I have reflected elsewhere on the limitations of language in regards to decrypting the intentions of other human beings. It has occurred to me recently that for all of my awareness of the limitations of language as a narrow aperture through which we may impute the intentions and meanings of another person, my own words here (and elsewhere) may just as often be entirely misappropriated or misinterpreted. This is, I imagine, an inevitable consequence of the world we live in; where we are not necessarily sure we can trust the people we actually know, let alone those we don’t and with whom we may digitally engage across cities, countries and even across the planet on a regular basis.
In a context where all that we have to interpret the meanings and intentions of other people are their words, little wonder there is so much confusion, anxiety, distrust and the subsequent emergent online extremities of miscommunication; inauspicious omens of suffering characterised by ignorant trolling and unwarranted aggression. The preponderance of online miscommunication is not in many ways any different to those situations in which we misinterpret the words, gestures and actions of people we explicitly know in ways unintended; it is just that in the digital world we are limited to interpretations based on words fundamentally lacking in the communicative tincture of nuance, inflection, facial expression or gesture. Abstracting the emotional response from a purely written interchange can be as difficult online as it can be in person and this perhaps indicates something of the similar neurophysiological or deep cultural bases shared by these alternative vectors of communication and message delivery. Our hard- (and soft-) wired responses and reflexes to communication and messages received through any channel are at base very similar; rationally we may know the difference but affectively, emotionally, the experience remains almost identical, tangible.
This represents another problem of communication: where words are offered in kindness and peace it can sometimes be just as logical to interpret them in ways conditioned by our experience, memory and expectations; here, yet again, we find that human psychology – that wondrous pulsating matrix of self and that with and from which we construct our whole reality and world of language and meaning – can be just as much a hindrance to communication as can be the words with which we are limited to interpret and inform the world. In a world so deeply and unfortunately characterised in so many ways by fear and uncertainty it is perhaps inevitable that we should so often choose to interpret things negatively, if only at first, as a necessary act of self-preservation and personal or collective security. This may be sensible in some measure but when we become so attached to the negative expectations and interpretations that we might become unwittingly blind to good intentions and gestures, we proceed to shroud both ourselves and the world we experience in these dark and potentially misleading distortions of the intended message we have received.
I wonder if the (common enough) behaviour of misinterpretation and misattribution of intent and meaning in other people is just as easily attributable to ourselves. Do we really know and understand why we ourselves do the things we do ? Is the act of self-interpretation, of reading meaning into the narrative of our own acts, hopes, our own fears, assumptions and translations of the world – is this as prone to error as is our interpretation of the words and actions of others ? Probably. We similarly possess such a small functional aperture into our own minds and motives, a small window of time into working memory and the recent past such that those facts of experience of which we are most certain quickly become those things which we believe to have happened and then this, perhaps more rapidly than we would at first choose to acknowledge, fades to matters of generalised probability, estimation and eventually – pure fabrication.
For these reasons and despite all best intentions, I can no better understand why you act and say what you do than I can understand why I myself act and say what I do. I can certainly interpret things in different ways and then construct clusters of concepts and meanings around them – whether they are internal to my mind or experienced from the external, phenomenal world of perception. I can build favourable or preferable interpretations and then perhaps as an inevitability of psychological function become attached to those, regardless of whether that cluster of concepts and words I build around myself, or around you, is necessarily or even plausibly true.
In a world such as this where we all have our guards up most of the time in response to the more bleak realities of life, we would still do well to remember that goodness, sincerity and honesty still exists within others and, perhaps most importantly, within ourselves. It is in the creative interpretation of the world that we actually make this world; it is in the interpretation of the words and acts of others that we build and construct them as images, concepts and clusters of ideas in our minds. This is also how we build ourselves and our subjective beliefs out of nothing into something through the progressive historical sedimentation of structure and pattern. Beyond the biases and experiences of our own individual pasts or peculiarities of cultural and historical locale, there always remains a certain amount of volition or choice in the psychological palette we use to paint (darkly grey or brightly colourful) this reflexive picture of our selves, of our world and of others.
“Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet.