Words Are Hard

(By: Silver Adept)


Words are hard. Really hard. And that’s not taking into account the studies, starting with Albert Mehrabian’s studies that suggest a large part of discerning meaning is on reading body language and other cues. The act of reading or listening to words and gathering the intended meaning of the speaker or writer is a very difficult task to do.

It would remain so if there were just one meaning to every word, but in every language, words and phrases evolve additional meanings based on their context. Picking the right context for a word is really hard.

For example: the word “theory”. To an anti-science activist, “theory” means “a hypothesis, regardless of amount of experimentation, on par with any other hypothesis.” Thus, you can have anti-science activists dismissing science with “It’s only a theory.”

In more casual conversation, “theory” usually means “a hypothesis with some amount of experimental evidence (scientific rigor and quality unknown) that suggests that the hypothesis may be true.”

To a scientist, “theory” generally means “a hypothesis with several rigorous experiments’ worth of evidence that suggests that it is true, within certain defined boundaries.”

Knowing that, finding the correct interpretation of the sentence “It’s a theory.” requires figuring out the right definition to use.

When in places like deconstructions, saying something like “Well, it’s understandable that [X] would think that/write that/act that way” can be used as a way of glossing over the still-true part that it’s problematic. It may be understandable that someone raised as a noblewoman and then further raised to the office of queen wouldn’t understand why the peasantry having no bread is a big problem, but that doesn’t absolve her of the punishment she will receive at the hands of the peasantry for that lack of understanding.

Further compounding the issue: in text, one is devoid of intonation to indicate context. I thought, as part of the American Football Championship game’s half-time entertainment, the following: “Oh, Beyonce is holding a reunion of Destiny’s Child as part of the halftime show. How cute.”

So, did I mean “How nice of Beyonce to include the group that she became famous with before launching her career as a solo act.”?

Or did I mean “Considering how much I think Beyonce’s lyrics and costuming have become much less female-empowering since she became a solo artist*, her inclusion of the group she launched her career from at the tail end of her program is a mockery of the better work she was doing with them.”?

It depends in how well you know me. If my blog is filed with admiration for Beyonce as an artist and I generally review her work positively, the first meaning is probable. If, however, I tend to review her work primarily on whether or not it breaks stereotypes about women and has costuming that isn’t Stripperiffic, the second interpretation is the more likely one.

What about if you don’t know me at all, and there’s nothing in my published work that gives a clue as to how I’m thinking?

Well, what makes more sense? Commenting on the performance, whether you liked it or not, or writing a comment about how the use of cute objectifies women and transforms them from being evaluated on their merits to being evaluated on their looks, and how horrible a person I must be for using such a demeaning word?

If you have suspicions that I might be using cute in a mocking or demeaning way, then which makes more sense: the angry post, or a question asking what sense I meant the word in, with an explanation of how you see things?**

Things like “assume good faith” don’t mean you have to coddle trolls, or educate everybody all the time, or even let a derailment happen without moderation. Assuming good faith lets you take the path of least energy expended for any given situation and avoids the possibility of disproportionate response. It also terms to put the onus back on the original commenter to explain themselves and provide clarity rather than requiring you to guess at their meaning and respond accordingly.

Words are really hard. Arguments are really draining. Why engage in more of them than strictly necessary?

* That statement is based solely on the lyrical content, as I heard it, of songs performed during the halftime show – most of the solo Beyonce songs appeared to be about finding a good man and marriage, while the Destiny’s Child song “Independent Woman” enumerates all the status items that the singer has achieved through her own effort. The statement does not generalize at all (“Bootylicious”, for example, is also a Destiny’s Child song and seems a bit orthogonal to “Independent Woman”).

** Both of these scenarios have happened to me. By far the more pleasant one was when someone asked what my intent was (where I made a statement that was supposed to be mocking of people who put themselves at the top of a hierarchy because they have all the cool toys, but came across as possibly denigrating an entire group based on their practices), than the one where bad faith was assumed, including calling me a troll (when I failed to signal a change between descriptive and proscriptive text, and thus accidentally suggested that the government should engage in sending humans on one-way trips to Mars and Luna with the intent for them to build as much or a colony environment as possible in anticipation of population pressure). I still post regularly where good faith was assumed, and haven’t gone back to where it was not. Assuming good faith sometimes is the difference between someone sticking around and going to find somewhere else to be.

When not periodically commenting around the web, Silver Adept posts lots of links on lots of topics at his blog home on Dreamwidth. Stop by and leave a comment!

2 thoughts on “Words Are Hard

  1. storiteller February 20, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    Fascinating thoughts on what “assuming good faith” means. I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, which is all about the power of first impressions. I think his most powerful conclusion is that first impressions can be incredibly helpful and useful if they are based on expertise in a subject. (And there are some subjects most people have expertise on, like reading another person’s facial expressions.) However, first impressions are led astray incredibly easily by prejudice and bias. What’s particularly frustrating is that most people cannot explain why they have a certain first impression – only that they do.

    I think this issue of first impressions ties in very directly with your post because the first impression is the one that sticks with someone regardless of whether or not the rest of a comment or argument supports that initial impression. If someone thinks someone else is acting in good faith, they will treat the poster that way. If they don’t, they won’t. However, it also runs the other way. Perhaps the original poster was being unconsciously biased or prejudiced in some way. However, they get very defensive when called out on it because they don’t realize how that unconscious, societally-held biases can influence simple, thoughtless observations. When they try to deconstruct their own comments, they know they aren’t consciously biased so the other person must be wrong and trying to project racism or sexism onto them that they “know” isn’t there.

    As you said, words are hard. Reading them quickly without context makes them a lot harder and first impressions mean a lot more.

  2. Silver Adept February 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Very true. Trying to do any sort of education and examination strictly in text is potentially fraught with those kinds of reactions that make it very difficult to succeed. And then those first impressions can cause other opportunities to be missed.

    And that’s when you have temperaments that seem compatible. Sometimes I have more success in text with “strangers” that with my significant other face-to-face, just because zie has a particular way of viewing the world that makes it more difficult to get to a common understanding.

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