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.