I have often advocated on this site the concept that communication is a two-way street. I agree with the intentionalists that listeners are responsible for trying to figure out what a speaker meant. But I also believe in the responsibility of a speaker to be aware of how his words might be misinterpreted by a reasonable audience. What’s more, if a speaker is aware of that potential for misinterpretation, his “intent” cannot be artificially separated from that awareness.
Let me try to make this point more concretely.
Pretend that a devout Buddhist, who has somehow never heard of Nazis or the Holocaust, visits America and walks down a street with a swastika on his jacket. He intends the symbol to signify good fortune, which is what a swastika symbolizes for a Buddhist.
If he runs across a Jewish man descended from Holocaust survivors, there might be an unpleasant confrontation. This would be a misunderstanding, and nobody would be to blame. It’s reasonable for the Buddhist to wear the swastika, and it’s reasonable for the Jewish man to be offended.
If the Jewish man knows (or should know) that the man wearing the swastika intends it merely as a symbol of good fortune, the Jewish man has no business taking offense. That would be unreasonable. If the Jewish man takes offense, he is substituting his own intent for that of the man wearing the jacket. This is the lesson that intentionalists teach: that you should not knowingly seize someone else’s intent and substitute your own. (The Jewish man might want to politely warn the Buddhist that wearing this jacket could get him beat up, however.)
The fellow in this video is a different animal entirely:
Now, this fellow has a swastika on his jacket. (It’s inside the Iron Cross. Blow up the video full screen and freeze it at :16 if you don’t believe me). He says that he is not a Nazi, but rather a “proud racist.” Why is he wearing a swastika? He denies that he is using it as a Nazi symbol. He tells the cameraman that it is a symbol of love.
I’m guessing that, like me, you find it kind of hard to believe that this man intends the swastika to be taken simply as a symbol of love.
Why is that? Because he’s obviously familiar with Nazism. When called a Nazi, he doesn’t say: “What’s a Nazi?” (Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown!) He knows that people are going to take it as a symbol of Nazism — and it’s difficult to envision another legitimate reason for him to wear the symbol.
So he can claim he’s not wearing the symbol to promote Nazism — but we are unlikely to take his word for it. It’s unreasonable for him to wear the swastika, and it’s reasonable for men of good will to take offense.
Symbol of good fortune, or Nazism?
What if you choose an example in between the innocent swastika-wearing Buddhist, and the proud swastika-wearing racist?
For example, say the Buddhist is shown a two-hour documentary on the Holocaust, with a special emphasis on the significance of the swastika to Jews. He now understands that a Jew might reasonably take offense at what he had previously considered to be a mere symbol of good fortune.
Does his knowledge of the reasonable reaction of his audience change your view of what his intent is when he wears the swastika?
It makes a difference if you know the history
Consider these two examples: 1) the innocent Buddhist walks into the Holocaust Museum wearing his swastika, having no idea that he will offend anyone; versus 2) the Buddhist who has seen the documentary about Nazism walks into the Holocaust Museum, knowing full well that his wearing the swastika will reasonably be taken by some people to be a deliberate affront.
In each case, he may “intend” for the swastika to be interpreted as a symbol of good fortune. But isn’t it obvious that these two examples are not the same?
And if so, then isn’t it obvious that, in the second example, his knowledge of the likely reasonable reaction of the audience must be factored in to an interpretation of his “intent”?
The “intentionalist” will tell you that the swastika has no inherent meaning aside from that assigned to it by its wearer (just as the intentionalist claims that words have no inherent meaning apart from that assigned to them by their utterers). The intentionalist will tell you that you can’t allow the baggage associated with certain words or concepts to restrict your use of those words or concepts, if your intent is different from the baggage that society has attached to them.
How far are we going to take that logic?
What if the Buddhist has two jackets with symbols that represent good fortune: one with a swastika, and one with a pair of golden fishes? If he is otherwise indifferent to which jacket he is going to wear today, should he forego the swastika jacket while visiting the Holocaust museum?
Or should be proudly don the swastika jacket, to show that he is not going to give in to a view of language and intent that would cause him to restrict his full freedom of expression?
Would you wear a swastika jacket to the Holocaust Museum?
You might say that’s what he should do. But I say that if that’s what he does, he should prepare to get his ass kicked. And I can’t say I’ll feel sorry for him.
P.S. As with any post about intentionalism, I’m going to go ahead and apply my strict no-personal-attacks rule in this thread. Comments must be strictly about ideas, with absolutely no personal comments whatsoever. Comments that do not follow this rule will be summarily deleted. Comments that blatantly violate the rule may earn the offending commenter a time-out or a ban.
Given my restrictive rules, I will accept comments from banned commenters, as long as they follow the rules I have set forth. No personal digs are allowed, no matter how small — but any articulation that hews strictly to the expression of ideas will be allowed.
I will not respond to any argument — whether made here or at any other site — that misstates my argument, or belittles it, or attempts to turn this into a discussion of personalities rather than ideas.