Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Flattened Context Of The Internet, Implicature, And Political Discourse

Imagine you're having a political conversation with someone and they say these things:

"You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too."


"Racism in America? It's not really any worse now than it was before."

Question: What do you think the speaker means in expressing these sentences?

Here's what I think. I think there is no answer about what the speaker means, because to know the answer you'd have to know the context. This is something we've all known forever, and yet something we seem to be constantly forgetting.

For example, first imagine that the conversation is about the nature of racism in the US. Many people, especially people of color, have recently been pointing out that what might look like an explosion of racism in the US in the past year or so is better understood as bringing to the surface, and thus to more people's attention, deep pernicious attitudes and widespread injustices that have always been there.

Expressing a related idea, in this interview in the Guardian, the actor Aldis Hodge talks about his experience of racism in the US and the art he is now creating to expose racism and make people confront it. Toward the end, he talks about how he thinks the past year has exposed problems that have been there all along: 

"When people ask if it’s gotten worse, they ask from the perspective of not having understood the reality," he says. "Harmonia (his co-creator) is an African woman; I’m a black man. This is not different for us ... I was raised with being taught how to speak to cops so I don’t lose my life at a young age. We’ve always dealt with police brutality. I don’t walk around without being aware of my surroundings. It is the people who have not been affected or targeted who are starting to say: ‘Wow, is this what really goes on in this country?’"

In the context of this conversation, one could easily use the second sentence to express what Hodge and others have said, and one could then easily use the sentence about Obama to make the broader claim that US racism is not only domestic but also international.

Now imagine that it's a different conversation, this time about whether the current US administration is any worse than the former. Many people feel that even if racism has always been there, and even if US foreign policy has always been involved in unjust killing, there are still important senses in which current policies and the current president are worse -- perhaps outrageously so -- than what came before. 

It's an emotional and deeply felt topic, for real reasons related to party politics, lesser-of-two-evils thinking, and actual impacts on vulnerable people's lives. If someone makes the argument that things are now bad in some special way, and their interlocutor uses the two sentences above, that interlocutor could plausibly be taken to be denying what the first person said.

Thus, in the context of this conversation, one could easily use the first sentence to mean something like "Meh, don't get all upset about the Dreamers or the people losing health insurance or whatever. It doesn't matter whose in charge. The two parties are basically the same." And one could easily use the second to try to support that claim, by denying that new pernicious racist effects have been created by this administration in particular.

I hope it's obvious that the two meanings, in the two different contexts, are radically different. I bet a lot of people who agree with one of them would not agree with the other.

The fancy name for this is "implicature," but it's also part of everyone's common sense about how people communicate. We all know that if we're reading a letter of recommendation for a job as a prof or lawyer or doctor and the recommender says, "During the year I knew X, they always showed up on time," that would be very peculiar and would suggest that the reviewer didn't have enough good things to say. It would not be a positive. But if we were reading a teacher's report about a teen who was struggling with lateness and had recently gotten things on track, it could be a completely appropriate piece of praise. Context not only affects interpretation, it affects what is said, meant, and heard.

The problem is -- as we all know -- the internet. As we've discussed, the internet flattens all context. Everything is treated like it's your final, context-free opinion on everything. You might think you're having the first conversation, and then someone comes along and doesn't see the context, or ignores it, and treats your comment as if it is part of the second conversation.

In the absence of context, I think we try to fill things in by taking statements to be relevant to whatever we think is the most salient and important overall context. Among other things, one result is that anything you say is taken to indicate that you think the things you're talking about is the most important thing to be talking about. But why? Can't you have an opinion about X without meaning to suggest X is the most important thing going? Then, too, you feel you have to be at-the-ready to respond and clarify what you did and didn't mean. I admire the people on Twitter who express complicated opinions and then go on and do just that, sometimes for hours on end.

Anyway, personally, I think it is important to talk about how racism has always been a problem in the US, and about how bad policies go way back, and sometimes in that connection I sometimes want to say things like "You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too." But because of our political situation, I hesitate -- because I fear I'll be interpreted as having expressed the meaning of the second argument.

Sometimes, a long blog post or actual article can, in fact, help with context and interpretation, so it is disturbing to feel our collective patience for that sort of thing dwindling and narrowing. Of course, from the point of view of the attention merchants, all this chaos is plausibly a feature, and not a bug, so I'm not expecting things to get better any time soon.

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