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.

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