Friday, May 05, 2006

Emotional versus Actual Content.

A "Far Side" cartoon showed two identical panels of a man complaining at his dog, with only the word balloons different. In the left panel, the man was explaining to “Ginger” exactly what had upset him. The balloon in the right panel, representing what the dog was hearing, said “Blah, blah, blah, GINGER, blah, GINGER. Blah, blah, GINGER, blah, blah.”

The emotional content of a statement can overwhelm the actual meaning of the words. CS Lewis noted in The Screwtape Letters what fun the devil can have with this, getting people to use tones of voice for maximum damage, then backpedalling to the blandest content when challenged. “All I asked was what time dinner would be ready.” We can all imagine the symphony of ways that innocent question could be said which would be insulting.

Some of us are very insistent that the simple word meanings be regarded as the foundation on which all other meanings are only additions. This is particularly true in any abstract discussion. If you want to communicate volumes with catchphrases, sounds, and lifts of the eyebrow, save it for private conversation. In public discourse, the accepted meanings of words are all we can refer back to. We can suggest but not recreate tones of voice on the page, and even video can leave out important context.

I find when conservatives are accused of inflammatory or even hate speech, it usually traces back to this phenomenon of mis-hearing. I have read the complaint that Limbaugh accuses the left of treason, and of being on bin Laden’s side in the WOT. Well, listen louder. I think people are hearing “Blah, blah LIBERALS, blah, blah TREASON, blah, GINGER, blah,” and believing they know what is being said. But when you track down the actual quote, with a minute or so of the context before and after, something different is being said. I catch a few minutes a day of Rush at lunchtime going back to 1988, and occasionally have been able to listen for longer stretches. What is much more likely is that he will quote Osama, then quote Ted Kennedy or Howard Dean, and note the similarities between the statements. He will then play on this theme for several minutes, taking phrases apart, referring back to earlier statements by either, and sum it up several times. “the Democrats and bin Laden are saying the same thing about America. Both are saying that it’s our own fault. You people have got to understand, they are not on our side.”

That’s a conclusion that can be argued with, if you like. You can make distinctions that agreeing with A does necessarily imply agreeing with B, or that the host is overinterpreting. But the statement, though alarming, could be defended and evidence has been offered. Making the counteraccusation that Hannity or Coulter say that liberals are traitors is a misrepresentation.

1 comment:

Mark said...

No it isn't. It's what they say.