Oct 17, 2010

On Words and Meanings


Around 10 pm yesterday, I finished reading "The Brothers Bishop", a novel by Bart Yates about two gay brothers, Nathan, 31 and Tommy, 29, and a summer they spend together with Tommy's friends at their childhood home, a cottage in Walcott, Connecticut. The advertizing text for the book, well it spoils it up real bad for the reader, as it says there that "it's a complicated relationship where the couples break up and ends in tragedy". Thus you pick up the book already knowing that there will be a terrible tragedy (or maybe not so terrible, but there will be a tragedy). In the frame of this, the story develops with some already seen techniques to keep the mildly attentional deficit reader engaged from a segment to the other. An easy read, here and there it's evident that it has escaped the grasp pf the writer, with some scenes that seek to be somewhat bold and in-your-face, but overall demure.

A thing that catched me, which is why I'm bringing this book up, is who, in the mixing of "now" and memories, there's this conversation between the Bishops, that links to this topic I want to develop, which I talked about in my previous post. So basically, in their youth, Nathan had a boyfriend, his first boyfriend, his highschool sweetheart, scared away by his father, where basically he told them to never see each other again. Many years later, in this summer, Tommy, known for being absolutely unstable with his boyfriends, replacing them every few weeks for a new model, starts cheeting on his boyfriend - later on discarding him, of course, as the prologue says - with one of Nathan's highschool students. Nathan confronts him, and makes everything in his power to keep the two of them separated, protecting both the boy and his younger brother.

In the fatidic conversation, Nathan's temper gets the best of him, and demands his brother to stay away from the kid. Tommy, naturally denies everything, and then throws at Nathan that he's behaving like their father, and doing to him what their father did back then to Nathan and that first sweetheart of him. It doesn't matter to him what Nathan tells him, that it's not the same because back then that boy and him had the same age, and in their present case they are talking about an adult man and a minor, which means he can be charged with statutory rape. For Tommy it's a matter of his brother acting like his abusive father, trying to hurt him no matter what.

In the light of recent happenings in my life, it got me thinking how in so many circles of our life the words themselves, no matter how well explained they are, get understood in a different way depending on the recipient of them. 

At work it happens, and has happened to me, that a review requesting further detail on a hazy segment, is considered "malignant trampling of other department's work". A workshop ordered by someone above, where a team requests another to explain their work, so they can see in which way can they be of service, is interpreted as an attempt to steal away from them the work and the credit for it. No matter how much you explain that it's an order from above, and you just a) want to make sure everything fits perfectly the set up standards, or b) you are there to help, but you need to understand first what has been done in order to see how can you help them get it to the next level. 

It happens in your relationships, when you say something - anything -  and the other person takes in a way that wasn't what you meant with it. Funnily, this is the usual complain of men about women, so I'll give an example of it. One person asks the other whether somepiece of clothing looks good on him or her. The other person looks at the one asking, the garment, and not knowing what it's supposed to look like, shrugs and says "I don't know about these things". The one asking reacts with a scene about how the other person is this and this and that. The one asked may try to explain, that really, she or he has no idea how is that thing supposed to look like (not everybody spends their lives on Fashion Week), but there's no avail.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that one part is trying to trample the other, or that they have some secret agenda with this whole deal. Now, indeed there are cases - which had happened to me as well - where one party tries to mask as an innocent comment a bitter remark. This is called indirect talking or even sarcasm. How to set appart the two of them? By listening, honestly, objectively, as sarcasm and indirect talking, as well as ill speach gives away on the fluctuation of the tone of voice, as well as in the relating to other events.

However, this distortion in the communication doesn't happen only from one individual to another, but also between an individual and a community, or between communities. These are often much more serious, as the distorted version of the communication gets spread through the community after the reception from one individual. Though all types of communities are prone to this kind of behavior, often it's those under attack that swing the bat at anything remotely looking like a threat, particularly when extremist (and often personally insecure) leaders are at the head of it.

Personally, I'm a keynesian, existentialist, socialist feminist person. In simple words, I believe that economically speaking, the State must ensure that the population has what it needs to live with dignity, offering excelent, free healthcare, excelent, free education, excelent, free infrastructure, and must make sure companies respect at all times the rights of the workers, ensure the pension of the elderly, and that the basic needs, such as food, shelter, water, power and communication is provided at an affordable price to all. Personally, I believe that people should stop blaiming other for their faults and take the responsability of their own lives. Socially I believe that everybody, men, women, black, white, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, etc are all equal. As individuals our selves makes us different from others, but as people, as citizens, we are all equal.

Thinking like that often gets you in a hard spot with people who get an extremist point of view. I recall a case back in the university, where a feminist teacher of mine got a kick out of constantly diminishing men in class. She didn't pointed out at our male classmates and called them stupid or anything of teh sort, but constantly made comments refering to alleged scientific proves (oddly none of these scientific investigations were handled out for us to confirm) that showed that women were more empathic, therefore mentally and intellectually more developped than their male counterparts, or that women are capable of using both sides of the brain while men only one side.

Once she was making a case out of stating that men are insensitive, therefore their lives is less intense, less rich than that of women, because they can't feel and then whatever they feel they can't express. Thus their capability to understand poetry, sociology and life in general is quite limited. It upset me first because she was making a hurtful distinction within the frame of feminism, where she was seeking to state that women are better than men, which is exactly the behavior men had towards women for ages, and against which feminism has been struggling. Then, also because I knew it not to be true. Unafraid and outspoken - characteristics that became my banner through those blessed years - I stood up and actually dared to tell the teacher that I believed men and women to be equall. We both have a brain composed of two hemispheres, and we both learn to speak and interact in society, and as a matter of fact, I happen to know that men are also people capable of feeling and expression, just like any woman. In one word "we are not better than they are".

Needless to say that I was publicly processed for being anti-feminist and given my condition of woman, it was even bigger a shame. Well, I didn't know that being a woman was a condition, I thought it was my gender. Being publicly berated wasn't a pleasant feeling, but it did made me feel good when at the end of the class a classmate come to me and said "Thank you for defending us".

There's the matter of standing by what you believe, and pledging for a group. Standing for what you believe is harder, particularly because you can be pulling in the same direction groups do, whether it be, equal rights for men and women, equal rights for gay and straight, respect for animal rights, protection for the environment, but some groups and some individuals in a group may have extremist positions, that you do not share, that do not go with your believes, and thus, even though you fight for the same cause, they seek to destroy you as an enemy. The feminist acuse you because you refuse to partake in the denigration of men, the gay rights activist wants to rip you a new one, because you'd like the straight people to enjoy the same rights gay people have (in some countries they give more rights to the unmarried gay couples because they can't marry, but refuse those rights to the straight couples who don't wish to marry) and that, in their eyes is "taking away their rights". The animal rights activist calls you a hypocrite because you fight against animal cruelty, but you are not a hard core vegetarian. (Honestly I wasn't aware that me liking lamb roast and fighting against people who beat their pets or poison other people's pets, or kids who find it amusing to torture small animals were two mutually excluding attitudes.) 

It's suddenly a Salem Witchhunt case where if you don't blow your head and nod obediently, praise every word whether stupid or not, you are an enemy, a spy, a witch. In these cases it's not a matter of the concept you wish to express, because a few words used, taken often out of context, work as a platform to distort the message, rob it from content and make, from those picked out words, a new message filled in with a different content. In a narrow vision, a narrow box of thoughts rules, and anything that doesn't fit with the predeterminated, preapproved message, is all against it. But is it?

Only by calmly studying the message, by listining to it integrally and deducing the content, the meaning from it, shall we know.

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