Patterico's Pontifications


Why the Reasonable Reaction of the Audience Matters to Interpreting “Intent”

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 9:48 pm

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?

Holocaust Museum
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.

Website Problems

Filed under: Blogging Matters — DRJ @ 8:42 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

We know the website isn’t working and comments aren’t loading today. We really are working on it and once we get it fixed (hopefully soon), let’s all compare blood pressure readings to see who suffered the most.


Police Bar Reporters From White House Protest

Filed under: Media Bias,Obama — DRJ @ 5:14 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

Politico sarcastically labels it the “most transparent White House ever”:

“Police chased reporters away from the White House and closed Lafayette Park today in response to a gay rights protest in which several service members in full uniform handcuffed themselves to the White House gate to protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

People who have covered the White House for years tell me that’s an extremely unusual thing to do in an area that regularly features protests.

A reporter can be seen in the YouTube video above calling the move “outrageous” and “ridiculous.””

President Obama is probably still smarting from the heckling he received yesterday at the Boxer event in California.

POLICE: “Back up, all the way back. Park’s closed.”
MEDIA: “They are pushing the media back, like, two blocks. *** It’s one thing if they push the public back, but not the media. This is just ridiculous.”

Will this make the media wake up?


The Highest American Cities

Filed under: Crime — DRJ @ 5:08 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

The Daily Beast commemorates April 20th with a list of America’s Top 50 marijuana-consuming cities. Congratulations to the Top 5: Eureka, Tallahassee, New York, Boston and San Francisco.


Planes Flying Again; Is it Safe?

Filed under: Environment — DRJ @ 3:52 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

Planes are flying again in most of Europe but scientists disagree on whether or when it’s safe to fly:

“Six days after volcanic ash shut down the skies over much of Europe, planes are back in the air, but science still can’t answer the question:

Is it safe to fly again?

Mother Nature has given Europe a lesson in risk, aviation technology, scientific uncertainty and economics. And how these fields intersect is messy.

Watching the same people who earlier said it was too dangerous to fly now say it’s safe “is just more proof that risk is a subjective idea,” said David Ropeik, a risk perception expert at Harvard University.

When people turn to science for answers, they get a lot equivocation.

“We really don’t have as good a handle as we should on the ash particle size, the ash concentration and most important, just exactly how high the ash got up into the atmosphere,” said Gary Hufford, a U.S. government volcano expert based in Anchorage, Alaska.

Would he get on a plane and fly into the ash cloud? “I would be cautious,” he said in a Tuesday conference call.”

Here are some of the scientific issues:

“Engineers worry about immediate catastrophic damage when the ash dust congeals in an engine turbine, blocking air flow and shutting it down, Fabian said. In 1989, when a Boeing 747 flew through volcanic ash over Alaska, all four engines failed and the plane dropped more than two miles in five minutes, before engines restarted. Ash can also cause long-term abrasive damage to planes that could lead to later disasters if not dealt with.

Fabian said the reason engineers know so little about the risks from volcanic ash is that it would take many hours and great expense to do repeated tests. And tests would be needed for the 20 different types of engines currently flown.

And even if engineers knew how much ash a plane’s engines could handle, atmospheric scientists can’t say how much ash is in any one place or predict what will happen next, said Jon Davidson, a professor of earth sciences at Durham University in England. The ash becomes more diluted as it goes higher in altitude but also clumps together at times like sediments in a river, he said.”

The rarity of this type of event together with the lack of scientific studies makes this more of a risk assessment decision than a scientific matter.


Supreme Court Voids Animal Abuse Law

Filed under: Law — DRJ @ 3:39 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

The Supreme Court voided an animal abuse law on First Amendment grounds:

“Chief Justice John J. Roberts Jr., writing for an eight-member majority, said the law was overly broad and not allowed by the First Amendment. He rejected the government’s argument that whether certain categories of speech deserve constitutional protection depends on balancing the value of the speech against its societal costs.

“The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits,” Roberts wrote. “The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it.”

The law was enacted in 1999 to forbid sales of so-called “crush videos,” which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by depicting the torture of animals or showing them being crushed to death by women with stiletto heels or their bare feet. But the government has not prosecuted such a case. Instead, the case before the court, United States v. Stevens, came from Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fighting.”

The opinion ruled the law is overbroad because it could outlaw legal acts such as hunting, but left the door open to more carefully worded legislation. Justice Alito dissented, stating “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it most certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct, even if engaged in for expressive purposes.”

Supporters wanted the Court to craft a free speech exception for animal abuse cases similar to the exception for pornography.


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