Monday, May 25, 2015
Many uses of the word obvious are in fact not obvious. I don't think this a mere rhetorical device to shame the listener into agreement, though I believe that is also present. Something subtler about cognition is happening here. Perhaps I should write to Steven Pinker, or John McWhorter, or Jonathan Haidt about this.
The expected meaning, that the speaker intends, is that something is so clear that it requires no further comment or evidence. He was wearing an obviously-fake disguise. That is, if you saw it, you would instantly agree that it is not a convincing disguise. I came to the obvious conclusion that Stella had not come home that evening. The information I have presented, that there were no footprints in the snow or tire-tracks in the driveway is enough evidence by itself. It was obvious my arrival was unexpected. There was no place set for me, and everyone looked surprised as I came in. In all cases a painstaking case might be made, but the instantaneous apprehension of the truth is a central piece.
But consider some recent usages about public figures:
Roger Goodell obviously doesn't wan't this to go to court.
Obviously, Hillary Clinton doesn't want us to see what's in those emails.
It's obvious we should never have invaded Iraq in 2003 (or obvious we should never have left in 2011, depending).
People make pronouncements like this all the time. They may even be the majority of our everyday uses.
Any of these statements might be true, but what they emphatically are not is obvious. People disagree with them. Different people see different things. This is not, or not always, a mere ruse, either. In both the legitimate and illegitimate cases the speaker "just sees," all in a moment. The experience of understanding immediately is what seems to prompt the use of the word "obviously," not its unassailability in logic. Something fits our narrative or expectations so neatly that nothing more need be said.
Sometimes we're wrong.
In the first years of this blog one of my most common themes was to reflexively question what everyone "just knows," because those are almost by definition the areas that no one is actually thinking about very much.
Added: Gay marriage is a particularly good example of people saying "obviously," and sometimes quite unable to see any other side. One group presumably says it's obviously okay because they know some nice gay people, and it seems similar to prejudice against blacks. The other (I guess, but with some evidence) believes it's obviously wrong because it is historically almost unheard-of, and has no possibility of resulting in reproduction, which is the natural function of all creatures. When these sort of standoffs occur, I have deep suspicions of anyone who still says "Well, obviously..."
Posted by Assistant Village Idiot at 1:46 PM