Saturday, September 24, 2005

More on intent, implication and inference

Just thought I should spell out some rules for useful and candid discussion of potentially loaded subjects. I referred to those rules by implication in my previous post, but didn't spell them out.

1. Words and phrases carry connotations due to the way they've been used historically, and those connotations can be in outright conflict with the strict denotation of the word or phrase. It is quite true that Southern racists have historically been capable of complimenting "articulate" black men in a tone of voice that clearly implies that black men are in general unusually inarticulate; and such a compliment is offensive. But it of course doesn't change the fact that persons who are not Southern racists almost certainly have never used the word "articulate" as anything but a compliment. That set of connotations is a historical accident associated with the particular experiences of a limited group of people.

2. Because different groups of people have different experiences with the same words and phrases, the connotations can vary dramatically, making it practically impossible for a human being to utter any sentence remotely relevant to anything controversial that somebody won't find offensive. For example, Ann Althouse finds it offensive for John Roberts to use sports analogies, because feminists of Ann's (and my) generation are accustomed to perceiving the male use of sports analogies as betraying insensitivity to and disrespect for women. Ann appears to think that Roberts should tell himself, "There will be ladies listening; so I need to avoid sports analogies, since sports are a guy thing." But my young friend Vanessa would find it outrageously offensive and sexist and patronising for Roberts to avoid the use of sports analogies when in the presence of The Weaker Non-Sports-Playing Sex; feminists of her Title-IX generation find the idea that sports are a guy thing to be intrinsically sexist and offensive. So when it comes to the use of sports analogies, Roberts is damned (by Ann) if he does and damned (by Vanessa) if he doesn't.

3. It is the primary responsibility of any well-meaning speaker to express himself with clarity, so that the audience can see precisely what points he is making.

4. Along with this, it is the responsibility of any well-meaning speaker to consider the audience to whom he is speaking, and, if he is aware of any connotations that would render a particular phrase painful or offensive to his audience, to avoid those phrases if other phrases are available. But of course, this assumes that the audience is a reasonably homogenous audience. Where the audience is highly diverse, different sections of the audience will react differently to different phrases, and it becomes more and more difficult for any speaker to find a phrasing that both communicates his point clearly, and keeps from accidentally poking sore points in some portion of the audience. Therefore the more diverse the audience, the more the speaker's responsibility shifts toward clarity of expression and away from inoffensiveness of phrasing. A person speaking to a single individual whose personal history he knows well, can certainly be expected to avoid sore topics and to cater to his friend's pet peeves. A person speaking to the entire nation cannot be asked to avoid everybody's pet peeves at once; it's absurd for Ann to expect John Roberts to pay slavish deference to her pet peeves when by doing so he will violate Vanessa's.

4. But it is the responsibility of any well-meaning listener who hears a word or phrase that could be considered offensive, to take into account the speaker's history and apparent intent, and if there is no good reason to consider the speaker malicious, the listener has no business taking offense. And the broader the audience to whom the speaker addresses himself, the less right the listener has to expect the speaker to cater to the listener's own pet peeves and to the idiosyncratic sensitivies of the listener's subculture.

In the particular case of Captain Ed and Oliver, Oliver has (apparently) a list of compliments that he has heard used as disguised insults, and that he therefore finds offensive in the mouths of white people. On the other hand, most white people of good intent genuinely believe that the opposite of "racist" is "color-blind," and that to have a list of compliments that can only be applied to people who aren't black, is itself to be racist. Therefore if Captain Ed calls a black politician "articulate," Oliver damns the Captain as racist; if Captain Ed refuses to call the man articulate because he's black, others will condemn the Captain for his racism (i.e., his lack of color-blindness).

What the Captain has decided to do is perfectly reasonable for a person addressing the entire, astonishingly diverse American nation, and it is exactly what Roberts decided to do: he said what he wanted to say as clearly as he could, and if people from particular special-interest groups wanted to use the Captain's/Roberts's phrasing as an excuse to be snarky, then they were welcome to their snarkiness, which snarkiness says considerably more about them than it says about the Captain/Roberts. The Captain thinks that Steele is exceptionally articulate (not "for a black guy," but "for a politician," as would agree anybody who had to listen to the Senators' questioning of Roberts); so he said so. If Oliver wants to get his panties in a wad, well, that's his right in America, where even the stupidest speech is free, and where you're free to dislike anybody you want to dislike whether you have any good reason to or not. But there is simply no way Oliver can credibly argue that the Captain intended his remarks in a racist sense. Therefore Oliver fails, dramatically, to fulfill the responsibility of the well-meaning listener in responsible discussion.

Which, to anyone who has read more than about five of Oliver's posts, is anything but a surprise.


At 2:30 PM, Anonymous North by Northwest said...

Ah the fresh breeze of clarity. Thank you for that, Kenny.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Glad it made sense; thanks for reading it.

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