Monday, December 1, 2008

Mea Culpa

I apparently have depths of liberalism in me that I didn't realize I had. I find that I have this urge to apologize in agonized (and agonizing) tones to anyone who will listen, even though it wasn't really my fault. So, I want you to picture me in a large fireplace somewhere, sitting in (cold) ashes, wearing a hair shirt, hair side in, sitting in a lotus position, fingers delicately posed on my knees, imploring the gods to strike me with lightening, or at least a had cough.

Mea Culpa, for those of you who don't keep up with your Latin, means "my bad." I caused distress to someone who didn't deserve it. There. I've said it. I feel so much better. It all has to do with the incident I described in my last blog, but I note that I wasn't sufficiently humble about the whole thing; not nearly enough groveling.

See, this person was deeply distressed at the sight of President-elect Obama being hanged in effigy. And the distress was caused, not by the fact that she is a Democrat (though she may well be), but because she well knows the history of lynching African-Americans.

Which thing I didn't even think about at the time. And there's where I went wrong. The image of President-elect Obama hanging is an ambiguous one: it has two possible interpretations. One: Presidential candidate. Two: African-American. In normal circumstances, we see only one of the two; that's what makes ambiguity such a linguistic pain in the butt. The sentence, "Visiting relatives can be tedious" (courtesy of, I think, Noam Chomsky), has two interpretations, but we will usually only see one.

Unless you're a professional in communication, in which case you have a duty to see all the ways anything you write might be interpreted. And I didn't. What followed was that I missed a wonderful opportunity to use this incident to talk about ambiguity and the problems that it can cause. And that's what really hurts.

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