The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Intent and Interpretation

Communication is a funny thing sometimes... it's amazing how easy it is for the message to get jumbled in between the sender and the receiver. Anybody that played the telephone game as a kid probably knows what I'm talking about.

Unfortunately, when it happens in real life, it starts to get less funny and more irritating very quickly.

Case in point: I happen across a link to a conservative post entitled "This is SICK AND WRONG." Being the curious sort, I click on it to find out just which of the right's many evils this particular post is attacking, and as it turns out it's referring to Planned Parenthood offering Black Friday discounts on abortions. Interesting claim, certainly, but would they really do that?

Luckily, it also provided a source... an article on the pro-life site LifeNews. It said much the same thing as the other post, albeit in a slightly calmer tone. And its source link, thankfully, went to the website of the Planned Parenthood clinic in question, which offered $10 off anything or $5 off emergency contraception for a visit on that particular Friday.

I think that's enough information to show the problem here, but just to make it very clear: the Planned Parenthood site says nothing about abortion. Granted it's a service they offer, but I find it curious that it became the main topic in the two pro-life posts. The message changed from "discounts on our services" to "discounts on abortions", and given that Planned Parenthood's services include more than just abortion, that is a meaningful change. How many other people are now going to argue that Planned Parenthood is trying to market abortions in particular (which is not supported by their website), for example?

It's not really a secret how it happened, though. Most pro-life activists only ever think of one thing Planned Parenthood does: abortions. So their minds take "Planned Parenthood's services" and replace it with "abortion". I can understand where it comes from, even though it remains an inaccurate interpretation.

The real problem is that we can't easily stop that process of interpretation, because everyone does it in one way or another, and sometimes it is valid. Most euphemisms require some interpretation, as do metaphors and similes. A lot of literature studies (at least, what little I remember) essentially revolve around the use of interpretation to derive meaning from literary works. It's not something we can really remove from the way we communicate, nor do I think we should try.

Instead, I think we should try to remember two things when dealing with people: our words will be interpreted based on the way our listener views the world, and we may occasionally interpret someone else wrongly. To put it another way, I think both the source and the listener have responsibilities. The source should think about how the message might be interpreted and, as much as is possible, express that message in a fashion that supports the source's desired interpretation. Likewise, the listener should think about the possible interpretations for a message and should be aware that the correct one and the one they want to be true may be different.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tactics and Compromises

Sorry about last week. I was a little too busy enjoying my Veteran's Day weekend, I guess...

Anyway. I'd rather not go into too many specifics, but this week's commentary is based on a friendly debate I had with some acquaintances. I usually try to avoid having debates in person; most of the time, my opponents in such debates are people I have to live and work with. Particularly given that I usually focus on poking holes in my opponent's argument, no matter which side they argue, I tend to worry about straining relationships.

This also promotes a rather non-confrontational debate style, inasmuch as such a thing is possible. I tend to ask questions a lot - where I think a point the opponent is making is suspect or wrong, I will say something to that effect, but I'll also ask if my opponent understands my criticism and/or how they resolve any contradictions I brought up. Or I'll just ask how they came up with a point that I feel is insufficiently supported - either I learn an argument to justify it that I didn't know before, or they can't come up with something sensible. (Incidentally, that second option, if it happens, usually isn't acknowledged; instead, the attempted justifications just become that much more vague.)

That said, there is a third option for that second question. Namely, that they lie. Or that they repeat ridiculous talking points because they don't know that they're repeating falsehoods, which is only slightly better. Whether through ignorance or malice, my opponent has started to say things that are demonstrably untrue.

At this point you may be able to guess how the debate I mentioned earlier went.

My style tends to break down at this point, frankly. However else I choose to drag it out, I usually end up having to decide between two options: call it a falsehood (and my opponent a liar) and present my alternate opinion, or simply state disagreement but acknowledge that I don't care to argue the point (which usually gets treated as a concession). I've used both, but I usually go with the latter; the only exceptions are topics that I feel very strongly about.

These are also the topics I know the most about. Oddly enough, I'm much less inclined to take a strong stance on something when I'm not sure whether all my facts are accurate and can be cogently presented.

With that said, this is a bit of a problem with my style. It usually does trigger investigations (i.e. I study all the details I wish I'd known hours earlier for the debate) but that doesn't really help me present those points to anyone else. Unfortunately, it's also a problem that I'm not sure I know how to fix, unless I give up on something else - that "non-confrontational" adjective. And at this point, I think that property is more important than calling out every liar I debate. I guess I'll just have to keep an eye on how I'm balancing calling out liars and avoiding direct confrontation.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Libertarianism and Government

I think I've mentioned my conservative Facebook friends... so now I'll switch gears a little and talk about my libertarian Facebook friends.

I identified myself as a moderate liberal earlier - not quite aligned with everything the left wing does while disagreeing with most of the right wing. That said, I think I disagree most consistently with libertarians, as opposed to conservatives or liberals.

I say this mostly because of my reasons for joining the military - namely that I want to do something useful with my life, so to speak. In short, I actually believe that the government, in my own person as well as with the service of others like me, can actually do useful things. I would not still be here if I thought the government was corrupt enough to prevent my service from having a positive impact... a point that this Facebook page, for a radio show titled "The Angel Clark Show", seems to strongly disagree with.

I could spend all day talking about each individual post I can see for several days back, so I guess in the name of keeping this short I'll just talk about libertarianism in general - although I'll try and use some examples from the page.

My problem with libertarian thought is really quite simple. It worked this way when I read Atlas Shrugged, and it seems to work the same way with a lot of other examples. They take the free market's power to an extreme while completely negating the government's.

This means that a lot of what they say is right - anyone who thinks government is above any sort of corruption, or that its agents never abuse their power, probably should read the news. Likewise, anyone who thinks that businesses never do any good for the world or that they're all greedy thieves also needs to look up some examples. In this the libertarians get it right.

That said, those are extreme cases. There are a lot of government officials who can't be bought, or who won't abuse their power - I often harbor a fantasy of inviting people that think otherwise to the training sessions I've seen where we discuss where the lines are drawn, so our commanders can be more sure we're not going to step over them. There are also plenty of businessmen that get paid all out of proportion to the positive impact they have on the world, as well - stories abound of CEOs that get paid absurd salaries for a level of performance that would get me fired. The reality is that either government or the private sector can be good or bad, and I don't think I've seen that many libertarians acknowledge that. Most of the time, I see arguments - like some on the linked Facebook page - which merely say that "hey, the private sector can do this too; stop relying on the government for everything". There's no discussion of which is better or worse in that situation - merely an assumption that the government can't do it well, so the private sector should do it.

Those that do tend to argue that the government tends to be worse than the private sector. That one's debatable. In general, I argue that some things need to be done and that the will or ability simply isn't there in the private sector.

Finally, I'll address the one thread I see on this page in particular... namely that the government is, frankly, an enemy of its own citizenry, either because it wants the prosperous people's money or because it wants to exert more control over everyone's lives.

On one hand, I won't attack it too strongly, because such issues are a valid concern. But like anything else, going too far with them is a bad idea. In particular, I think it's relevant to remind everyone who thinks that the government is that evil that it is, ultimately, still made up of people. The big faceless evil that is the government still has to go home in the evening and do the same everyday things as everyone else... and will be negatively affected like everyone else if things go that far south. They want what's best for the country the same as most of us do, in short.