This way lies fascism: an OUTLAW’s lament (cont.) [UPDATED]
So long as we’re talking about code words and “who decides” what interpretation is best, let me add a few points to help combat the creeping fascism that comes with certain ideas about how language works.
Words not only mean different things in different contexts but can mean different things to different people even in the same context â€” hence one finds complaints by some that someone’s message is tinged with racial bias where others just can’t see it because words carry not just dictionary meanings but histories. A boy calls his dog to him by saying,”Come here, boy!”. A father calls his son to him by saying, “Come here, boy!” A group of good old boys saying to a black man, “Come here, boy!” Whatever connotations the first two might evoke in people, the third is likely to carry an entirely different meaning than the first two and if the reader/hearer happens to be black with a memory and experience and knowledge of generations of racial hatred and abuse, it is unlikely that any amount of explanation is going to make the last sound innocent of racial bigotry.
To anyone who has read and understood my arguments on language and intent over the years, this example provides a textbook illustration of the kind of interpretive paradigm favored by (leftist) poststructuralists bent on turning meaning into a war of wills. Worse, it has succeeded in insinuating itself into the mainstream of linguistic practice: when people think of how interpretation works, they often think along these lines.
I have argued for years that in accepting such an interpretative paradigm, we are allowing those for whom it is propitious to advocate for a breakdown of a common ground for meaning to control the linguistic playing field: when meaning becomes “relative” — when it “belongs” to the receiver of the message rather than the author or utterer who has intended to mean, and who (rightfully) expects those claiming to interpret him to appeal to what it is he meant — who controls meaning becomes a battle purely of will and power. And in a battle of wills, strength lies with groups, particularly those who form around a shared interpretation and a shared group narrative. Hence, we’re introduced to the idea of “intepretive communities” who not only seize control of meaning, but who then regulate it — by deciding who is “authentic” enough to understand the meaning they themselves have created, and by bracketing those who they then claim don’t have the requisite bona fides to offer alternative readings.
But let’s get back to the example left by one of Patterico’s commenters. In introducing the example, he writes: “Words not only mean different things in different contexts but can mean different things to different people even in the same context [...]“. This sounds reasonable on its face, but what, precisely, is being argued here?
To say that words can mean different things to different people even in the same context is to confuse a couple of important issues. First, for a word to be a word, it must have first been signified. Which is to say, we believe we are engaging words in the first place because we believe someone — some agency — has intended to communicate, and in doing so, he has turned a simple sound form (or, in the case of written texts, a squiggle or mark) into language by having attached to it a signified, the thing that gives the now completed sign its (fixed) meaning.
If we didn’t assume such signification took place, we’d have no reason to assume we were dealing with language at all. Which is why when one argues that “words can mean different things to different people even in the same context,” one is really arguing that one can make signifiers do different things in a given context based on their own intent to mean — all the while, ignoring that what they are presuming to resignify by adding their own intent has already been signified by the author or utterer, and so already means.
In the simplest terms, taking someone else’s signs, ignoring their meaning, and then adding your own meaning in place of the original meaning, is NOT interpretation. Interpretation requires that the receiver attempt to decode the message sent by the author. It does not justify replacing the author’s message with one of your own creation and then pretending what you’ve done is anything other than engaged in a bit of creative writing.
In the example presented by Patterico’s commenter, The danger is that if the reader/hearer happens to be black with a memory and experience and knowledge of generations of racial hatred and abuse — and yet the person he hears calling out “boy” is a child calling his dog by saying, “Come here, boy!” — the black person is not permitted to assume ownership of the child’s meaning.[**]
What the commenter is echoing in his example is the Derridean idea that a signifier (“boy”) is haunted by the ghost of all its potential signifieds, all the concepts that have been attached to “boy” since that particular sound form or squiggle has been used, ever. Which, it necessarily follows, charges the child with the impossible task of keeping all those potential concepts in his mind each time he utters a word so that he can negotiate a minefield wherein someone somewhere might misconstrue his intent and declare his meaning to be something other than it was.
Naturally, this perverts how we mean. When the child yelled “boy” he was not using a signifier, though that’s what the black person may have heard. Instead, the child was using a sign — a word — the signifier “boy” attached to the referent, his dog.
The child meant his dog. The fact that the black man can hear “boy”and attach his own baggage to it doesn’t give him the right to claim that the baggage belongs equally to the child, or that the child’s word meant something other than it did.
Once we begin to countenance such perversions of what it means to mean, we begin to allow others to speak for us.
And then, lord help us if the child goes wandering around looking for his spade. Why, he’d be lynched for his intolerance!
I should have thought that anyone claiming to understand how intentionalism works would have recognized the linguistic traps being set this kind of perversion of what it mean to “interpret.” But I was wrong.
Because in response to my explanation, Patterico was quick to correct me, thus [emphases mine]:
I like the dog example.
Say the boy wants to call to his dog. He knows that the black man is there, likely to take offense if he yells “Come here, boy!” So he considers yelling “Come here, Rover!” instead.
He explains the problem to his dad. What should his dad advise him?
That he can say the same thing without offending the black man, by yelling “Come here, Rover!”
Or that he should never change what he is going to say because of a possible negative reaction from someone?
Is it relevant to the answer whether the black man’s anticipated reaction is reasonable or in good faith? E.g. if he doesn’t know the boy is calling a dog, vs. he does know?
Also: say the boy chooses the “Come here, boy!” phraseology, and the black man gets angry. Should the boy explain: “hey, didn’t mean to offend, I was calling my dog. Sorry there was a misunderstanding.” Or should he be defiant: “Hey, that’s not what I meant! How dare you try to steal my meaning!” because he knows he means the dog, and by God, it’s not his fault!
Does that depend on whether the black man’s reaction is reasonable or in good faith?
And say we don’t know whether the boy meant to offend or not, but just before he yells it, he tells his friend: “atch this. This should generate a fight.” Clue to his intent?
This response left me quite literally agog: first, just how would the child know that the man is likely to take offense? Or does it not occur to Patterico that, in allowing that it is reasonable to take offense in the first place, he is perpetuating and enabling an idea of language that puts the speaker always at the mercy of the interpreter who Patterico isn’t even requiring to interpret insofar as he can claim offense without having to worry about taking the child’s intent into question?
The problem here — and this is one that Patterico doesn’t seem to understand — is that the black man is reacting, not interpreting. He has resignified the child’s mark to suit his own purposes, which means that he and the child are no longer even arguing over the same signs. And so they are no longer even arguing over the same text. Why should anyone privilege the “reaction” of the receiver over the intent of the author when the receiver feels no need whatever to divine the intent of the author to begin with?
Why would we even pretend that he is “interpreting” when he has made no effort to divine the author’s meaning?
There is nothing wrong with being solicitous of other’s feelings. That’s courtesy. But if you choose not to be courteous — and in today’s political climate, it often helps to make the point forcefully — that doesn’t mean you are somehow required to take responsibility for someone else’s desire to take your meaning and pervert it, then lay claim to it.
As my Bennett example showed, this procedure of finding offense can happen no matter how careful you are. As the Snow example showed, someone can even concede your intent, then still turn around and argue that the signifiers (not the signs, or words) you chose could potentially offend someone, and that you should therefore have found another way of saying the thing.
If Patterico and others who continue to follow this interpretive model can’t see how such concessions chill speech — putting us constantly on the defensive and forcing us to chose our words with the care of someone traversing a PC minefield — I don’t think there is anything left to discuss. Clearly, Patterico and his supporters haven’t understood what I’ve been saying, and for all his protestations to the contrary, his claim that this entire discussion of “What words mean” isn’t a rehashing of arguments over Rush Limbaugh’s choice of phrasing, rings hollow, especially given that Pat’s been intent on circling back around to the argument that the speaker really must watch what he says, because “reasonable” people might corrupt his meaning — the answer to which “problem” is to be less provocative and always more precise, with precision defined as couching your language in such a way that it becomes difficult to be taken out of context. And falling into that trap means you have allowed your enemies to control your means of expression.
It is, in short, an extended call to lose the war more slowly.
– Which, ask Bill Bennett how that worked out for him.
The right will lose this battle if they continue to play the game under the left’s rules.
Your assignment: explain why that is, and how this works to undermine an idea of meaning upon which we can base a coherent mode of communication.
As mal wrote in the comments to over at Patterico’s:
Pat, you’ve just nailed down precisely why there is such a profound and important debate that needs to be had around this question. That someone could have (presumably) read Hayek, Orwell, et al. and actually praise the “boy” argument is a testament to how easy it is for those who would defend liberty to be seduced by grand designs that can only serve to undermine liberty.
Your “reasonable” gambit is exactly that, a gambit. Any attempt to apply some kind of linear system to applied interpretation is an invitation for said system to be gamed. The only means to safeguard liberty is agency. It’s brilliant because it diffuses responsibility for interpretation to, y’know, individuals. I will not sacrifice my right to mean what I mean in the face of someone’s “reasonable” claim to the contrary. That way lies fascism.
I mean, it is simply untenable to claim anything else. As soon as you supplant authorial intent with anything (reasonable or no), you have made agency practically impossible. Only in a world filled with angels can you do something like this because people lust for power and they will subvert any exogenous system.
Yes! Interpretation is fraught with peril! That doesn’t mean you can outsource responsibility for actually doing the interpreting to some convention or set of axioms. You’ve got to actually do the interpreting and it must consist in the primacy of intent or it’s not interpreting, it’s creative writing – or worse, newspeak.
(h/t Terry H)
[**]update: In rereading the paragraph I quoted from a commenter over at Patterico’s site, it is clear that it was not he who introduced the scenario in which a child yelling “boy” at his dogs exists, or was even intended to exist, within the same context as the elderly black man being present to hear it. In fact, my misreading of the last line of the paragraph probably contributed to bringing that scenario under discussion.
I mention this in the interest of fairness, and I apologize for attributing that to him. However, I also note that this error of attribution doesn’t change the thrust of the argument in any way. In his example, good old boys calling a black man “boy” would provide cues to intent not available in the other instances. What I spoke to here in the post with respect to that particular comment had to do with the faulty Derridean idea of the privileged signifier, an idea that provided the theoretical framework for the commenter’s argument that “words not only mean different things in different contexts but can mean different things to different people even in the same context.” Yet, pace the commenter’s review of potential scenarios, there are plenty of instances one can imagine of a group of “good ol’ boys” (how’s that for a potential slur?) addressing a black male as “boy” and not having the comment as a matter of course be taken as a racial slur. That is, unless we believe the propensity for such offense is inherent in black DNA: eg., the “good ol’ boys” are friends with the black man, and the use is familiar and a kind of in-joke among the group; or they are using the designation ironically; or their inflection was such that it was clear they meant no such offense, and etc.
Too, the reason the black man would take offense, in the scenario the commenter paints, is either because he believes offense was intended (in which case we’re dealing with an intentionalist argument) or else he doesn’t, but he recognizes that there is power to be derived from assuming the role of the aggrieved. In that case, he is no longer interpreting — and he is attaching his meaning to the signifiers of the good ol’ boys, and then attaching the racist text he has written to those whom he has already decided didn’t.
Still, what I found remarkable (and still do) was that when the scenario was reworked so that it became about the child, the dog, and the black man together in the same context, Patterico began looking for ways to protect the listener against conceivable offense by looking for ways in which the child might change his utterance.