Monday, October 1, 2012

Ally School IV: Interpretation, Intent and History

As a writer I am responsible for my words.  If my article is repeatedly misinterpreted and material I thought inoffensive slammed as insulting, I can complain about being misunderstood. I can offer non-apology apologies ("I am sorry people chose to see their own prejudices in my work" etc.) I can accuse my critics of bias and censorship: I can even make snide remarks about political correctness run amok.  But at the end of the day I did not get my desired message across, and hence I failed at my job.

"But you can't control how other people interpret what you say!" some may protest.

Writers do it all the time.  We create arguments for or against our chosen causes: we tell stories to make you laugh or bring a tear to your eye. And we're hardly alone. Artists and musicians create desired moods on demand; advertising executives and salespeople make sure you see things their way; politicians and activists make speeches designed to persuade the skeptical and rouse the passionate.  All this suggests that it is indeed possible - and important - to influence how others see and hear you.

In writing, intent is useful for setting goals and objectives.   Who is my intended audience and what do I intend to say? My writing succeeds insofar as I reach those people and communicate my points persuasively.  If I fail to do that, my intent doesn't matter.  I am expected to maintain control of my narrative and to provide as few opportunities as possible for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. To that end I have to keep in mind not only "what do I intend to say?" but also "how is it likely to be heard?" I must understand not only my subject matter but also my audience.

If you've ever participated on an online forum, you've probably seen a few flame wars.  These lengthy arguments are generally marked by cool cycles.  Just about everybody has forgotten the original incident: a few tentative bridges have been built and participants are slowly moving on to other things.  Then an innocent newcomer chimes in with a passionate statement on the topic. The lighter fluid hits the smoldering coals. And everybody groans as the battle begins.  JoeNoob had no idea he was going to start so much trouble: he just ran afoul of history.

(Of course, Joe may be your average garden variety troll feigning innocence while making deliberately offensive statements.  As a result, JoeNoobs are generally met with suspicion and outright hostility.  In a similar vein, quite a few white people make jaw-droppingly racist comments then claim with wide-eyed outrage that they never meant such a thing and only the most militant race-baiter could ever claim otherwise.  So if your well-intentioned comment gets a frosty reception, consider this yet another history lesson.   Fairly or unfairly, the present is judged in light of the past).

All those online disputes pale next to America's ongoing struggles with race.  We have the great and infamous atrocities -- the Trail of Tears, the Middle Passage, Jim Crow -- alongside ongoing daily indignities. If we are going to communicate across our divisions, we need to keep that history in mind.

"But my ancestors didn't kill Indians or own slaves!" I hear again, along with a few anecdotes about how horribly those ancestors were discriminated against.

You can relax, because nobody said they did.   I have no way of exploring your family history and no particular desire to do so.  I can't tell whether your great-grandfather was an Abolitionist or a Klansman. Neither can anyone else you encounter in your daily life.  Which means that for better or worse you have to live with the fact that you look an awful lot like people who committed a fair share of atrocities.  And you have to take this into account when dealing with people whose ancestors were on the receiving end of those atrocities.

And you're absolutely right, it's not fair. It sucks. It's like having someone assume you might be a criminal based solely on the color of your skin.  (Except of course it's a lot less likely to get you killed by a police officer or sent to prison).  But ya gotta play the hand you're dealt.

Of course, it may be that I was mistaken in taking you at your word.  Many people use "I can't control how people interpret what I say" as shorthand for "I can't be bothered to take other people's feelings into account." If that was what you meant, you're probably not going to get a lot out of this series.  I'm not going to try to persuade you otherwise or condemn you: I'm neither your mother nor your confessor.  Odds are you will be able to continue your reign of insensitivity unchallenged: there's no law against being boorish or rude.

On the other hand, you may not.  Should your comments or your behavior result in an EEOC complaint, your HR director is going to be far more concerned with what you said than what you meant.  While your buddies may pat you on the back and join you in condemning reverse racism and humorless bitches, that isn't going to repair the damage to your career.  More worrisome perhaps are the social opportunities you miss, the friends you never make, and the people you drive away.  You may think you're a courageous crusader for truth: don't be surprised if others decide you're just another loudmouthed asshole and treat you accordingly.