THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!
We’ve probably all been on both sides of situations involving accidental offense. A person makes a comment with a specific idea in mind. But the comment is received in a different and more offensive manner than was intended by the speaker. A few such (possibly true) examples from online forums:
I was talking to a German fellow who explained the common practice of enjoying pork roasts on Sunday in Germany. Trying to continue small talk about pork, I said the first thing that came to mind, “Germany must not have a large Jewish population, then…” You can imagine the horrified look on the man’s face and my embarrassment.
A spoiled elementary-school girl was in the hotel lobby where I work, and she was causing a scene and complaining loudly. When she left the lobby with her parents, I said to my manager, “Geez, she’s a little haughty, huh?” forgetting what that would sound like. That took some explaining.
In both of these cases, the listener had every right to take offense based upon what they heard. But they also would miss what the speaker intended to communicate, and have now assumed a negative posture toward someone who meant nothing inappropriate by their comments.
Whenever we are offended, we have a choice. We can stake our claim to offense and become angry and embittered, or we can ask questions seeking understanding.
WHO DETERMINES MEANING?
When misunderstanding breeds offense, an important question is raised for all forms of communication – who determines meaning? Does the person disseminating information hold the key to their own intentions of communication, or is that power in the recipient’s hands?
It is a massive question that delves into complex matters involving epistemology, literary theory, and even theology. I won’t pretend that the answer to this question is simple or straightforward, but a standard approach taken by both theological and social conservatives has been tied to the principle of authorial intent – that the meaning of statements is determined by the person doing the communicating. So the recipient of the communication must work to discover what was intended by the speaker or author.
What does prioritizing authorial intent look like in real life?
Historical documents: When seeking modern understanding or application of writings from earlier eras, great effort is made to discover the goals and principles of the original authors – it can’t mean now what it didn’t mean then. An example with ongoing practical implications is how to interpret the Constitution of the United States. Originalists contend that the constitution has a fixed meaning, determined by the intention of the founding fathers.
Bible study: The Bible is a historical document, so the same principles would apply as mentioned above. In practice, this would mean that it is never appropriate at a Bible study group to ask, “What does this verse mean to you?” People committed to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures will attest that God had a specific message to communicate in any given passage. Therefore modern Bible readers can’t take a subjective meaning away from a passage intended to convey objective truth. They must discover the intended message of the Author.
Relationships: If a friend or spouse says something offensive, a person concerned with authorial intent will ask clarifying questions in order to discover if that is what the speaker really intended to say, or if there was a misunderstanding.
All the complex philosophical mumbo-jumbo of determining meaning aside, it is fascinating to see how pretty much everyone starts advocating for the importance of authorial intent when THEY are the ones being grossly misrepresented or misunderstood.
TIME AND CULTURE AFFECTS MEANING
Clear communication is hard enough in everyday life. Understanding the speaker’s intended meaning gets even more difficult when generational and cultural barriers enter the picture. A few examples:
- Children in Western culture are taught to maintain eye contact with others in order to show attention and respect. However, the exact same posture communicates blatant disrespect in many Asian nations.
- A teenager raising his middle finger toward his principal would be seen as the pinnacle of inappropriate disrespect, and yet many men jokingly greet their friends in this way without even the slightest intention of rudeness.
- Even words within the same language change meaning over time: gay used to mean happy, awful used to mean something awe-inspiring, and silly once described things as worthy or blessed.
This has an obvious practical implication for effective communication – when generational and cultural differences are involved, the likelihood of misunderstanding and offense increases. To finally get to the crux of this post, this means that white people over the age of 40 should expect occasional misunderstandings when interacting with black people in their 20s. And when that misunderstanding takes place, there’s a choice to make: assume you already know what the young black person means and take offense, or you can ask questions in order to seek true understanding.
AUTHORIAL INTENT AND THE ANTHEM PROTESTS
When a financially struggling, white, elderly Army veteran turns on his television and sees wealthy young black men kneeling during the national anthem, there are many immediately obvious reasons for him to take offense. If my grandpa were still alive today, I imagine it would have been very difficult for him to see these (in his opinion) entitled millionaires disrespecting and disregarding his great sacrifice and service by being unwilling to even bother standing for the national anthem. That’s what the protestors must understand – the act of kneeling seems on the surface to have little to do with police brutality. And a neutral observer can sympathize with how the protests at least initially appear to disregard members of the military who daily live with PTSD and without some of their closest friends because of their service to this country.
But that places us at an impasse.
As long as both sides insist that their pain and their opinion matters more than the experience of the other, we will never make any progress toward unity. And since many of my readers are in the “anti-protest” camp, I’ll direct my two cents toward that side. But of course the “pro-protest” group would do well to follow the same sort of steps – rather than belittling and demonizing the other side, seek to understand where they’re coming from and why.
So when you’re watching a game, see folks kneeling, and begin feeling that anger and resentment bubbling up in you… what might you do?
Ask questions After acknowledging the initial pain caused by seeing this apparent disrespect, take a moment to ask what was meant by the protest. That’s the tricky part about nonverbal and symbolic communication – it is often necessary to ask a question or two in order to understand what was meant. If one of the kneelers say that their actions were meant to belittle America and ridicule veterans, I’ll quickly join you in feeling full fury and I might not ever watch an NFL game again.
But if their answer is something else, I’d encourage you to…
Listen, and believe their answer We don’t get to tell someone else what they mean when they’re communicating – only they know that. To suggest otherwise is arrogant and disrespectful. Every protestor who has explained their motivation for kneeling has gone out of their way to express love of country and appreciation for those who have and are now serving in the military. So when a football player says that their kneeling is done out of respect for the nation and simply intended to initiate a dialogue about the treatment of minorities by certain members of the police, it doesn’t make any sense at all to then respond, “How dare you disrespect our nation and our veterans!”
Remember how symbols and speech change depending on culture and time Older generations would be scandalized by a man wearing a hat indoors, and are clearly offended when folks don’t stand during the anthem. Younger generations would recoil in shock if an older fellow referred to a black person as a “Negro” in line with how they were taught to respectfully speak of African Americans in their formative years. All communication is contextual. Kneeling, for example, doesn’t have a universally recognized meaning of dishonor and disrespect (quite the opposite, actually, which is why we kneel when we’re praying to Jesus or proposing to our girlfriends). Just because you and I communicate respect for our nation by standing does NOT mean that people from a different cultural background intend any disrespect by kneeling. And remember (to beat a dead horse), the standard conservative method to determine meaning is to identify the intention of the one communicating – how the communication makes the recipient feel should be irrelevant when determining meaning.
Engage in substantive and respectful discussion about the actual issue The treatment of African Americans by the police in the United States is THE topic at hand. I’m guessing there are many opinions and various ways of interpreting the data on that issue, even among those of you who are presently reading this column. But regardless of your opinion, there’s a great deal of important dialogue to be had on the issue. So rather than taking offense at something that was never even intended, I’d recommend that you find someone of a different race than you, talk about the salient statistics of race and instances of police violence, crime rates in various places, the role of media, the divergent perceptions of the issue among white Americans and black Americans, and ways to come together for helpful solutions.
TAKE THE FIRST STEP
Regardless of your opinion here, I simply encourage you to recognize that it isn’t healthy for a nation to remain so continuously divided. Press past your offense and be willing to initiate reconciliation and partnership. Not everyone on the “other” side of the issue will respond to your kindness in the way they should, and that’s fine. But there will be some who do, and it could form the first pillar in what might become a rebuilt bridge of unity and shared purpose in our nation.