I've recently had some experiences that, to me, illustrate a fascinating discrepancy between what people express and how other people perceive these expressions. These experiences have got me reflecting on how amazing it is that humans can even communicate on anything more than the most basic levels (i.e., "need food now," "want sex now," "you go away now," "you come here now," "no," "yes," etc., like some stereotyped cave-dwelling hominid).
The first example is based on the experiences I've had just about every quarter of the course I teach. I start every quarter by reading academic articles on the topic of sustainability, and I explain to my students that, yes, these articles approach their topics from a relatively abstract, philosophical perspective, but I start the quarter this way--in the clouds, so to speak--because over the course of the quarter we're gradually going to ground these abstractions in the specific lived experiences of specific community members. The theory and philosophy we learn at the beginning of the quarter will help inform the practical knowledge that we'll be gaining, and the practical knowledge will also be seen to exist within a broader context of history, culture, theory, etc. My personal view here is that both the theoretical and the practical are incomplete without one another.
Pretty much every quarter, at least a few students in the class critique these articles because they don't identify practical examples of sustainability-in-action.
The dynamic in my courses, then, is that in spite of the fact that I tell students that what they're about to read will be heavy on theory and light on practice, and that we'll be working our way, very purposefully, toward practice, some students still feel the need to critique the articles along these lines. Student critiques also arise in spite of the fact that the authors have stated clearly in their articles their thesis, purpose, and approach.
Such critiques are, to me, like critiquing a history of the American Civil War because it doesn't go into detail about the Crusades, or like critiquing an apple because it doesn't taste like an orange.
I realize that many senior undergraduates are still in the process of learning how to really read and understand academic articles (I speak from direct personal experience here), and I'm not writing this post to lament higher education. However, I am fascinated that in spite of my own and the authors' clear and repeated expressions that these articles won't be providing practical examples, many students still expend (waste?) their time formulating such critiques.
Another example stems from a conversation I recently had with a good friend on the topic of this post of mine. We weren't discussing the content of this post per se, but, rather, the definition of atheism itself.
In the post, I very purposely, very deliberately, and, I thought, very clearly defined what I meant by the word "atheism." Atheism is a loaded word in our culture, so I wanted to make it explicitly clear how I defined it so that the contentious discussion that followed wouldn't become mired in meaningless posturing among discussants who did not define their terms clearly. That is, if someone wanted to engage me in that discussion and used the definition of atheism that I offered, we could have a meaningful discussion; if someone wanted to critique my definition of atheism, we could also have a meaningful discussion; however, if someone came to the conversation with an implicit definition of "atheism" and failed to express this definition explicitly, then the discussion would be meaningless because I would be saying "apple apple apple" and he or she would be hearing "orange orange orange," and vice-versa.
So, the discussion with my friend progressed along the apples vs. oranges track for quite a few minutes until I realized that my friend was talking about a completely different definition of atheism. My friend's definition was that atheism itself was a religion and by self-identifying (even in the qualified way that I did) as an atheist I was being as hard-headed as other religious fundamentalists.
However, I did not define atheism in the way that my friend was defining it. My definition was: "disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings."
That's it -- that's where I began my discussion: From a clear, concise position. I then built a more nuanced argument that qualified my "belief" in atheism with my "belief" in agnosticism, in which I also defined agnosticism very clearly.
I may be running the risk, dear reader, of distracting you from the purpose of this post, so before you find yourself wanting to berate me for spiritual beliefs that you disagree with or lambasting me for teaching a class that focuses on the New World Order notion of "sustainability," I'll bring the discussion back to a clear focus:
- Regardless of how clear and concise some people try to be in their expressions, some people are likely to read-in to these expressions, and often this reading-in will take these other people very far afield from the purpose, scope, and intent of the original words.
I'm not saying here that I'm immune to this dynamic; I could provide examples of where I've done the distracting reading-in to someone else's words. However, such a dynamic as I identify above seems to me like a waste of all of our time (at least at times).
Relating this to the field of history, if I were to read-in to my sources whatever I thought or wanted to see there, I wouldn't be an historian at all, I would be a polemicist, or a propagandist, or an ideologue, or something like that. The discipline of history involves learning the fundamental research and analysis tools to interpret historical sources, for sure, and to try to understand the lives and times of other groups of people, but not to read-in to my sources whatever I want to so as to confirm whatever point I already had in mind. If this were the case then one wouldn't need to go to school to learn the discipline of history, one could just sit at home on the Internet and make stuff up about alien visitation, lizard people, Atlantis, moon landing cover-ups, etc.
The moral of my tale is this:
- True communication comes from actually listening to what other people have to say, not projecting our own versions of reality onto others, so we'll all be better off the more that we can take a step back from a given statement or piece of writing and give other people the respect of actually hearing and trying to understand what they're actually expressing.
(In reviewing what I just wrote, I realized that I've just spent a lot of extra words re-stating the Golden Rule. Go figure.)
 Oh, wait -- there are people doing this already (but I'm not going to link to any of this nonsense from here).