Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Contextual Sound-bites

I've had a rather odd response to a piece I wrote for the National Catholic Register. A large proportion of the comments seem to be based on a basic misunderstanding of what I'm trying to say -- which is in a lot of ways neither here nor there, except that it points towards a larger problem with the ways in which we contextualize, or fail to contextualize, things that we hear or read.
To put things in context: I'm the sort of person who despises sound-bites. I rarely read anything as short as a magazine article, or a single blog entry for that matter, because I'm always very much aware of the fact that in any brief piece of writing -- particularly one that has been edited down to fit a publication's word-count limits -- you're looking at a truncated snap-shot of the author's thought. Anything that can be said in less than 1200 words is an oversimplification.
Anything that can be said in a single book is also an oversimplification. Even Marx's Kapital is probably an oversimplification, though I'll admit that I never had the scholastic fortitude to tackle it. I'm generally pretty uncomfortable saying "so and so says such and such" if I've only read one of their works -- I like the maximum possible range of contextual information in order to make coherent sense out of a writer's words.
Yet, you can't get away from it. A lot of readers read and think in single sentences or phrases that are taken literally, for their surface value.
Probably it's a matter of different neurologies: brains that are designed to process information in different ways. A form of legitimate human diversity -- but one that makes communication fraught with frustration. To me, it is simply impossible to write or communicate at all unless you can assume a certain amount of context: if you're writing a Catholic article, for a Catholic audience, you don't need to go over the obvious (i.e. "same sex marriage is not the same as opposite sex marriage" or "scripture is inerrant.") These are axiomatic-type statements, givens, things that are generally assumed as part of the discourse. Obviously, if you were writing the same article for Secular Humanist Monthly, you couldn't assume those things. You probably couldn't even argue in their favour, but that's beside the point.
Having the givens given means that you don't have to write yet another version of that tedious "The Natural Law Argument against Gay Sex" article that we've all read seven thousand times. It means that you can go a little further afield. It saves our publications from all becoming like Women's World (I have conducted an informal study and have come to the conclusion that only seven articles have ever appeared in Women's World. Ever. The only thing that changes is the superficial hook -- e.g. the same "how to lose weight by eating less food, less sugar, less fat, but still having a small desert on Sunday" article might be called "The University of Texas Miracle Diet" or "Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight" or "Joli-Rhian's Super Diet Secret." Also, the models' hairdos wax and wane with the fashion seasons.) It means that you can assume a common foundation and build from there.
But it only works if you can assume the common foundation. This is my problem with the Catholic sound-bite folks. They seem to be like heresy sharks swimming about the internet, looking for isolated statements that aren't sufficiently complete in their orthodoxy. "Hey! This writer seems to have said, earlier in the article, that she believes in the Catholic position on homosexuality. But here she is quoting a gay source without using scare quotes or words like "putatively" or "allegedly" or referring to the sinister "gay agenda." Surely it means that she is actually arguing in favour of homosexual "marriages." Better correct the error before someone is scandalized."
The problem becomes worse -- exponentially worse -- if you use literary devices. Humour. Sarcasm. Irony. Tongue-in-cheek pseudo-quotation. Storytelling. Example. Parable...
Sigh. Where's Derrida when you need him?

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Selmys,

    Thank you for this post. This is certainly a very frustrating phenomeon that serves as an impediment to thoughtful dialogue.

    After reading both your piece for NCR and your post "Boys Not Wanted on the Voyage," however, I have to say that the latter is clearer in the point that you are trying to make. A hybrid between the two might have better served the point you articulated in your latest comment in the NCR piece. Or just the latest comment in the NCR piece- which means the reaction/discussion actually helped clarify the purpose and wasn't so negative after all.

    Finally, I would like to say that I would like to see your blog posts expand to more things unrelated or only tangentially related to homosexuality. Though those posts are always thoughtful and interesting, I appreciate your thoughts on a wider variety of matters (from what I have seen thus far) and would like to continue to read them.

    Thanks.
    Anamaria

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