I wrote this yesterday as a supplement to a post, but it deserves to be posted in its own right. So I’m republishing it as a front-page post, slightly modified for clarity.
Most of you won’t read it because it’s long. That’s why I am giving you this handy summary:
Jeff Goldstein applies a selective view of language. If he likes you, he goes with your interpretation of your words. If he doesn’t, he substitutes his own.
My full argument makes the case at greater length. Here’s the whole thing:
The fundamental premise of Goldstein’s attacks on my view of language is that he falsely ascribes to me a philosophy that gives the listener the power to define the intent of the speaker.
He likes to go on and on about how I don’t understand his theories, etc. This is all false. Then, when I show in a particular example that I do indeed understand precisely what he is saying, he accuses me of changing my position, by using language like: “you now concede” or some such. It’s a neat trick, as it implies that my EARLIER view was really that the listener gets to determine intent, but now I have “backtracked” or “shifted” or some such. And because Goldstein has gotten many people to believe that I give the listener power to seize intent, many are fooled.
But it’s all based on a campaign of distortion of my views.
I have said many times that I believe Jeff and I agree on the basic principles, though he loves to claim otherwise. The closest I have ever come to setting out a comprehensive statement of my views on language is in this post:
1) Interpreters should try to divine the speaker’s true intent.
2) Intent is whatever the speaker meant.
3) The speaker is not necessarily the most reliable interpreter of his own words.
4) It is perfectly justifiable to tailor one’s presentation to suit the audience.
5) If you fail to communicate your position to the audience because you failed to signal your intent properly, you should clarify.
6) Speakers have no responsibility to self-censor to prevent unreasonable and bad faith misinterpretations of their words.
Despite the bolded statement above, Goldstein has managed to convince many of you that I espouse a view of language that puts all the authority in the hands of the listener. I do not. I never have.
So how has he convinced you of that?
Easy. Goldstein and I both agree with point #3 above: “The speaker is not necessarily the most reliable interpreter of his own words.” There is a distinction between INTENT and INTERPRETATION that most people miss in these discussions. And when I talk about my INTERPRETATIONS of language, he pretends that I am substituting my INTENT. Presto-change-o, I am substituting my intent for the speaker’s — even though I never say I am doing that.
Here’s his view of language — and yes, I understand it fine, because it’s not complicated. I’m going to put it in regular English rather than linguistic-speak, but this is still the essence of it.
The speaker’s intent determines the meaning of his words. The intent is what gives the words meaning when they are spoken.
However, once the words are spoken, their meaning is fixed according to that intent — and all we can do at that point is interpret, which means to try to figure out what the intent really was. To do this, you don’t necessarily just accept the author’s INTERPRETATION of what his INTENT was. Because he could be lying or mistaken.
This last point leads us to a very important point: the listener may end up having the best interpretation of the speaker’s words. This is so, as long as that listener is arriving at his interpretation by appealing to the speaker’s intent. If the listener’s argument as to the speaker’s meaning is better than the speaker’s, using all relevant context and other information, then the listener’s interpretation can be the best. (Some might say the most reasonable, which in this context is just a synonym for “best” — as long as the interpretation appeals to the speaker’s intent, which I understand it must.)
Now, let’s say that someone is arguing that his interpretation is better than the speaker’s. This listener can make that argument, consistent with all of the above. But the listener is not always going to preface his argument with a lot of harrumphing and recapping and caveats about how, when he sets forth his interpretation, he is appealing to the author’s intent, but there is this thing called the authorial fallacy, and the speaker may not be the best interpreter of his own words, and so please keep all that in mind when you hear my interpretation, which is as follows . . . blah blah blah.
No. The listener will simply say something like: “This is what that statement means” or “This is what the statement sounds like to me” or “This is what the speaker was really saying” or “This is how I interpret that statement.”
Now all of those phrases, spoken by someone who, like me, understands that words mean what the speaker intended, mean: “This is my interpretation of the speaker’s intent.” But in casual conversation — if the interpreter forgot to explicitly repeat the caveats — those phrases can SOUND LIKE the listener is placing HIS REACTION to the words above the SPEAKER’S INTENT.
In fact, the listener is not. He is merely saying that he is getting ready to set forth his interpretation, which he thinks is the best one — i.e. the interpretation that most faithfully reflects the speaker’s intent.
Now, I understand all of the above. But Goldstein maintains that I do not. Whether he really believes it or not, I don’t know. But either way, it gives him a hell of a rhetorical cudgel to use against me — because any time I say something like one of the above phrases, he will seize upon it as an example of my giving primacy to my own intent rather than that of the speaker.
But I’m not. I’m just saying: “this is my interpretation.” Yet I may express the concept in one of the colloquial ways set forth above.
Let’s move to a particular example. When Goldstein wrote:
Frey called McCain a racist . . .
Here is the full context of what he said:
Now, leaving aside the audacity it takes to do a series of public posts speculating on someone’s “racism” before eventually claiming you don’t know if he’s racist or not (I mean, who can POSSIBLY be hurt by such a thing, right?), the fact of the matter is, Frey called McCain a racist the moment he said that “it still sounds like racism to me.”
He was referring to a statement of mine in which I said:
“You can put as much context around that as you like. It still sounds like racism to me”.
Now, this was was a casual way of saying I had considered McCain’s context and did not see it as undercutting the racism of the statement that is plain on its face. This was clear to anyone who read the post, and I was careful to give McCain’s full context. Similarly, when I said:
“It still sounds like racism to me”.
That was shorthand for: “my interpretation of the statement is that it was a statement animated by racist thought.” (Given that I have never argued that the listener’s intent substitutes for the speaker’s, and that I have said more than once that it does not, it is unfair to rip this statement from its context and call it an attempt to substitute the listener’s intent for the speaker’s. I have even explained this since, in my post quoting Beldar: “For a statement to be racist, it does have to be the product of racist thought.”)
Note that I don’t say it’s shorthand for “my interpretation of the statement is that it was a statement made with racist intent.” I could say that — as long as I made clear that I am here using the word “intent” only in the linguistic sense that Goldstein uses the word. If I don’t, then by saying “racist intent” I will be signaling to most readers that the “intent” at issue is conscious. And it needn’t be. For the statement to be racist, it can be made with subconsciously racist thoughts. As I explained in my post quoting Beldar, when you say that racism must be “intended,” that mode of communication says to most people that you’re talking about conscious intent. Unless you explain it.
Oh — there I go again talking about the reaction of most people. So let me once again include the caveats and the harrumphing, since Goldstein seized on THAT TOO as evidence of my desire to substitute my intent for that of the speaker. WHAT I AM ARGUING is that, if you intend to argue only that racism must be animated by racist thought, which might be conscious or unconscious, then you signal your intent poorly if you merely say that the racism must be “intended” — unless you specifically make clear that your definition of “intended” is the linguistic definition, and encompasses subconscious thought as well.
If you say one must “intend” racism to be racist, but don’t make clear that your definition includes subconscious thought, then you will create a disconnect between the way you signal your intent, and the way that your intent will likely be interpreted by a large body of readers unfamiliar with your personal definition. When most people hear “a racist must intend racism” they will reject that, because it sounds to a listener (even an intentionalist listener) like the speaker must consciously intend to be interpreted as racist. And a racist need not intend that.
On March 14, 2009, I explained much of my views on language in a post titled “What Words Mean”:
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.
The fact is that we don’t always do all this harrumphing and explaining. But I fully explained this back in March — that I understand that an interpreter must interpret by appealing to the author’s intent.
Goldstein even showed up in comments to that March post, to acknowledge this:
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.
(Note how the phrasing that suggests I am backtracking — which is what he ALWAYS does when I take on the subject at length and show I do understand the concept. Also, he proceeded to pick at one isolated phrase that I had already fully explained in the post, and pretend that I hadn’t explained it, because he always has to be right, regardless of logic and objective truth.)
So Goldstein knows I understand all this — yet he continues to argue that I don’t. And it’s VERY EASY to take a listener’s statement setting forth his interpretation of a text, and scream that the listener is substituting his intent for the speaker’s. As long as the interpreter doesn’t include the caveat “I am of course trying to divine the speaker’s intent with this interpretation” then a pedant like Goldstein can come along and accuse the interpreter of overlooking that requirement. But I have explained until my typing fingers are raw that I don’t believe in substituting the listener’s intent for that of the speaker. I just believe that the listener’s interpretation might be better.
So why, when I have stated this clearly before, does Jeff Goldstein continue to assert that I believe in substituting a listener’s intent for that of the speaker?
He will say it is because I continually show I don’t understand his argument. But the truth is, I do, and I just don’t include the little caveats all the time — nor does ANYONE. That does not make it defensible for him to ignore my history of acknowledging that we must appeal to the author’s intent.
Oh: and since people keep asking: what was my motive in all this? It is what I always do: call out bad arguments where I find them. I called out Ebonie Johnson Cooper, a black woman, for a racist comment opposing interracial marriage, and saying she might not have voted for Barack Obama had he married a white woman. And I saw a similarity between that and McCain’s verbiage, and decided to call him out — because I don’t call out only one side. And I found proof that he had said the quote — coupled with weaselly statements he had made implying he hadn’t — and I thought that was interesting and worth addressing. I didn’t hold a gun to his head and make him say the racist quote above. I think it was worth discussing.
To specifically answer Goldstein’s passage here:
If what Patterico is arguing here is that he is not calling RS McCain a racist now, but that at one time RS McCain must have been a racist, having written something that is, in Patterico’s estimation, racist (and so intended as such), then we don’t really have an intellectual quarrel, save for Patterico’s refusal to square the circle: he believes McCain was a racist, as evidenced by his having made racist statements (the logic being that you would not believe a statement racist unless it sprung from racist intent, which is what properly describes racism to begin with). So if he no longer believes him to be a racist, why spend several posts going over and over McCain’s “racist” past?
Well, as I have explained, I don’t know that he is not a racist, so right there Goldstein is loading the dice by imputing to me a sentiment I never expressed.
Also, I cannot say that he at one time was “a racist” simply because at one time he made a racist comment. As I have explained at length.
So: we have a guy who may or may not be a racist now, and may or may not have been a racist back in the day, but who said something 13 years ago that I believe was racist. That alone would not be enough to write about. But when another prominent blogger raises the issue as part of a larger (and perhaps unfair in part) campaign, and the speaker of those words WEASELS about whether he said them, then it’s a live controversy. And yes, I’m writing about it now and not two months ago because a) Ebonie’s comment reminded me of it, and b) I finally found the proof that McCain had admitted the quote to Founding Bloggers.
So there’s your explanation, Jeff and Joy, and I had already given it several times before.
To me, that’s not the issue. The issue is language — and how Goldstein distorts my views of it.