Alternative title: “the devil is in the details”. :-p
Anyhow, recently I’ve watched from the sidelines (and eventually got involved in, because I’m not immune to SIWOTI Syndrome) a number of discussions which can pretty neatly be summed up as people talking past each other, and projecting the “correct” answers to their arguments onto their opponents’ comments. This happens usually with either extremely emotionally involved topics (or when at some point one side uses an emotionally powerful symbol in an argument), or on topics that tend to run along the same lines whenever they happen (at which point deviations from the usual “script” are often not noticed).
What seems to happen is that people don’t read the specific words and arguments that are actually written down, but rather notice the keywords and key-phrases, and from that construct a statement that fits within the narrative of what they themselves are arguing, and what therefore the opposition should be arguing in response. Sometimes this is caused by sloppy or vague use of language that allows for such projection, but sometimes it happens even when the language is quite precise; and that itself seems to present very interesting problems.
For example, SC is extremely precise/nitpicky/literal/specific in her use of language, both in the way she expresses her own arguments, and in the way she reads other people’s arguments. On the other hand, most of the people she argues with use language much more loosely, sloppily and generically, again both in the way they themselves express their arguments, and in how they read her arguments.
This leads to a handful of scenarios based on this mismatch:
Person A expresses a belief that specific situation X always applies
SC presents Person A with loads of exceptions to specific situation X, and says that believing that it always applies is wrong.
Person A gets insulted by a perceived implication that they’re a bad guy, without addressing the exceptions to X
SC is confused as to why Person A thinks she’s accusing them of being a bad guy, and repeats exceptions to X
Person A reacts by responding that exceptions to X aren’t relevant to what they said, and that SC is stereotyping them as a bad guy.
After several more rounds of this, it turns out that Person A actually meant to express a far more general and basic sentiment Y, of which specific situation X was a specific case, and they assumed that SC was arguing against Y, not against X
Person A makes statement X
Later on in the discussion, Person B uses the fact that Person A made statement X in their argument, but paraphrases statement X roughly, thus inadvertently changing several details (let’s call this statement X’).
SC points out that Person A did not as a matter of fact make statement X’
Person B accuses SC of lying/ignoring facts, because Person A did quite evidently make statement X
SC asks a very specific question X
Person A gives a generic answer to a generic question Y, which applies to situation in question X in principle
Person B gives a specific answer to a specific question X’, which is similar to, but not identical with question X
SC repeats question X
Persons A and B get upset for SC not “liking” their answers to her question and therefore “ignoring” them and being “dishonest”.
the reason I find this fascinating is because it shows how communication often functions at a meta-level beyond the direct and immediate meaning of words themselves. Statements almost always seem to have assumed meanings and literal meanings, and the assumed meanings are often at a meta-level where people who take things more literally (either because they’re just that sort of nitpicky, or because they’re not native speakers and therefore not sufficiently familiar with meta-meanings) don’t pick up on them and therefore will begin an argument about something below the level at which the speaker had meant the argument to be. Conversely, a statement by a literalist read by a generalist would be read much more sloppily, often assuming a more generic, wider meaning than is actually being presented.
The same dynamic seems to appear even between people who use language similarly, when the subject of the conversation is sufficiently emotionally charged. It’s not so much about “taking it personally”, but about having reactions to certain key-words, ignoring the specific and perhaps unusual way in which they are expressed.
A personal example of this would be an argument I had a few years back with an older feminist about abortion. I basically agreed with her on everything, except that my particular position in the argument was focused on making the need for abortion as rare as possible (basically, the”legal, safe, rare” argument, vs. the older “anytime, anywhere, no questions asked” argument). I used lung cancer as a comparison of a situation where we absolutely do give full medical care to people who have contracted the problem, but at the same are having a lot of health-campaigns to reduce smoking, so the problem doesn’t come up in the first place.
She responded that this was a horrible argument, and that I was basically suggesting that we should let cancer patients die on the streets. I imagine that this is because she had interpreted my argument as an anti-abortion argument, and thus the comparison I drew looked differently to her than what I had actually tried to express.
I find this dynamic of conversation very fascinating. I wonder if there’s a way to stop and diffuse these miscommunications as soon as they occur, so as to avoid arguing past each other? I sometimes try to dissect the misunderstanding to show where the misunderstanding is occurring, but half the time it seems people just get insulted by such a dissection (even when I’m not stuffing it full of insults :-p )and accuse me of “telling them what they think”.