Doing the Right Thing Wrong

August 9, 2011

Some people see dead people. Some people see stupid people. I see the Tower of Babble – every day – everywhere.

People speak and write, cajoling and persuading with words; words that do not mean the same thing to the persuader and the persuaded.

We all speak the same language here?

Or not. This may be a personal quirk – faulty wiring arcing in the recesses of neurosis. Or it may be reality.

Some days I sit in awe totally amazed language works at all. We (at least I) forget we come to conversation with private collections of words and phrases. We bring dictionaries filled with definitions all our own. It seems a miracle that mostly we get, if not exactly then close enough, what other people want us to get.

Consider – I started reading an article about the right thing and got the right thing wrong.

How could I get something as important as the right thing wrong? Not a right thing or that right thing or the what-bad-people-don’t-do right thing, but The Right Thing.

How can something as important as the right thing not signify the same right thing to everyone?

I did not disagree with the author in conscience but the thing that is the right thing in my head follows a completely different orbit; inhabits a completely different star system than the thing that is the right thing referred to in the post.

Seth Godin posted an article explaining why we cannot expect business to make ethical decisions (because people, not businesses make ethical decisions). He refers to ethical decisions as doing the right thing. I’d read half the article, struggling to connect the dots, before realizing my right thing was the wrong right thing for the article. Fortunately, the context explicitly defined what Seth meant by doing the right thing – that is, doing what is good for community.

Kudos to writers who define terms in context. Too many writers and speakers assume phrases ignite identical cognitive responses in each audience member; a cognitive response identical to that of the speaker/writer.

Once I read what he meant by the right thing, dots connected. I grokked his message and as usual, agreed with his conclusions. But why did he need to define the right thing for me? It seems natural (to me) that we define some concepts outside the enigmatic complexity of language – concepts, like the right thing, that affect everyone – individuals, communities and cultures – to the core. Why do we allow symbols of our most important ideas margin enough to evoke different responses in every mind?

We all speak the same language here?

Or not. We cannot avoid the ambiguity.

All our words, context to context, situation to situation, profession to profession and person to person consistently change connotation. The word God in my head, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so, evokes scope and character different than the same word in your head. When I read Free, Freedom, Free Press or Free Lunch my synapses fire different sequences than yours.

The ubiquitous flux of language, perpetual shifting of nuance by situation and disparity of definition between people from diverse backgrounds should put us on constant alert for linguistic confusion. Yet, people surge forward without clarification and casually jump on bandwagons when words sound right. Later, when we feel betrayal because intention and interpretation did not sync, we explain it away.

“I did not know it would be like that.”

“It was not what I signed up for.”

And then we do it again.

People acquire enemies and waste debate not because they disagree with premise but because words look wrong. A phrase may unintentionally leave a bad taste. More often, when usage confuses, we go defensive, focussing energy on criticism instead of comprehension. Battles and feuds follow, fueled by conflict of lingo.

Accepting the ambiguous nature of language leads to uncommon awareness. Understanding the way meaning changes as circumstance changes brings responsibility. It falls to those who know how language works to promote precise usage. Beware. Pursuing accurate language leads to unpopular paths. People who fail to grok inherent ambiguity in language resent those who ask for clarification and react as if insulted that we should ask for explanation.

Sometimes I swear I can almost hear them think …

How don’t you know what I mean? Did I stutter?

Or are you stupid?

We all speak the same language here, don’t we?

© 2011 Chrome Poet


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