctly. As long as our listeners’ misinterpretations are a reasonable, good faith effort to understand our meaning, our remedy for their failure to understand our meaning is not to complain — but to clarify.

If they continue to misinterpret even after we’ve clarified, that’s evidence of bad faith and unreasonableness on their part — and the fault now lies with them and not with us.

P.S. This post is about what words mean, and who bears the responsibility for clear communication. It does not mention the name of a prominent talk radio host, because it’s not necessary to the conversation — and indeed at this point it would be a distraction. These issues recur again and again in political debate, so the discussion is generally useful.

UPDATE: A commenter remembers the skit in question and corrects me on the precise joke:

Believe that was Ed Asner and the instruction was, “Remember, you can’t put too much water on a nuclear reactor.”

Sounds right to me.

UPDATE x2: See also here.

112 Responses to “What Words Mean”

  1. I read a quote (from Cicero, I think) that said, “Communication is not the art of making yourself understood. It’s the art of making yourself impossible to be misunderstood.”

    I wonder if lawyers and computer programmers tend to speak more precisely than others, because ambiguities in their statements can lead to serious consequences?

    Graham (ee2ae1)

  2. This comes up with freshman medical students. I teach students, or did until this year (I don’t know about next year). In the first year at USC, they begin to talk to patients and I have to spend a lot of time on this very issue. For example, they have to warned that they are no longer seen as a lay person by the patient, no matter that they still feel that way. One dangerous tendency is for reassurance. The normal person, visiting a sick friend, will say “Oh, I’m sure it will be alright.” A medical student making such a statement is seen as rendering a medical judgement. I’ve seen patients refuse diagnostic tests or even surgery because “that other doctor” said I would be alright.

    Then there is the issue of listening and what is heard may not be what was said. It is well known, for example, that more than 50% of prescriptions are not filled by patients. Why ? Some say it is cost and the fact is used as an argument for government health care. Unfortunately for the argument, it is also true of patients who do not have to pay, or pay very much.

    I knew a cardiac surgeon at the height of the malpractice crisis in the 70s who videotaped every session at which he explained risks of surgery. He always explained about the taping and why but still had patients deny being told about risks or procedures.

    There are also issues about decision theory, a favorite subject of mine, and how people, including doctors, make erroneous decisions based on perception. There are a number classical fallacies, like the sunk cost fallacy. Another is the multiple choice heuristic where having too many choices causes people to refuse to choose any. That’s why car dealers show only one car and resist showing the customer multiple choices. It was the subject of a study in the New England Journal a few years ago. It showed that patients offered a choice of three NSAID drugs (like Motrin) were more likely to decline any than those not given a choice and offered only one for osteoarthritis of the knee.

    It isn’t just language of the speaker. It may be the perceptions and beliefs of the listener.

    Mike K (90939b)

  3. Patrick, stick to legal analysis and media criticism, leave the semiotics to Jeff. You really haven’t come out well in this endeavor.
    Regurgitating poorly thought out memes,unwittingly
    using Alinsky’s rules # 12, and # 5.

    narciso (996c34)

  4. How would we handle the question of the clarity of intentions of a poet, a musician, or a painter who, when asked “What did you mean there? Can you clarify it for us?” stares a hole through the interrogator’s chest with no other reply? And yet would insist (the bastard) that far from meaning just any other thing we might have to say about the work, that in fact we have all of his meaning already in our possession? You’re confused? (he seems to say) Pobrecito. And when the work has touched us, we may be inclined to agree with him.

    sdferr (8643ba)

  5. narciso,

    Insults don’t help the discussion, and neither do references to people most readers are unfamiliar with. If you want to make an argument, do so.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  6. Also, your suggestions about what I write about are noted and denied. I’ll write about what I want to write about.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  7. I wasn’t being insulting, you certainly have your strengths, fileting the L.A. Times, and providing legal analysis, which sometimes feels like the flipside of the same coin, ie; the Pellicano case. Precisely because of that history, that I find your latest course a little puzzling. We saw how the Times, ‘prostituted’ it’s mandate, facts be damned to reach their desired result, there’s really no other way to portray it. Apologies if I was misunderstood.

    narciso (996c34)

  8. These are fine ideas when the audience participates in good faith, and does not actively distort and bastardize your intended meaning to make the original statement beyond recognition. In short, the reasonable construct fails at the introduction of the unreasonable interpretation.

    JD (ba27e7)

  9. I wasn’t being insulting, you certainly have your strengths, fileting the L.A. Times, and providing legal analysis, which sometimes feels like the flipside of the same coin, ie; the Pellicano case. Precisely because of that history, that I find your latest course a little puzzling. We saw how the Times, ‘prostituted’ it’s mandate, facts be damned to reach their desired result, there’s really no other way to portray it. Apologies if I was misunderstood.

    The fact is that I’m interested in this and I’ve tossed some thoughts out there. If you’d like to respond to them in a way that contributes and that people can understand, I’d love to have you do so.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  10. words like conviction can turn into a sentence I think

    happyfeet (bf7f5a)

  11. What Jeff is talking about is intentionality, which is the bugbear of all academic discussion of meaning. Either you believe the author/speaker’s intent is determinative of “reality” or you don’t. Academe dismisses intentionality; I don’t, TV watchers don’t. “Readers” tend to search for the speaker’s intention, I believe, before they judge.

    Nevertheless, people do believe what they want or need to believe, or are led to believe. If a certain radio host says something, people interpret it in ways that are linked to their mindsets or beliefs. Fox and MSNBC both iterated opposite views of what that certain radio host said recently, for instance, and the audiences who trusted each channel formed an opinion based partly on that interpretation.

    Pragmatically, what moderates and conservatives need to do is stop talking about tax cuts, for instance, as if all Americans are cruel misers, and start talking about the values of individual liberty and self-reliance. In essence, they should start talking about the utter grandeur of the philosophy that formulated our Constitution. They have largely lost the battle versus the New Left for new or young hearts and minds, to inculcate the philosophical weight that leads inevitably to belief in the goodness of their intentions, so they have to be constant and explicit. Reagan knew that and used it to achieve his goals. Who is the new Reagan?

    Patricia (2183bb)

  12. Can’t have physical fitness without regular excercise. Is everyone who wants physical fitness therefore wishing to excercise regularly?

    When a proponent of the reasonable person interpretation is willing to claim that a reasonable person will tend to make the inference in the example above, then one can only respond that either the tendency for such “reasonable folk” to fall for such logical fallacy invalidates the reasonable person interpretation or the proponent is trying to cover for their own agenda with the asserted fallacious tendency.

    The resonable person interpretation should not be used in this particular fashion IMO.

    boris (ecab60)

  13. In his Hot Air post, Jeff Goldstein said: “[I]t is a fact of language that once you surrender the grounds for meaning to those who would presume to determine
    your meaning for you, you are at their mercy.” I agree that a speaker’s meaning is what he meant.

    I have some problems with your response to this. When your adversaries are able to switch the definitions of the words you use out from under you to such a degree that the public actually believes those new definitions, you /have/ lost, no matter how hard you try to correct the mistakee listener/reader perception.

    Your adversary will always be able to point back to the original statement and say “Look at what he actually said, the new stuff is just obfuscation.” Or provide new definitions for the words you try to use when correcting the misunderstanding.

    If the meanings have shifted so far in the public’s mind that they are no longer aligned with what you are trying to say then the reasonable listener ideal simply breaks down because that reasonable listener will have accepted the new definition.

    I see this as especially problematic when it comes to relative labels such as “far left”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “far right”, etc. The meaning ascribed to such words is influenced greatly by the listener’s perception of the world.

    If we could replace such notions with some sort of bell curve distribution where 50% were considered moderate such labels might have real meaning. But instead I believe most people see that distribution as much more of a ‘u’ or possibly a check mark where the opposition is all clustered against the far edge of the graph.

    Soronel Haetir (a3f11b)

  14. When I was a college freshman (back in the Stone Age) I heard a speaker make the same point more succintly — that interpretation is all in the reading. He gave the following example:

    The administration of the college had been perturbed that during the warm months students had been seen dipping into a large water fountain in front of one of the buildings. So they put up a sign:

    DANGER
    NO SWIMMING

    Now one could read that to mean, avoid the going in, it’s dangerous to swim in there. But a creative reader would read it thus:

    DANGER????
    NO!!!!
    SWIMMING.

    Bored Lawyer (bc8f63)

  15. If Rudy says “I want to be physically fit” and also says “But I don’t want to excercise regularly”.

    Should the resaonable person interpretation be “Clearly Rudy wants to excercise regularly”?

    Is that any more reasonable if the average resaonable person has not seen or heard the second statement “But I don’t want to excercise regularly”?

    boris (ecab60)

  16. I believe [though I could be real wrong] that what words mean is situational given the audience. Sometimes intentionally decietful, sometimes careless, sometimes nervousness for the situation and sometimes confused at the situation confronted by the speaker, listener or both. Without knowing the context of the communication, that is, where it happened and under what circumstances and to whom the communication was intended, it is unknowable who, if either, bear any resonsability for the understanding of what the words mean.

    Take for example the SNL skit mentioned in the post. Aren’t both the speaker and the listeners responsible? A higly technical instruction was porportably given. Should not the speaker asked if the instruction was understood? But so too, shouldn’t the listeners questioned their own understanding since a nuclear power plant is a grave responsibility? [Yeah, yeah I understand it was a comedy skit. Yet, isn’t that the basis of all or most comedy: the basis of misunderstanding of what words mean? “Take my wife…please!]

    The Doctor teaching at USC in his posted story shows the dynamic. Patients hear what is most important to them…their health or survival. While the intern may want to comfort the patient, he or she must still be careful with the words choosen. Makes sense.

    In my law practice, words matter, no question. Yet if I am not aware of the situation and the audience to which I am writing or speaking, the cause is lost before I begin. That is my responsibility, not wholely my listener. And if I don’t understand the context of the meaning of the words used by my client in whatever situation is an issue before the court, do I not fail also?

    The judgment of the words used as to whether they matter are determined by the situation and the audience; but, more importantly, the word choice of the speaker given the dynamic presented. Wrong situation and or audience, effective communication can not result.

    Now since I have written all of this on a Saturday night, I obviously have no life. So I’m off to coctails, dinner and bed.

    Mike Harlin (95b670)

  17. narciso – I got a few giggles out of some of the responses to Jeff’s piece and Hot Air and the follow on responses from Jeff and the supporting cast at Protein Wisdom. Complaints of this piece was too long or hard to follow were met with hey, we’re not interested in explaining this shit to people who don’t have the intellectual chops or want to take the time to understand it. Screw them.

    Geez, it’s like creating a new intellectual Outlaw Elite on the right. Why would you want to create a communications strategy that people can actually understand?

    I DO NOT KNOW

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  18. I’m glad you wrote that, Mike Harlin. I think it adds to this discussion and I agree with much of what you said. I’m curious about this statement:

    Yet if I am not aware of the situation and the audience to which I am writing or speaking, the cause is lost before I begin.

    How does this work if you are talking to a very large audience or if you are speaking through media like TV, radio or print? In those cases, I don’t see how you can tailor your remarks to a specific audience. If I read Patterico correctly, he believes that the speaker should try to be as clear as possible but, if there’s any doubt what the speaker meant, audience should seek clarification.

    Anon (eb4fed)

  19. Believe that was Ed Asner and the instrucion was, “Remember, you can’t put too much water on a nuclear reactor.”

    Have Blue (974cdf)

  20. A construct such as “you can’t put too much cream cheese on a bagel” does parse to a single meaning. The so called ambiguous analog would be “you shouldn’t put too much cream cheese on a bagel”.

    That’s not to say the intended meaning never gets crossed, but it is not correct to claim ambiguity based on a common form of mistake.

    boris (ecab60)

  21. Ok, so I’ll have another go. Pat is clear speaking, I think. He titled his post “What words mean”.

    Words.

    And I answered with a question (at #4) which did not deal solely with words, but pulled music and art into the community of communicating agent-intenders as well. But I cheated a little by including poets, who use words – speech, may be better – as their medium of communicative expression, but who are like painters and musicians insofar as their intent isn’t always to be crystal clear. They may intend, in fact, to be unclear as to sentences and propositions, say, but very clear as to the evocation of a mood or an emotion, or, y’know, whatever the heck they may be on about. Communicating, they may think, is what they do. But it isn’t done with sentences and propositions filing along sequentially, one after another leading to assented conclusions about the world.

    So I’m pushing on the confines of the “word” as the sole symbol system of communication of meaning and interpretation, when in fact in ordinary life we humans use all manner of symbols to get our various points across. But what do these systems have in common? What is interesting about that commonality? What has this now long ongoing discussion been about?

    Who gets to claim priority over created meaning? Right? The maker of a meaning or his interpreter?

    sdferr (8643ba)

  22. i think I agree with you Daley, we’ve been overthinking for two weeks now! The totality of Obama’s policies are either ill though out
    or intentionally malicious. Raising taxes in a downturn, cap n trade policies that retard private sector growth, defense cuts,restrictions
    on intelligence operations, betrayals of our allies, appeasement of our foes, restrictions of our basic liberties, did I leave anything out.
    That was the Obama platform that’s what he promised.

    The result; the markets have essentially been frozen, the Russians have closed out our main supply into Afghanistan, and we’re now relying on them. They called his bluff on Eastern Europe BMD,
    in exchange for assistance on Iranthe N. Koreans are rattling sabers. The Taliban are laughing at the pitiful application of the Petraeus/Kilcullen cooption strategy. Gas prices have been going up, despite the barrel price going down, because they see the future lack of slack in the markets.

    narciso (996c34)

  23. P – You might think that all you have to do is to ask the speaker what he meant. But the speaker might be lying about what his intent was.

    Which, in my mind, brings up the question of the meaning of communication itself. IMO, a speaker lying about their intent is no longer communicating, but engaging in verbal coercion. My definition of communication is an attempt to impart information accurately to another party.

    If you’re sitting in bed, you’re not exercising. Until you have a somewhat specific definition of communication, you cannot determine the party responsible for its success.

    And, a chuckler from #1:
    I wonder if lawyers and computer programmers tend to speak more precisely than others,

    Precisely, or clearly?

    Apogee (f4320c)

  24. Who gets to claim priority over created meaning? Right? The maker of a meaning or his interpreter?

    Define “claim priority.”

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  25. Anon — Good question. I was speaking to the narrower issue of communicating with a client, another attorney, a judge or a jury. You are right; however, that a TV audience is quite a different thing. From what I understand about that media, “Hope and Change” seem to work pretty good because it means whatever the listener thinks it means. Your “Hope” and your “Change” may not be mine. But since we are passive listeners to that communication, why would the speaker care? The speaker wants to be perceived as the “Great Communicator.” All hogwash if you ask me. But that’s why we, as the listeners to the speaker, must be more critical of the words used because of that media as used in that situation; which, was my point, though inartfully drafted by me apparently.

    Had the coctails, had a great dinner, now off to bed and I hope all of you have a great weekend!

    Mike Harlin (95b670)

  26. I suppose it is as simple as “who brought it into the world”. If we were to point to a locus of meaning or intention, we point to the creator of the thing.

    When an interpretation subsequently takes place, that interpretation appeals to the prior meaning expressed by the author. Or it should, we’d think, though it may have other intentions of its own.

    sdferr (8643ba)

  27. Words don’t mean. People mean. There are many problems that interfere with communication.

    1. The speaker/writer may be careless with words. she may, in writing a long, complex sentence, lose track of what she was saying, double a negative, leave out a vital word or idea that she meant to include, without which her meaning cannot be comprehended even by a careful reader who is honestly trying to understand the meaning. That is to say, authors/speakers don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. This particularly drives me crazy. I used to drive people crazy trying to get people to say what they mean so I can understand what they mean. Now I mostly just nod my head and do my best to figure out what they mean, hoping that if they just talk enough, give enough context, that will clarify their meaning. Especially in speaking, people are terribly sloppy with words. But this is why speaker intent can never be totally relied upon even when speakers/writers are not trying to deceive their audience.

    2. Even if the speaker/writer thinks she has clearly stated her meaning, words are imperfect vehicles for communication because most words are ambiguous in that they can mean different things in different contexts. A woman can run her stocking, run-on a sentence, run an errand, run in a foot-race, run in a primary and never run in the same sense twice. Words are inherently confusing things.

    3. Words not only mean different things in different contexts but can mean different things to different people even in the same context — hence one finds complaints by some that someone’s message is tinged with racial bias where others just can’t see it because words carry not just dictionary meanings but histories. A boy calls his dog to him by saying, “Come here, boy!”. A father calls his son to him by saying, “Come here, boy!” A group of good old boys saying to a black man, “Come here, boy!” Whatever connotations the first two might evoke in people, the third is likely to carry an entirely different meaning than the first two and if the reader/hearer happens to be black with a memory and experience and knowledge of generations of racial hatred and abuse, it is unlikely that any amount of explanation is going to make the last sound innocent of racial bigotry.

    4. People use figures of speech because they can clarify meanings but they can also muddy things as well. Take the parable of Jesus: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” There are more interpretations of what this means than there are interpreters.

    5. Of course, often speakers/writers are simply trying to be imperfectly clear. Obama was a master at this during the campaign. People with different views on policy matters would listen to him speak and all be convinced that Obama’s view was the same as theirs. This was no accident. It was a feature, not a bug. Once elected and he actually had to govern, make decisions, implement policies and so forth, very many of those who supported him seemed perplexed that he wasn’t the Obama they thought they knew. Unfortunately for them, it was too late for them to toss him under the bus. He had already tossed them under the bus.

    6. Then again, sometimes people are just deliberately provocative. They express things in ways designed to be taken in the worst, most offensive sense possible because that will jack up ratings, be red-meat for the listening audience and political base, drive the political opposition crazy, get one’s face on magazines, one’s name in countless columns, get one discussed by talking heads and bloggers for weeks. Good for the ego, good for the ratings, good for the pocket-book. All up-side, no down-side from the speaker’s point of view. Absolute clarity of meaning is not only unimportant, it is not wanted. The less clarity, the longer the debate continues and the speaker’s face and name are front and center in people’s thoughts. Whether those thoughts are of admiration of hatred are beside the point…or maybe they are both the point.

    So authorial intent is a guide to meaning but an imperfect one. One can do no more than one’s best to try to figure out what the author’s words mean. If possible, ask for clarification (civilly and without attributing worst possible interpretations). Perhaps the author will later clarify her meaning. In the end, though, each reader/hearer is stuck interpreting for her- or himself.

    I find throwing in the “reasonable person” test unhelpful. Every person is likely to think themselves a reasonable person and their interpretation a reasonable one and merely saying, “But that’s not a reasonable interpretation” is unlikely to be much help.

    Nor is attributing bad faith to others likely to be much help. Just because another person fails to be convinced by what totally convinces you, is not evidence of bad faith on that other person’s part. Everyone comes to the interpretive task with their own separate set of experiences, both in the way of formal education and in the way of life experiences which will inevitably color how one interprets another’s words. Sometimes we must just be content to accept that, however certain we are that our interpretation is the right one, the most reasonable one and another person’s just cannot be right…maybe we’re wrong, and the other is right…or maybe we’re all wrong.

    The assumption of bad faith seems to me like an act of hubris on our part.

    Craig R. Harmon (5f3471)

  28. Communicaton is not about words (vocabulary is about words.)

    Communication is about exchanging meanings. Well, that’s a somewhat vague definition. A complicated one might list the fourteen or so transformations required between an idea in Pat’s head and the received idea in Jeff’s.

    Both blaming the speaker and blaming the listener misses the point. It is incumbent upon both to commit to the exchange of meanings. Less than this leads to laughter, embarrassment, and disaster.

    htom (412a17)

  29. What is the argument here? That meaning rests with the author’s intent, but that sometimes we as authors don’t signal our intent as well as we could have — and in those situations, we bear some responsibility for not having our meaning properly interpreted?

    Okay.

    And?

    As for daleyrock’s little snipes, yes, I’ve written dozens and dozens of these posts on language not because it interests me and I find it important and I hope people learn from the discussions, but rather because I’m trying to form a communication strategy no one can understand — and I get great joy from the inability or unwillingness of those who spend days bitching about a need for precision in language to make it all the way through a long blog post without complaining that it’s all just too damned demanding!

    Jeff G (40465d)

  30. Hi Jeff!

    Exactly, we’ll replace one set of elites with the new Outlaw Elite. Screw the proles. I just KNEW you would understand because of, teh Irony.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  31. Craig illustrates a problem quite clearly.

    He writes:

    Words not only mean different things in different contexts but can mean different things to different people even in the same context — hence one finds complaints by some that someone’s message is tinged with racial bias where others just can’t see it because words carry not just dictionary meanings but histories. A boy calls his dog to him by saying, “Come here, boy!”. A father calls his son to him by saying, “Come here, boy!” A group of good old boys saying to a black man, “Come here, boy!” Whatever connotations the first two might evoke in people, the third is likely to carry an entirely different meaning than the first two and if the reader/hearer happens to be black with a memory and experience and knowledge of generations of racial hatred and abuse, it is unlikely that any amount of explanation is going to make the last sound innocent of racial bigotry.

    The danger here is that if the reader/hearer “happens to be black with a memory and experience and knowledge of generations of racial hatred and abuse” — and yet the person he hears calling out is “A boy call[ing] his dog to him by saying, ‘Come here, boy!'” — the black person is not permitted to own the child’s meaning.

    What Craig is echoing here is the Derridean idea that a signifier (“boy”) is haunted by the ghost of all its potential signifieds, all the “concepts” that have been attached to “boy” ever.

    But this perverts how we mean. When the child yelled “boy,” he was not using a signifier, though that’s what the black person heard. Instead, the child was using a sign, the signifier “boy” attached to the referent, his dog.

    The child meant his dog. The fact that the black man can hear “boy” and attach his own baggage to it doesn’t give him the right to claim that the baggage belongs to the child, or that the child’s word “meant” something other than it did.

    Once we begin to countenance such perversions of what it means to mean, we begin to allow others to speak for us.

    Jeff G (40465d)

  32. Exactly, we’ll replace one set of elites with the new Outlaw Elite. Screw the proles. I just KNEW you would understand because of, teh Irony.

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. I suspect you don’t either.

    Jeff G (40465d)

  33. Patterico avers:

    I agree that a speaker’s meaning is what he meant. But unless we’re prepared to simply take the speaker’s word for what he meant, every time — and I showed above why we can’t (e.g. the speaker might lie) — then we have to recognize that the world’s interpretation of our words will sometimes be determined by others.

    Mendacity, indeterminacy, borderline cases, nor any other kind of chicanery can obviate the appeal to intent as fundamental to interpretation. That we should fail to adduce the intent of the author for any reason testifies to the insufficiency of our methods of inquiry and not the weakness of primacy of intent in interpretation. That an author might decide to use new signs doesn’t change the intent behind the original signs. Any assumptions a would-be interpreter might make about an author doesn’t change the author’s intent.

    My 7 year old son has Aspgergers Syndrome. While very bright, he is often confused about the way in which some signs are conventionally signified. I’ll spare everyone a description of the neurological basis for this confusion, but suffice it to say that if it doesn’t make sense to you, there are lots of places you can get information about AS. Because of his confusion, he is often misunderstood. People interpret him in “reasonable” ways which are, nonetheless, wrong. He disabuses them rather quickly. Which, perhaps amazingly to those who might trade dissembling for votes, actually works. People, upon learning that they have misinterpreted him, take it upon themselves to attenuate their inquiry so as to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

    It is an imperative of liberty that language be predicated on primacy of intent. Liberty requires this because there is no other way to protect agency. Pat, surely you’ve read “The Trial”, yes?

    malaclypse the tertiary (2eeb1f)

  34. “What is the argument here?”

    You tell me. I expressed a number of different concepts in the post. You picked one and said “Okay. And?” seeming to indicate agreement.

    Do you disagree with anything I’ve said in the post? This is the crux of what I’ve been trying to argue. Discussing the issue with you has helped me refine the way I articulate it. Are there any points you think I have wrong? Any I have right?

    Patterico (f37844)

  35. My favorite communication error story, courtesy of a friend who was a Marine:

    His unit was sent to LA during the Rodney King riots in 1992. They were patrolling an area with some LAPD officers, nominally under the direction of the officers. They went to check out reports of people shooting at firefighters from a building.

    The lead cops told the Marine unit “cover us!” and approached the building.

    To the cops, “cover us!” apparently meant “point your guns at the building, and if anyone pops up to shoot us, shoot them first!”

    To the Marines, it meant “lay down a curtain of suppressive fire!”

    Hijinks ensued.

    Ken (778ff8)

  36. Yes, Pat, I agree that you’ve gotten to the point where you now understand that intent is central to meaning — and that an appeal to intent is required for any procedure wishing to call itself interpretation.

    But when you say “Words should be interpreted the way a reasonable person would interpret them,” you are still missing something.

    Words are only words once intent is applied. Agency provides the basis for signification. In a text, we see signifiers (they take the form of marks or squiggles that convention would suggest is language), but we assume that they are signs — words, language — because we assume they were offered by some agency intending to mean. Convention only gives clues to intention.

    Therefore, only someone who is attempting to decode the author’s intent counts as a reasonable person in an interpretive situation.

    In the example of the child, his dog, and the black man who hears the signifier and appends his own signified, ignoring the child’s intent (which is fixed the moment he turned that signifier into a sign) is not reasonable.

    And yet clearly, some people believe it is — and in fact, that is the preeminent school of thought with respect to interpretation as it is currently taught.

    Hopefully you can see why I find it so important to highlight these distinctions.

    Whereas, say, daleyrocks just wants me to stop being so damned uppity.

    Jeff G (40465d)

  37. I like the dog example.

    Say the boy wants to call to his dog. He knows that the black man is there, likely to take offense if he yells “Come here, boy!” So he considers yelling “Come here, Rover!” instead.

    He explains the problem to his dad. What should his dad advise him?

    That he can say the same thing without offending the black man, by yelling “Come here, Rover!”?

    Or that he should never change what he is going to say because of a possible negative reaction from someone?

    Is it relevant to the answer whether the black man’s anticipated reaction is reasonable or in good faith? E.g. if he doesn’t know the boy is calling a dog, vs. he does know?

    Also: say the boy chooses the “Come here, boy!” phraseology, and the black man gets angry. Should the boy explain: “hey, didn’t mean to offend, I was calling my dog. Sorry there was a misunderstanding.” Or should he be defiant: “Hey, that’s not what I meant! How dare you try to steal my meaning!” because he knows he means the dog, and by God, it’s not his fault!

    Does that depend on whether the black man’s reaction is reasonable or in good faith?

    And say we don’t know whether the boy meant to offend or not, but just before he yells it, he tells his friend: “Watch this. This should generate a fight.” Clue to his intent?

    Patterico (f11d38)

  38. Jeff G – The fact that the black man can hear “boy” and attach his own baggage to it doesn’t give him the right to claim that the baggage belongs to the child, or that the child’s word “meant” something other than it did.

    I agree. But you’re leaving out the fact that the black man must also communicate his interpretation of what he heard.

    What is ultimately self defeating about the perversion of the attaching of “baggage” is the two way street on which it must travel. In claiming that the baggage belongs to the child, the black man’s claim should be exposed to the same scrutiny and attachment of others’ interpretation of his meaning.

    Thus a negative spiral is created in which the true information of the communications becomes secondary to the goal of personalized reconfiguration – always done for self gain. It’s not that we’re allowing others to speak for us, it’s that nobody’s communicating anymore.

    Apogee (f4320c)

  39. On Saturday Night Live there was a great skit that went something like this.

    But when it comes to interpretation — when there are multiple reasonable interpretations of the speaker’s true intent — we have to decide which to favor.

    The issue of misunderstanding or misinterpreting words — or how semantics like beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder — really isn’t too far from removed from the dynamics of the TV show you refer to. SNL is such a horrible, tired, washed-out program and yet it’s still on the air, at least 20 years past its prime.

    Enough people apparently perceive the words of SNL (ie, its script) as being humorous enough to justify their sitting in front of the tube on Saturday evenings and tuning in to a supposed comedy show.

    So a small part of our popular culture is a good illustration that the way humans approach words is open to a million different reactions, and that any number of perceptions on their part is possible.

    Mark (411533)

  40. I like the dog example.

    Say the boy wants to call to his dog. He knows that the black man is there, likely to take offense if he yells “Come here, boy!” So he considers yelling “Come here, Rover!” instead.

    Wow. This kid is well and truly fucked.

    Tell me, just how would the child know that the man is likely to take offense? Or does it not occur to you that, in allowing that it is reasonable to take offense in the first place, you are perpetuating an idea of language that puts the speaker always at the mercy of the “interpreter” — who you aren’t even requiring to actually intepret?

    There is nothing wrong with being solicitous of other’s feelings. That’s courtesy. But if you choose not to be courteous, that doesn’t mean you need take any responsibility for someone else’s desire to take your meaning and pervert it, then lay claim to it.

    As the Bennett example showed, this can happen no matter how careful you are. As the Snow example showed, someone can concede your intent, but still say that the signifiers could offend, and that you should therefore have found another way of saying the thing.

    If you can’t see how this chills speech, we have nothing left to discuss. Clearly, you haven’t understood what I’ve been saying, and as much as you claim this discussion isn’t about Rush Limbaugh, you seem hellbent on circling back around to the argument that the speaker really must watch what he says because “reasonable” people might corrupt his meaning.

    Good night.

    Jeff G (40465d)

  41. Pat, you’ve just nailed down precisely why there is such a profound and important debate that needs to be had around this question. That someone could have (presumably) read Hayek, Orwell, et al. and actually praise the “boy” argument is a testament to how easy it is for those who would defend liberty to be seduced by grand designs that can only serve to undermine liberty.

    Your “reasonable” gambit is exactly that, a gambit. Any attempt to apply some kind of linear system to applied interpretation is an invitation for said system to be gamed. The only means to safeguard liberty is agency. It’s brilliant because it diffuses responsibility for interpretation to, y’know, individuals. I will not sacrifice my right to mean what I mean in the face of someone’s “reasonable” claim to the contrary. That way lies fascism.

    I mean, it is simply untenable to claim anything else. As soon as you supplant authorial intent with anything (reasonable or no), you have made agency practically impossible. Only in a world filled with angels can you do something like this because people lust for power and they will subvert any exogenous system.

    Yes! Interpretation is fraught with peril! That doesn’t mean you can outsource responsibility for actually doing the interpreting to some convention or set of axioms. You’ve got to actually do the interpreting and it must consist in the primacy of intent or it’s not interpreting, it’s creative writing – or worse, newspeak.

    malaclypse the tertiary (2eeb1f)

  42. I agree. But you’re leaving out the fact that the black man must also communicate his interpretation of what he heard.

    No I’m not. When we agree that what’s he’s done is interpret — and he hasn’t, if he doesn’t appeal to the child’s intent — then we are now in a battle over whose “interpretation” is better.

    Only problem is, what we are seeing is a reaction, not an interpretation. The black man intends the signifier to mean what he wants it to mean and then turns around and ascribes that meaning to the child.

    But they are dealing with different texts, because they aren’t using the same signs — only the same signifier.

    Now really, g’night.

    Jeff G (40465d)

  43. “Yes, Pat, I agree that you’ve gotten to the point where you now understand that intent is central to meaning — and that an appeal to intent is required for any procedure wishing to call itself interpretation.”

    I don’t accept the implication that I didn’t understand this before. But the discussion has helped me think about the concepts more explicitly and precisely, and thus to express my views in a clearer way, that is less likely to be misunderstood.

    I think I have always intuitively understood that a speaker’s intent governs what he means.

    But here’s where the rubber meets the road: we are all different people and nobody is a perfect mind reader. And authors lie about what they mean.

    And speakers know this.

    So if a speaker is aware that a) his meaning will not necessarily be transparently clear to his audience, and b) he is speaking in a way that he knows will likely be misinterpreted, then c) he bears some responsibility for being misperceived.

    Should that cause him to change how he speaks? I would say that the answer potentially depends on several factors, including: is the likely misinterpretation reasonable and in good faith? is it possible to say the same thing in some other equally effective way, that does not run the same likelihood of misperception? is there time to weigh how one’s message will be perceived (e.g. is the speaker preparing a speech or speaking extemporaneously?), and other factors I can’t think of.

    But it seems to me that the issue is more complex than simply saying: “I will say what I like, the way I like, and if anyone fails to understand my intent, that’s their problem.” I think there are some who take that attitude, and I don’t agree with it. The point of this post is to explain why.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  44. “This is an argument for speakers taking responsibility for making themselves clear.

    On Saturday Night Live there was a great skit that went something like this…”

    Why not be more clear in your description?

    Am I unreasonable?

    easyliving1 (730ca9)

  45. Your “reasonable” gambit is exactly that, a gambit. Any attempt to apply some kind of linear system to applied interpretation is an invitation for said system to be gamed. The only means to safeguard liberty is agency. It’s brilliant because it diffuses responsibility for interpretation to, y’know, individuals. I will not sacrifice my right to mean what I mean in the face of someone’s “reasonable” claim to the contrary. That way lies fascism.

    Nobody’s asking you to sacrifice your right to mean what you mean. But if you can reasonably be misinterpreted and you refuse to acknowledge that and react to it, you yourself may be sacrificing your ability to be understood as you mean to be. You can’t always blame the listener; that’s the point of the post.

    I mean, it is simply untenable to claim anything else. As soon as you supplant authorial intent with anything (reasonable or no), you have made agency practically impossible. Only in a world filled with angels can you do something like this because people lust for power and they will subvert any exogenous system.

    I haven’t supplanted authorial intent with anything.

    Yes! Interpretation is fraught with peril! That doesn’t mean you can outsource responsibility for actually doing the interpreting to some convention or set of axioms. You’ve got to actually do the interpreting and it must consist in the primacy of intent or it’s not interpreting, it’s creative writing – or worse, newspeak.

    I think I’ve made it clear that authorial intent should be the goal. The problem lies in the situation that often arises in real life, namely: that intent is not clear.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  46. To be clear: Patterico, your description of the skit wasn’t clear, which is okay.

    But not after stating how clear you feel everyone should be.

    easyliving1 (730ca9)

  47. Jeff:

    But when you say “Words should be interpreted the way a reasonable person would interpret them,” you are still missing something.

    Words are only words once intent is applied. Agency provides the basis for signification. In a text, we see signifiers (they take the form of marks or squiggles that convention would suggest is language), but we assume that they are signs — words, language — because we assume they were offered by some agency intending to mean. Convention only gives clues to intention.

    Therefore, only someone who is attempting to decode the author’s intent counts as a reasonable person in an interpretive situation.

    Well, actually, when I say “Words should be interpreted the way a reasonable person would interpret them,” I am not “missing” anything — I am, as I explained in the post, using shorthand for a more complex concept which is in line with what you just said.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  48. To be clear: Patterico, your description of the skit wasn’t clear, which is okay.

    But not after stating how clear you feel everyone should be.

    Everybody else seemed to understand it.

    But what you don’t seem to understand is that the point isn’t to castigate anyone who is not absolutely clear at all times, but rather to argue that the responsibility for a speaker’s lack of clarity lies with the speaker. And if people misinterpret his words reasonably and in good faith, he should consider clarifying his message, rather than announcing that to do so would be some grand concession to fascism or what have you.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  49. I’d like to ask Jeff G. a question, if I may:

    Can the speaker’s intent ever be hidden from the speaker? Along the lines of a Freudian slip, for example?

    (I know he signed off; but I hope maybe he’ll see this tomorrow.)

    Not Rhetorical (33803e)

  50. I’m pretty sure he said that the speaker’s claim regarding his intent is not the final word as to what his intent actually was.

    Which leaves someone else — the reasonable man, I would argue — as the final authority on what the speaker meant. With the various caveats already mentioned.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  51. I just wonder if Jeff thinks it’s possible for a speaker to be fooling himself about his own “true,” or “real,” or “un/subconscious” intent.

    Not Rhetorical (33803e)

  52. I think he does.

    But I don’t want to speak for him.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  53. No one has suggested that a speaker whom has managed to ineffectively signal their intent should not improve the quality of the communication. Jeff’s thesis is, as I understand it, simply that interpretation is, practically and theoretically, impossible without appeal to intent. Misinterpretation doesn’t change that dynamic.

    There is no court or jury but for the marketplace of ideas which will act non-locally and non-deterministically. And its actions—and indeed its existence—are only possible inasmuch as primacy of intent is suffused throughout the culture. Which, it isn’t.

    “Reasonableness” or any other exogenous interpretive system necessarily subordinates authorial intent. Pat, you supplant intent when you say:

    “Again: when multiple interpretations are reasonable, we should favor the most reasonable interpretation offered by a reasonable listener honestly attempting to divine the speaker’s true intent.”

    We should do no such thing. We should each invest ourselves—each of us, individually—in the process of determining the intent of the author. The question for you may be reducible to “reasonableness”, but generally speaking, it is organic and depends, like our liberty, on the active participation of the culture in maintaining a respect for the fundamental nature of intent. Once that participation is lost, of course it becomes easy to suggest that, “I’ve got a plan. Here’s how we get votes. Here’s how we appear sensitive to those whom have been indoctrinated with the notion that they are free to interpret anything we say as antithetical to their interests.” The problem with this is clear from history, he who controls the means of communication, controls the society. This is not an insight into media ownership, this is an insight into the ownership of epistemology.

    Right now, conservatism (inasmuch as it is conserving classical liberal values), does not own the prevailing epistemology of our culture. It has been usurped by the long slow march over many decades. The people who are arrogating to themselves the responsibility for defining how certain words shall be interpreted are not acting reasonably. Feel free, Pat, to affix any maxims to your own communication style so as to appear less offensive. Don’t use “here boy” to call your dog if a black man is nearby. Fine. I don’t think Jeff is saying your personal decision to do so is tantamount to aiding fascism. I’m not. The problem comes of allowing the interpretation of anything you might actually allow yourself to say to eschew appeal to your intent. The word “boy” cannot be allowed to obtain a fixed or algorithmic signification. It means what the speaker means for it to mean.

    In the dog example, it is manifestly NOT OKAY for the black man to assume racism. He must make an appeal to intent. The boy can only know what he can know, so this isn’t a question of “clarity” anyway; it’s a question of “savvy”! For all this boy knows, “rover” is a racist code word! His rhetorical approach (in this case to calling his freaking dog for crying out loud) cannot be saddled with filtering every possible trope of every aggrieved interest group. To do so is to cede the power of the rhetoric. To do so is to consent to saddling education with endless diversity didactics, which, in the hands of the aggrieved or those who lust for power, become a scary thing indeed. Go read about the work done by F.I.R.E. and see how diversity becomes a cudgel.

    This isn’t some rhetorical exercise we’re traversing here. There really are forces that are present in humanity that really do despise the philosophical foundations of our culture and government. They really have been corrupting interpretive theory and that corruption really does prove apposite to the narrative they have inculcated into the culture at large.

    malaclypse the tertiary (2eeb1f)

  54. JeffG – Only problem is, what we are seeing is a reaction, not an interpretation. – which then renders it outside of communication? Not trying to snipe, but much of the argumentation here implies a single communicative act that is either correctly interpreted or results in a failure. The problem with such a static view is that it implies that a divination of authorial intent can be accomplished without any additional communication, which is contrary to the idea of communicating. The reaction of the listener is itself a communication, which would necessitate the transformation of the former speaker into a listener if the communication were to continue. The roles shift, so while the communication of the information is the responsibility of the speaker, both parties switch off between speaker and listener, necessitating the need for both parties to decode each other’s intent. If this isn’t occurring, then communication isn’t happening and the responsibility question is moot. For a listener to attempt to decode the speakers intent, he must become a speaker himself, and thereby carries the responsibility of communicating clearly.

    You write:
    …only someone who is attempting to decode the author’s intent counts as a reasonable person in an interpretive situation.
    OK, but again both parties in a sequence of communications are authors with intent who must interpret the others intent. You must have not only one person attempting to decode, but two, and their responsibility switches from clear speaker to decoding listener. Without both, there is no true communication. Communication is a process, not an endpoint, and any party that sabotages the process for disingenuous reasons was never part of the process to begin with.

    There is no time limit for clarification, and communication is a two way street, regardless of whether one of the parties is initially reactionary or not.

    Apogee (f4320c)

  55. I like the dog example so much I may make a post out of it.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  56. Trucking company dispatchers must take a course in How to Be as Ambiguous as Possible On the Satcom. This can be very helpful when it takes an hour or two for them to respond to a request for clarification because they are busy on the phone answering other such requests. I especially like the response, “What up?” after spelling out carefully what is up on the Satcom. I guess they have to take another course in Reading Without Comprehending. Lousy Education is the other bull market competing with gold and guns.

    Gary Ogletree (5c238b)

  57. I like the dog example so much I may make a post out of it.

    An example that leads some “reasonable” people to safely step outside the bounds of conventional society.

    Suppose there is a college party. There is one group of black football players and not far away another group of white hockey players, A person with a grudge wispers to the football players that the hockey guys are making fun of them and using the n word.

    As a result the football players feel they have been insulted and called the n word. They demand an apology. The hockey players have done no such thing and refuse. (Even the long gone grudgling never actually used the n word itself.)

    So …

    Since the football players feelings are “reasonable” are they owed an apology from the hockey players? Can’t someone reasonably claim that one or more of the hockey players likely used the n word at some time in their lives?

    boris (ecab60)

  58. News report: “Is America Still Racist ? A question that may be answered in different ways. Ask the young African American student walking to school through a this white neighborhood when a white child steps outside his doorway to loudly yell ‘Here Boy’ ….”

    boris (ecab60)

  59. Not unlike the dog example, a friend of mine was once disciplined in the military for using “boy” as an interjection, i.e., “Boy oh boy, you sure do you have a lot on your plate right now” to a co-worker who happened to be black. According to Mr. Sensitive, she might just as well have said “n—-r oh n—-r, you sure do have a lot on your plate right now.”

    A couple months back I proposed a neat little experiment for those who really think “boy” and the n-word are interchangeable. So far, no takers.

    Xrlq (62cad4)

  60. Since the football players feelings are “reasonable” are they owed an apology from the hockey players?

    No.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  61. m the t:

    I read #53 about four times. I understand maybe half of what you’re trying to say. Maybe.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  62. […] do so, let me quote from an example left in the comments to a post at Patterico’s that seeks to explain to us “What words […]

    This way lies fascism: an OUTLAW’s lament (cont.) (7a2640)

  63. “Whereas, say, daleyrocks just wants me to stop being so damned uppity.”

    Heh! Sort of. It does give me little Matthewsian tingles of joy when Jeff tells me I don’t understand what he is saying. How could I? I am not one of the Informed. I am part of the great unwashed, the Humongus. I read blogs because like those on the left, I cannot think for myself and want to be told what to do.

    /sarc/

    I think mocking the intelligence of those in the same ideological camp making an effort to understand your positions is a winning strategy. Or would you call it a tactic? Seriously!

    I get easily confused with all this debate over words and signifiers and such. Time to clean my combs.

    Carry on.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  64. Comment by Patterico — 3/15/2009 @ 11:23 am
    But, the hockey players are entitled to an explanation as to why an apology was demanded.
    Then, once everyone was operating with the same information, a dialogue could commence, and both teams could proceed to kick the @#$% out of the guy who advanced the insult in the first place.

    AD - RtR/OS (dae131)

  65. If you can’t see how this chills speech, we have nothing left to discuss. Clearly, you haven’t understood what I’ve been saying, and as much as you claim this discussion isn’t about Rush Limbaugh, you seem hellbent on circling back around to the argument that the speaker really must watch what he says because “reasonable” people might corrupt his meaning.

    I suppose any time one is thinking one thing but is deliberately courteous — yes, my son, that is a very good drawing of daddy! — they can claim their speech is “chilled.” The question is whether it’s ALWAYS a bad thing for speech to be “chilled” in that sense.

    The discussion is not about Rush Limbaugh only, but about the Bill Bennett and Tony Snow examples, and a host of other discussions. I’m “hellbent” only on discussing the issue. You can participate or not; I hope you do. I’d prefer that people not bring up the name Rush Limbaugh because I think it distorts the conversation; at the same time, people are free to bring up his name if they like, because the principles we discuss should be applicable across the board.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  66. I posted a variant of the dog examples here.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  67. Fuck COURTESY!

    Turn that thermostat back up bitches.

    Catch my meaning?

    Didja?

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  68. Pat,

    You have a great example of dishonesty in communication [object]. What could be a clearer attempt to obscure and browbeat than in the tirade by Dyson. After a few seconds, I challenge you to make sense of what he says; all that I hear is blah, blah, blah in polysyllables ending with “you racist.”

    This is how Liberals attack; they use up air time. Rush, on the other hand, knew he was being provocative. That’s how you become the top rated talk show. But he was not being offensive. He has three hours a day to expand on his meaning, but first he has to get your attention. Otherwise he may as well be speaking into a dead microphone.

    What Rush does is not like what anyone else does. He’s not giving a one-off speech or writing an article, he is having an ongoing conversation with the American people.

    For you or anyone else to take a single phrase and apply your own meaning to it – despite hours of explanation and clarification – is simply not honest. It’s not what he does and not what his medium is about.

    He recently made a very important point which you have not addressed: a President is not a nation. With the examples of history not yet forgotten, to suggest that a leader is the nation and that for a nation to succeeed a leader must succeed is not just a historical but blazingly so. We must hope that leaders who lead in the wrong direction fail so that the nation can succeed. To fail to understand that is a curious blind spot in your argument.

    Moneyrunner (ea5fc8)

  69. Re: the SNL skit:

    Everybody else seemed to understand it.

    Heh. Ironic. Because that’s not good enough, according to you.

    Les Nessman (ada529)

  70. Heh. Ironic. Because that’s not good enough, according to you.

    Comment by Les Nessman — 3/15/2009 @ 3:20 pm

    Heh. Everybody likes the taste of their own boogers, don’t they, Les?

    Dr. Johnny Fever (5d22c0)

  71. I swear to God, I thought turkeys could fly.

    Les Nessman (ada529)

  72. Has anyone else seen the “OH BOY” billboards since the election? I thought they were celebrating the fact that Obama was elected president.
    So maybe they were really put up by racist rednecks?
    Please explain.

    Les Nessman (ada529)

  73. Because I really hadn’t decided if they are Pepsi ads or Obama ads. Then I realized it doesn’t matter. Whatever they are, I’m offended. And that’s what counts.

    Les Nessman (ada529)

  74. Sorry, didn’t bother to read all the comments here.

    I’m one of those libs you people love to hate, but I read patterico regularly and a few other conservative blogs. Never been moved to comment before.

    Can we just come out and say this? Jeff g is an ass. He’s a failed grad student. Nothing wrong with that; I know quite a few, but let’s stop pretending he has a clue, ok? He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about when it comes to academia or intentionalism.

    Patterico wins this argument completely. Yeah, I could load this up with a lot of jargon, but guess what– Patterico put it best when he stated it earlier and very simply : his standard was what the ‘reasonable person’ would ‘reasonably find’, given good faith assumptions on their part, honest attempt to understand, etc.

    Rush’s statement was total FAIL because it violated this.

    P nails it:

    “As long as our listeners’ misinterpretations are a reasonable, good faith effort to understand our meaning, our remedy for their failure to understand our meaning is not to complain — but to clarify.”

    Exactly. And for all the caterwauling and screaming about how liberals are just being nasty over the ‘I want him to fail” statement– the truth is rush dropped that ball.

    truth is also, jeff g is an ass.

    Sorry patterico. Thanks for the blog. I enjoy reading people I disagree with but it’s usually to mock them. you’re one of the few places i read that I disagree with but i read because i enjoy the writing and the comments and it actually makes me think.
    bad sentence, I’m tired as well as bored now. 😉 thanks again.

    bored now (7ab77a)

  75. As the Bennett example showed, this can happen no matter how careful you are.

    Bennett was not careful at all. He was thoughtless and insensitive to make an argument including a hideous premise that is far more controversial than the point he was trying to make.

    Bennett said: “I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down . . .That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down,” he added.

    By Bennett’s twisted reasoning about aborting blacks to reduce crime, which he tosses off casually that he knows is true, you could reduce crime even more quickly by just killing all blacks immediately.

    Bennett’s vile premise about blacks and crime ignores that genocide itself is a horrendous crime against humanity. It wrongly and quite disgustingly presumes that if you’re solely interested in reducing crime, the rights of blacks don’t matter. However, selective extermination of a race is far worse than being merely “morally reprehensible”. It is one of the most evil acts of which humanity is capable of.

    If you’re trying to make people believe that abortion is wrong, it’s counterproductive to show such moral insensitivity. Such an argument draws more attention to the way Bennett thinks than it does to abortion.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  76. Bradley, ignoring for a moment that the Bennet brouhaha was yet another Media Matters escalated smear, statistically speaking Bennet was not inaccurate, but that is not the kind of conversation Eric Holder and others on the left wish us to have on the subject of race. Bennet was also unerquivocal in his denunciation of forced abortions and has spent much of his life as a champion of civil rights causes. This example does show what ceding meaning does to your opponents. The Media Matters version of the smear took precedence in the media and what Bennet was acrually trying to say was lost in the confusion, as illustrated by your own comment.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  77. There’s an old saying in flying fighters: “Words mean shit.”
    When trying to communicate effectively while being comm jammed, you must ascribe absolute meaning to words. You may only have the chance to convey one word to your formation. Your formation must be able to decipher the meaning absolutely. The meaning never changes. If you allow the meaning to be interpreted even slightly differently, you risk getting someone killed.

    This is the limit of the example that Jeff G is trying to make. If you allow someone to alter the meaning of a word, the word ceases to have meaning. Communication is not possible. Allowing someone to ascribe some other meaning to a word that the conveyor did not intend corrupts communication.

    Barney15e (1bd1e2)

  78. daleyrocks,
    I didn’t quote or even refer to Media Matters, I quoted Bennett.

    And you have failed to confront my point: To claim that aborting blacks would reduce crime is only true if you arbitrarily rule out genocide against blacks as a crime itself.

    On what basis do you accept that claim?

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  79. Bradley – Even to consider forcibly aborting black babies as a way of reducing crime as genocide under your example buys into the Media Matters smear machine that it was a serious analogy and ignores Bennets protestations made on his show that to do so would be patently ridiculous and morally repugnant. To even use the example in your comment your are buying into the smear.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  80. #76, Bradley

    To claim that aborting blacks would reduce crime is only true if you arbitrarily rule out genocide against blacks as a crime itself.

    Apparently, you have no idea that was Mr. Bennett’s point. You should actually listen to him instead of Media Matters carefully culled sound bites.

    Barney15e (1bd1e2)

  81. daleyrocks,
    You’re the one who keeps bringing in Media Matters for some reason, even though I don’t use them as a source. I use Bennett’s own words.

    Now you appear to be claiming Bennett’s analogy was not a “serious analogy”, and that such an interpretation was a smear by Media Matters. But why did Bennett make such an emotionally charge claim if he wasn’t serious? And why did Bennett say he knew that it was true?

    You yourself said, “statistically speaking Bennet was not inaccurate”. Were you serious then? Care to explain what you meant more explicitly?

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  82. Apparently, you have no idea that was Mr. Bennett’s point.

    Where did he say that was his point?

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  83. Beyond the issue of abortion and the race of aborted fetuses — and in light of do-gooders in our current age being more touchy-feely about the way we treat animals than the way we deal with abortion — and, for example, a lot of people in California desiring more restrictions on the way that animals are treated than requiring that underaged single girls get the consent of a parent or guardian before going through the medical (repeat: medical) procedure of an abortion, raising the issue of a connection between abortion and crime is not all that (or shouldn’t be) sensitive or controversial any longer.

    freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com, January 2008

    By Steven D. Levitt

    The abortion rate in the United States is at a thirty year low — though even with the decline, we are still talking about a large number of abortions in absolute terms, or 1.2 million per year. To put this number into perspective, there are about 4 million births per year in the U.S.

    John Donohue and I have argued that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s reduced crime in the 1990s. The logic is simple: unwanted children have an increased risk of growing up to be criminals, and legalized abortion reduces the number of unwanted children. Consequently, legalized abortion lowers crime in the future.

    So what does the steady decline in abortions performed in recent years predict for future crime patterns? The answer is not obvious, because it depends on why abortion rates are falling, and I’m not sure we know the answer to that question.

    If abortion rates are falling because it has become harder or more costly to get an abortion, then a falling abortion rate is bad news for crime. As the “price” (whether in monetary terms, social stigma, having to travel a long distance, etc.) rises, women who otherwise would have sought an abortion will not get one. This suggests that more unwanted children are being born, and thus crime rates may rise in the future.

    On the other hand, there are other reasons why the number of abortions might fall, and none of these have dire crime implications. For instance, because abortion has been legalized since the 1970s, there may be fewer women today who are seeking abortions — the women who might have been at highest risk for unwanted pregnancies today may never have been born.

    ….I would surmise that the low abortion rate today is being driven by a decrease in unwanted conceptions. If that is true, then these low abortion rate statistics are good news for future crime rates.

    Mark (411533)

  84. I would hope that all those who oppose abortion could agree that Bennett picked an extremely poor way to express his opposition to abortion. Reagan handled the issue far more adeptly:

    Well, in recent years medical science has taught us so much more about the individuality and responsiveness of the fetus, even at very early stages of development. My friends, isn’t it about time the law of the land recognized the medical evidence of 1987? [Applause] If there’s even a question about when human life begins, isn’t it our duty to err on the side of life?

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  85. Where did he say that was his point?

    It’s in the rest of his monologue.
    Did you listen to it?

    Barney15e (1bd1e2)

  86. Barney15e,
    I did not listen to the monologue. I read the various reports of what Bennett said, and his after-the-fact explanations. If you have a link, please post it. I’ll read it carefully, and give my reaction.

    It would still be difficult to imagine that Bennett chose a better way to handle the abortion issue than did Reagan. No racial connotations there. Ronnie also positioned himself as the open-minded one, willing to consider the findings of science and argue on the side of caution about human life when there is doubt. That is a far harder argument to caricature then what Bennett presented.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  87. I have no link. I listened to the broadcast and understood exactly what he was saying. He was trying to point out that the ends don’t justify the means. Here is my paraphrase of the broadcast:

    The statistics suggest that, while morally reprehensible, you could lower the crime rate via abortion. We should never put the ends before the means.

    I only got to listen to him occasionally on my drive to work, but I did catch that episode. Then, I heard the flare-up and couldn’t believe that anyone was that stupid to interpret what he said they way they portrayed it.

    Barney15e (1bd1e2)

  88. Barney15e,
    I know you and daleyrocks think Bennett set up the premise only to say obeying it was wrong because of a greater moral good. But the premise explicitly considered reducing crime only from the perspective of non-blacks. That’s where Bennett went wrong.

    Also, you don’t have to be anti-abortion to regard the idea of exterminating a race by abortion with horror. I am pro-abortion rights (up to a point), yet I think that premise is utterly evil.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  89. I should add that I have black relatives (well, at least as black as The Messiah™), so this is not an academic exercise for me.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  90. But the premise explicitly considered reducing crime only from the perspective of non-blacks. That’s where Bennett went wrong.

    There you go trying to interpret what he meant instead of what he really meant. That’s the whole point of this discussion.

    I should add that I have black relatives

    And, that matters because?

    Barney15e (1bd1e2)

  91. “You’re the one who keeps bringing in Media Matters for some reason, even though I don’t use them as a source. I use Bennett’s own words.

    Now you appear to be claiming Bennett’s analogy was not a “serious analogy”, and that such an interpretation was a smear by Media Matters. But why did Bennett make such an emotionally charge claim if he wasn’t serious? And why did Bennett say he knew that it was true?”

    Bradley – Take a breath. It sounds like you are basically unfamiliar with the origins of this kerfuffle. You claim to have listened to Bennet’s words, but obviously you have not listened to all of them if his hypothetical got you excited. You need to do some more research on this one.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  92. “You’re the one who keeps bringing in Media Matters for some reason, even though I don’t use them as a source. I use Bennett’s own words.”

    Bradley – Media Matters used Bennets words too, just selectively edited, as you did above, to turn his comments into a national scandal. Go figure.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  93. “I should add that I have black relatives”

    Cool, some the friends of my best friends are black. Maybe they know each other.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  94. Believe that was Ed Asner and the instruction was, “Remember, you can’t put too much water on a nuclear reactor.”

    Actually, depending on the nuclear reactor, you can.

    The research reactor that used to be at UCLA was designed so that in an emergency, it could be shut down by draining all the water out of it. Without the water to slow down the neutrons, said neutrons would escape from the reactor without causing any fission, and the reaction shuts down.

    (The reason this doesn’t work on a power reactor is that one of those is run at a high enough power level to build up lots of fission products. Those continue to decay, releasing heat, no matter what the neutron flux is doing, so they need to be cooled for a while even after the raction stops.)

    Karl Lembke (c25e15)

  95. “I know you and daleyrocks think Bennett set up the premise only to say obeying it was wrong because of a greater moral good.”

    No, not really.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  96. It’s too bad the whole system herein hangs on “reasonable” / “good faith”, a pair of indefinable terms whose applicability depends entirely on the gut feelings, probably assisted by a heaping dose of self-preservation, of the person deciding if they want to deal with the aforementioned misinterpretation or not.

    I fail to see the difference between “we have a responsibility to clarify our meaning when we are reasonably misinterpreted” and “we have a responsibility to clarify our meaning when we are ministerpreted in a manner that happens to not piss us off”, which is what it boils down to, since you have no idea what’s lurking in the heart of your misinterpreter.

    I’m not trying to be baselessly cynical here, I just have no idea what “reasonable” specifically means in any objective context, and neither does anyone else. It’s a personality-driven intuitive judgement, and those who most need to absorb the concept of a reasonable misinterpretation will be the least likely to consider such misinterpretations as, in fact, reasonable.

    You might as well just say, “we should explain ourselves if we think it will work” and be done with it, rather than make ad hoc judgements as to whether someone’s misinterpretation was virtuous enough to be responded to.

    I mean, as a communications guideline, either way this is a long step up in maturity from the
    “if you misunderstand me, or merely interpret me in a way that causes me unanticipated consequences, you’re probably trying to destroy me, and maybe America as well” guidelines laid out by the warm and personable folks over at PW. So, kudos.

    glasnost (395b7f)

  97. Robert Heinlein mentioned, in one of his stories, a class given to new officers — a course in writing orders. Officer candidates were told to draft a written order, and in order to pass the course, their written orders had to be impossible to misinterpret.

    This was, of course, an extreme example of placing the responsibility for clear communication squarely on the person issuing the communication.

    Karl Lembke (c25e15)

  98. […] Goldstein continues an ongoing debate with Patrick Frey as to whether those who communicate have an obligation to consider how others might misinterpret […]

    Words Mean Things … Or Do They? (139676)

  99. “Listeners’ interpretations may be wrong — but we may not have given them insufficient clues to interpret our intent correctly. As long as our listeners’ misinterpretations are a reasonable, good faith effort to understand our meaning, our remedy for their failure to understand our meaning is not to complain — but to clarify.

    If they continue to misinterpret even after we’ve clarified, that’s evidence of bad faith and unreasonableness on their part — and the fault now lies with them and not with us.”

    You’ve just conceded Jeff G’s point, but spread the concession over two iterations to muddy the waters. The point is the onus is on the listener to attempt a good faith interpretation. Any iterations after that do not alter that point.

    Brett_McS (55c7f7)

  100. Can we just come out and say this? Jeff g is an ass. He’s a failed grad student. Nothing wrong with that; I know quite a few, but let’s stop pretending he has a clue, ok? He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about when it comes to academia or intentionalism.

    I think he’s a very bright guy and don’t really care what his academic credentials are. He has established credibility through years of writing on his blog.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  101. daleyrocks,
    Bradley – Media Matters used Bennets words too, just selectively edited, as you did above, to turn his comments into a national scandal. Go figure.

    How were they selectively edited? Please explain, giving your source. I’ll think it over.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  102. Bradley – As I suggested above, you need to do a little work on this. The lead in to Bennett’s question provides critical context as does the surrounding discussion.

    Here is the take of Dennis Prager:

    http://www.frontpagemag.com/articles/Read.aspx?GUID=DE4278FF-47E5-4318-AA32-C7FD94746818

    You can read other more detailed accounts if you want to take a few minutes from sources such as Newsbusters and others.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  103. Glasnost #96,

    “we should explain ourselves if we think it will work”

    That is the position that I take. I dislike the “reasonable” interpretation or reader test because each reader considers his or her interpretation as reasonable. Calling someone’s interpretation unreasonable simply insults the other. Either explain or agree to disagree and leave it at that.

    Craig R. Harmon (608dee)

  104. Bradley – Jeff Goldstein wrote extensively on the subject at the time. Here is an excerpt:

    ” Bennett was careful to note that the hypothetical in question was morally reprehensible—and in fact used it to argue against utilitarian rationalizations for moral problems (a stand that implicitly rejects statistics-based racialist arguments)—but that important qualification was left out of many media representations of his quote, which allowed those who wished to embarrass Bennett to call him out. In this case, Bennett clearly was aware of how his words might be used, but that awareness could not prevent misuse. For Bennett to have avoided the “major failing” politechnical identifies, he would have had to avoid the subject altogether. And to do so is to trade intellectualism for the kind of circumspection that has the practical effect of chilling free speech.”

    http://proteinwisdom.com/?p=5343

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  105. daleyrocks,
    I read the article you linked to, and it did not address my argument. I perfectly well understand that Bennett was not literally calling for the abortions of all blacks, and never said he did.

    What I objected to was the incorrect premise behind Bennett’s statement that, if your sole purpose was to reduce crime, you could do that by aborting all blacks. Bennett says such a policy would be impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible, but the crime rate would go down.

    I disagree that the crime rate would go down.

    I say such a policy would increase crime, because it would be a massive human rights violation that only a criminal, totalitarian state could enact. And certainly, others besides blacks would have to be deprived of human rights to make such a hideous policy work. To accept Bennett’s statement, even for the sake of argument, you have to overlook all this.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407)

  106. Bennet’s point was that the morality of abortion should not be judged by actual social benefit or harm or even an intended benefit. His choice of example, a hypothetical benefit that’s obviously immoral, was poor. The hypotheticl benefit was insignificant in comparison so the point was lost.

    It is an important point however.

    Obama’s policies are wrong for America regardless of their immediate effect on unemployment. Which is why wanting them to fail is not about wanting more unemployment.

    boris (ecab60)

  107. I disagree that the crime rate would go down.

    Your interpretaion is correct in the context you put it but it assumes Bennet’s hypothetical was based on forced abortion rather than voluntary. You ought to be aware of the original eugenics intent behind Planned Parenthood.

    boris (ecab60)

  108. Bradley – I’m done on the subject.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  109. daleyrocks,
    Agreed. My head was hurting too much to continue anyway.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R., (f34d89)

  110. […] issue of responsibility for the meaning of words, misinterpretation, and giving offense. Thanks to Craig R. Harmon and Jeff Goldstein in comments for the precursors to these […]

    Patterico’s Pontifications » Giving and Taking Offense: A Boy and His Dog (e4ab32)

  111. […] is: “Interpreters should try to divine the speaker’s true intent.” I have made this crystal clear on more than one occasion, and Goldstein knows it. Here’s another sample from March 2009: Communication is a two-way […]

    Patterico's Pontifications » Jeff Goldstein’s Views of Language Will NOT Prevent You from Being Misinterpreted (e4ab32)


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