Many believe that Jeff Goldstein espouses a theory of language that prevents speakers from being misinterpreted. Are you kidding me? This guy misinterprets me all the time.
Stick with me, because this isn’t about Robert Stacy McCain, except incidentally. It’s about language and interpretation. And how Jeff Goldstein’s views on those issues don’t protect you from being misinterpreted.
Take Goldstein’s post about Robert Stacy McCain, in which he writes:
Frey called McCain a racist . . .
Not so. In my first post naming McCain, I was very careful not to call McCain “a racist” as a person, and prominently said: “I’m not saying that one racist/prejudiced quote brands you as a racist for all time.”
I have very consistently said that one racist statement does not necessarily make its utterer “a racist.”
Why? Because I limit my claims to that which I can prove. And so I said only that this is a racist statement:
As Steffgen predicted, the media now force interracial images into the public mind and a number of perfectly rational people react to these images with an altogether natural revulsion. The white person who does not mind transacting business with a black bank clerk may yet be averse to accepting the clerk as his sisterinlaw, and THIS IS NOT RACISM, no matter what Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Washington tell us.
It has surprised me to learn that people disagree whether this statement is racist. I do. Jeff Goldstein doesn’t. Goldstein defends a statement in which McCain rages that the media “force” those awful “interracial images” into the public mind, causing rational people “revulsion.” Fine. We’ll have to disagree on that one.
But I didn’t call McCain “a racist” and I clearly said I was not saying that.
Again, I made that clear because, as regular readers know, I try not to let my statements get ahead of the evidence. Sure, I was aware of other allegations of racism by McCain. Commenters have noted, for example, that on a Civil War listserv group, a “Robert Stacy McCain” proposed a bumper sticker reading: “Have you whipped your slaves today?” I was aware of allegations that he used to link approvingly to sites run by white supremacist groups while posting comments at Free Republic. But at the time I wrote the post, I didn’t have time to look into any of these other allegations or their context. So I stuck to the evidence I had, and was very careful to note that one racist comment does not brand one as a racist for all time.
This did not prevent Jeff Goldstein from coming along and distorting what I had said. Showing that famous regard for the speaker’s intent, he ignored my words and context and declared that, in fact, I had branded McCain as “a racist”:
Frey called McCain a racist . . .
The full context of Goldstein’s claim, and the statement of mine to which he referred, is long and beyond the scope of this post. So I have placed it on a separate page, where I place it in the context of my views of how language works. Don’t defend Goldstein’s comment unless you have read the full explanation on that page. For our purposes here, the key point is that Goldstein claimed I called McCain “a racist” when I had not.
When I explained that I had not, Jeff Goldstein immediately
privileged the speaker’s intent above his own told me that I was wrong, and that I had, in fact, called McCain “a racist” because if you say that a person has made a racist statement, you are calling that person racist at the moment of the utterance. In a very slippery way, he changed the terms, saying that I was calling McCain “racist” and using that to defend his claim that I had called McCain “a racist.”
But that little word “a” in front of the word “racist” — IN THIS CONTEXT — makes all the difference.
Uttering one racist statement does not make someone, inherently, “a racist.” It would be like saying that, because everyone reading this post has undoubtedly at one point in their life committed a crime, everyone reading this post is “a criminal.”
What an idiotic statement it would be to say: “Patterico.com is a site whose commenters are exclusively criminals.” This is so, EVEN IF you had all committed crimes (like most humans) at some point in your lives.
Yes, at the moment y’all committed your crimes, you were acting in a criminal manner. At that precise moment, even, you could apply the dictionary definition of “criminal” and say you were a criminal. But it would not be fair to label you a criminal for all time on the basis of that one act. For me to take one of you, at random, and call you “a criminal” on the basis of that evidence would be preposterous.
Imagine that, in a discussion about the overabundance of criminal statutes, you said to someone in comments: “Look, everyone commits crimes. You have committed a crime. Of course, by saying you committed a crime at one point in your life, I am not branding you as a criminal for all time.” You can see how it would be pretty galling if Jeff Goldstein came along later and accused you of calling the other commenter “a criminal.”
This is no longer about McCain, but about language. The larger issue, for me, is that Jeff Goldstein’s views on language don’t protect you from being misinterpreted by people. I have now explained my intent about McCain to Goldstein until I’m blue in the face — getting angry at times, to be sure, because I know what the hell I said — and he will continue to maintain that I didn’t say what I think I said.
I get that many people of good faith somehow missed my statement in my original post where I clearly said I wasn’t branding McCain “a racist” on the basis of one statement. We could debate whose fault that is, but surely once I have explained it, you can accept what I’m saying. I’m the guy who said it, after all — and I’m not backtracking — despite Goldstein’s false statements that I am.
So I am being misinterpreted — and very unreasonably so.
Many of you like to claim that this is ironic, because he has convinced you that I espouse a theory of language that gives primacy to the listener’s intent rather than the speaker’s. This is the Big Lie that he has gotten you to buy into, and this fundamental misunderstanding of my views colors everything about how people view this issue. My view, as stated in March 2009, 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 street. Listeners must try to divine the true intent of the speaker. Speakers must clearly communicate their intent if they wish to be understood.
Yes, I understand that listeners must try to divine the speaker’s intent, and Goldstein goddamned well knows that I understand it. And that’s not backtracking, any more than I have backtracked on McCain. (An allegation Goldstein made and has refused to substantiate.)
This post is already long, so if you want to get even further down into the weeds, follow me to this page. In it, I discuss my views of language, and how they have been misrepresented by Goldstein — as well as the full context of his claim that I called McCain “a racist.”
UPDATE: Goldstein tries to discourage his readers from reading this post: “Does anyone else find themselves not caring what Patrick Frey’s take might be?”
So much for his claim to be a guy who takes on every argument on the substance.
UPDATE x2: Evidently realizing that this position would undercut his claim to take on all arguments, he has now linked this post. Good. The argument is here for those willing to read it.
UPDATE x3: Evidently Goldstein is mocking my claim that he was trying to discourage people from reading the post. One wonders why he bothered to imply that his readers shouldn’t care about my take, if it wasn’t an effort to persuade them not to read it. But fine: if he claims that wasn’t his intent, I’ll accept it. It’s all a distraction anyway. The real issue is the arguments in the post. I’d rather see people discussing the arguments.
UPDATE x4: daleyrocks has a very cogent explanation of how Goldstein selectively employs intentionalism in the comments. Excerpt:
The problem is that a lot of people have read Jeff’s work on intentionalism, myself included, and see him apply it selectively in debates with people as Patterico pointed out at Little Miss Attila. . . . In Jeff’s world of intentionalism, he gets to both make up the rules and violate them and hope that nobody is watching too closely.
If somebody is watching too closely and questions Jeff’s process, that’s when the personal attacks start, the allegations of not understanding language are repeated, and as a bonus feature a failure to communicate is also added if confusion is raised on the part of the listener.
That’s about it.