Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Meaning and Understanding

In order to communicate usefully and meaningfully (is anything less really communication?), one must be able to understand what others say, and they must be able to understand what you say.

More importantly, you absolutely must understand what they MEAN.

Obvious yes?

So then why are so many people attempting to make it so hard for others to understand them?

In order to communicate with someone, you must have shared meaning with them.

You must have shared definitions, shared context, shared points of reference; or you must be able to create these things, in your interactions with them.

You must be able to relate things in your own life and experience, to similar things in theirs, and be able to explain the differences (you must be able to share idiom and to analogize).

Further, you have to know where you have shared meaning, and where you don't. Otherwise you might say one thing, and they'll understand (or misunderstand), something else entirely.

It's a case of not being able to ask the right questions, because you don't know, what you don't know.

I am a member of several different subcultures, where individuality, the "unusual", the extreme, the outliers... are "common", even celebrated.

However, these are also subcultures which tend to infinitesimalize relatively small differences. To create terminology for them. To inhabit them, wrap identities around them, and unfortunately too often factionalize around them (look up "the narcissism of small differences")

For all these reasons, and many more, it is especially important that we be able to communicate clearly. That when we say things of significance, we are operating with a set of shared definitions and assumptions. That we have shared meaning, around our actions and interactions.

The potential for hurt or harm is so great, the need for clarity is all the greater.

The difficulty is, often, our cultural assumptions are transparent to us; and utterly alien to others outside of our culture (or subculture).

In most subcultures, "Good morning" is a friendly greeting, and "Hey, fuck you" is a horrible insult.

MOST subcultures, but not all...

"Hey, fuck you", IS a warm friendly greeting, in some subcultures...

The military, commercial kitchens, athletic fields, construction sites... Really anyplace where people (mostly guys) "busting each others balls" is part of the culture of comradeship and respect.

It's when the guys DON'T insult you, screw with you, bust your balls etc... that they are expressing their dislike or lack of respect for you. It means they don't care enough to bother, don't respect you enough, or don't think you can take it.

You wouldn't BELIEVE some of the insults my friends and I have for each other... never mind the dynamic between older and younger brothers...

But... knowing that, and being able to deal with that, depends on shared cultural understanding, and therefore having shared meaning and context.

If you're a polite upper middle class American woman, and you're suddenly dropped into a world, where people express respect and affection for each other by calling each other "bitch", "whore", "faggot" (certain gay subcultures for example)... You're probably going to be appalled, you will likely be offended, and you're certainly going to have a hard time understanding what is being communicated, and communicating in return.

Until you develop shared meaning and context.

This is something that an unfortunate number of folks in "alternative lifestyle communities" seem to miss... (and others as well, I'm just using this as a convenient and obvious example).

They seem to carry around the assumption that somehow, everyone is supposed to understand their exact individual and specific meaning for something, which may mean something entirely different to someone else... and they get offended when you don't.

There are these terms, that they make up entirely, or use differently from everyone else; and yet they seem to believe they have the right to be offended when others don't understand or "respect", their personal meaning or usage... and to force other people to use it while attempting to communicate with them (or worse, to refuse to attempt to communicate with anyone, unless the other party already understands their preferred usage).

Then of course there are those who, in reaction to the type of person I describe above, and in the attempt to not give offense; account for EVERY POSSIBLE OPTION, COMBINATION, OR VARIANT, IN EVERYTHING THEY SAY...

Can you tell that irritates me...

It's a terrific irritation, and waste of time, and just plain destructive to real communication and understanding.

This is one of the problems I have with people who keep trying to find infinitely small divisions of categorization for their "identity", or their gender, or their sexuality, or their ideology or any other damn thing; particularly those who get offended if you don't use, or don't understand, their preferred term for their self identification.

Fine, you may want to call yourself "queer oriented transgenderflexiblequestioning blondie"...

...but unless someone has direct personal knowledge of the multiple subcultures I drew those descriptions from, and the tiny shades of difference between multiple terms, no-one is going to have the slightest clue what you are on about. You're just going to irritate them, and make communication with them more difficult.

And sorry, no, everyone does not have an obligation to "respect your choices and preferences".

Neither your mere existence, nor your particular preferences, create any obligation for me to do ANYTHING WHATSOEVER, except not trespass on your fundamental rights. Everything else is optional, and a matter of cultural practice and social convention.

If you are explicitly and deliberately using language, terminology, and definitions, outside of cultural practice and social convention... How exactly is anyone supposed to know what to do, how to treat you, what to call you etc... ?

One shouldn't need to be an Oxford don of linguistics and semiotics, to understand what it is you wish to be called, what your interests and hobbies and preferences are, what you don't like etc...

How about this...

Those of you who are so concerned about others getting your "label" wrong?

Is your own sense of self worth, and identity, so weak, that it cannot tolerate others not uniquely and specifically acknowledging and reinforcing it?

How about you like yourself, respect yourself, and respect others enough; to not give a damn about labels and terminology, except as a way of facilitating meaningful communication and understanding?

How about you try not getting offended, and instead try to help other people understand you better... and try to understand them better?

Labels CAN be important, to facilitate communication, to speed things up, and to reduce the potential for misunderstanding... but you know what's more important? Shared meaning, shared context, and shared understanding.

In that same vein, definitions ARE important. Critical in fact.

The potential for harm inherent in misunderstandings in this world... It's just too great, to make the risks even higher through miscommunication and misunderstanding.

If you don't know the definition of an important point, clearly and completely, it's absolutely critical you ask.

If the meaning of an important point is ambiguous, or there are multiple equally valid meanings... particularly if they are contradictory; it is critical to reach shared understanding and clarity.

When the meaning of a word, phrase, term etc... is well understood in a particular subculture; it's incumbent on you to understand and use that definition, when dealing with members of that subculture, in their "own house". When dealing with those outside your particular subculture, you cannot expect them to automatically know and use your own specific definitions and meanings, which are different from their own.

Or is that just too hard?