Communication matters – and if you take text out of context all you have left is a pretext. Who is speaking to whom and why matters – and there are many words and phrases that mean things other than their literal meaning. Words have also changed their meaning over the course of history, and a lot of confusion can be created when different cultures meet and use the same words for different contexts. A good example here of what happens when you take away context would be the apparent anti semitism in the Gospel of John; the author was writing as a Jew mostly to fellow Jews saying “Look what we did.” Take away that context and reading it encourages people to write vile documents like Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies.
As an aside, this is one reason I write the way I do – I know that I will never meet the whole audience for this blog and likely not visit all the countries I’ve already had readers from – so I attempt to build a narrative that as many people as possible can read. It may make my writing discursive and prone to rambling so I hope you’ll all bear with me.
There are many reasons to communicate, and not all the goals are obvious. To inform, to persuade, to entertain, to communicate how you feel. And that’s without getting into meta-communication (the Autobiography of Malcolm X mentions Martin Luther King mentioning one reason they dealt with him being that they didn’t want to deal with Malcolm X – but if enough people say what is unacceptable, that changes; this is sometimes known formally as the Overton Window).
Illustration: Nice Guys of OK Cupid
To illustrate, I recently read some of the most powerful pieces of feminist writing I’ve ever seen. The unfortunately now deleted “Nice Guys of OK Cupid” (a summary containing a few of the “highlights” – not as powerful as the whole thing due to volume). For those who don’t know, OK Cupid is a dating website.
It was incredibly powerful for two reasons; the first is that it’s the “nice guys” in their own words and in context, thus avoiding charges of misrepresentation. This puts it on a whole different level from essays like Schrodinger’s Rapist which makes very clear points to the already sympathetic but the unsympathetic are going to read it in such a way that the only way it differs from the racist screeds on Stormfront is the target group; it’s not going to turn people positively.
The second is the purpose of the words from our “Nice Guys”. Our nice guys are actively and openly putting their best face forward. And that is the result. It’s not treating the people you dislike badly (as a hell of a lot of internet sexism does). Or even being a jerk to random people even when they should be allies (as the /r/atheism fiasco was – and that was bad enough). The best possible light they can present themselves in is talking about friendzoning and mentioning that there are times women are obliged to have sex. That’s the depressing and horrifying part of the Nice Guys of OK Cupid.
When communication goes wrong: Culture Clash
When people from different cultures meet there’s often confusion and mess, with one of the obvious ones being the clash of ask and guess culture. But an even more interesting and messy place is where the values of one society make the ethics of another meaningless. Sexual ethics are an obvious case here; I have the common belief that worthwhile sexual ethics are based entirely round consent.
This, however, doesn’t hold everywhere. In a lot of cultures women are not supposed to want sex – a man who sleeps around is a stud and a woman a slut. In a few subcultures no one is meant to openly want sex.
Which means that there is a lot of social pressure on the woman to say no even when the answer is yes. Just look at the words to “Baby it’s cold outside” and bear in mind that song was not meant to be creepy in the slightest (although it now reads as incredibly creepy unless you have someone like Cerys Matthews putting an entire butcher’s shop worth of ham in the “mouse” part).
So there are subcultures where “No” isn’t necessarily no and “Maybe” very definitely does mean yes. This normally works in those subcultures – almost everyone understand that the meaning of the conversation isn’t the literal meaning of the words. (And yes, that “almost” covers a lot of problems). The problem this causes when someone within one of these subcultures meets someone outside should be obvious. And it can be taken just one step further (as disturbingly many of the “Nice Guys of OK Cupid” explicitly did) – people can believe because no doesn’t mean no that “A No is just a Yes that needs a little convincing!” Because thanks to fucked up social mores sometimes they are. Jane Austen illustrated how simultaneously ridiculous and disturbing this can become.
When communication goes wrong: Technical Language in the wrong place
In current feminist theory there is something called “Rape Culture” (if you haven’t heard of it, follow the link – it refers to the cultural tendency to normalise sexual violence and is a valuable concept). The concept is useful. The name is what it does. And people have been protesting against the concept through fiction at least since Miguel Cervantes in the early 17th Century. Probably much longer.
However names are important and so are connotations. In this case Accusing people of supporting Rape Culture can have an almost catastrophic effect on discussions with people who haven’t accepted and internalised the concept. If you either do not know or do not accept what rape culture is, being accused of supporting it sounds like being accused of supporting rape. Which is as much of a conversation killer as being accused of supporting Naziism or a few other things. Everyone agrees rape is bad (in the same way that everyone agrees that Hitler was bad – I know there are a few moral vacuums out there). And few people think they are the bad one in a conversation. So directly accusing someone of supporting rape culture will end the conversation for exactly the same reason Godwin’s Law is often seen as having a corollary that the side that compares the other one to Nazis has just lost. Of course Godwin’s law was only meant to cut out trivial comparisons and has been expanded far beyond its intent but some accusations end any chance of even near-polite conversation.
As for how to prevent rape, some people think that the way to prevent it is tell women to cover up; if naked women are the problem I either go with this modest proposal or straight down the line agree with a pithy statement by an obscure first century preacher “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”