On The Context-Dependent Nature Of Communication

Earlier today I found myself reading an interesting interaction of the kind that frequently goes wrong where a woman approvingly posted a message from a man to his sons about their taking responsibility for their actions and not trying to blame others for their own faults of character and absence of integrity in dealing with women.  Quite naturally some men posted that while they agree with this message insofar as it exists, that there are also different messages that are and should be sent to girls about not making themselves an easy target.  What tends to go wrong in situations like this is that the two messages are not contrary to each other but instead complementary, and there are messages that it is easier to give when one is dealing with an audience that is easy to relate to but harder to give in mixed company where things can be easily misunderstood and weaponized in a way that is contrary to the intents of the messenger.  Communication is hard, and the context-dependent nature of messages can often make such messages harder.

What was the goal of the original writer sending an (unfortunately public) message to his sons?  He likely had several goals.  For his sons, he wanted to communicate a message that they were going to be held responsible for their actions no matter how inappropriately someone else behaved.  No matter how easy of a target someone makes themselves, you are not justified in taking advantage of them.  Someone’s provocation does not induce you to respond to it.  As a human being you are responsible for controlling your own behavior regardless of how provocative someone else’s behavior is.  They are, of course, to be held responsible for their provocation separately, but not in a way that excuses you from your own responsibility.

As a digression, this is a message that oldest children get a lot (I speak from experience here) given the way that younger children frequently enjoy provoking older children to wrath and then snitching on them to get them punished when the inevitable and painful beatdown comes.  You tell the younger (and presumably weaker) sibling not to provoke their older brother/sister and tell the older sibling to better control oneself and not to let the provocation get to you, and hope that both of them do their part to make the situation better.  Ideally, you tell them both this separately so that they get their own message and not the message to other.  After all, if two people who do not get along with each other well get both messages at the same time, it will be their tendency to club the other party over the head with their part of the problem and to do comparatively little about their own part of the problem, which is a tendency we see anywhere two parties do not do their best in a given situation.

The writer also had some virtue signalling goals in mind as well, in showing others that he wanted his sons to take responsibility for their own actions and behave with restraint and therefore show that he (and they) were good guys.  All of this is well and good, except when it comes to communication we have to work under the assumption that if something can be used in a wrong way it will be and a message like this is no exception.  There are a great many people who think that the reduction of violence is something that can only be done by getting men to better control themselves, but the fact of the matter remains that in any situation both the stronger and weaker parties have reciprocal if by no means equal responsibilities.  To be sure, no amount of good behavior or wise behavior on the part of a target can make it impossible for them to be victimized by someone else who has the will and the power to do evil.  That said, most of the time our problems are not with people who are deliberately set on evil but with people who would prefer to be kind to us but who may be provoked to anger if we provoke them, and may be provoked to lust if we provoke them, and so on.  If someone would prefer to do well but can be provoked to do something evil, then we do have responsibility in seeking to avoid provoking them and then blaming them for what we have provoked them to do.

This is a tricky matter.  As is the case when we are dealing with squabbling siblings who get on each other’s nerves, it is by no means easy to simultaneously decrease the provocation to do evil from one side and to decrease the susceptibility to provocation on the other side when there is an absence of trust between the two sides and a tendency to blame the other side for one’s own failings.  To the extent that we and others have power, it is well and good that we be reminded of our responsibility for our speech and conduct and patterns of thinking and behavior and to take steps to bring ourselves under control and restraint so that we are not a threat and a danger to others and to ourselves.  Yet at the same time this must be done delicately because people are prickly and not generally interested in blaming themselves when other blamable parties exist.  Therefore we must urge restraint not only on those who have the power to do great harm, but on those who view their own efforts at provocation as a way of claiming power in a situation themselves.  To the weaker side we preach a prudential wisdom about behaving in a proper manner, and if this message is done in isolation it seems as if we are focusing on those who are not a part of the real problem.  Yet everyone involved is (or at least should be) aware that if hardening the target is not a perfect thing and that no one can make themselves invulnerable to the threat of harm in a wicked world like our own, at least a great many problems can be avoided if we behave sensibly and in a restrained fashion as well.  It is certainly easier for us to preach restraint to others when we practice it ourselves.

Again, context matters.  We may believe that more emphasis should be laid on some aspects of a given complex of communications than on others, and that the responsibility is higher on those who have more power.  Yet at the same time those who do have the power are people with their own sensitivities and who may not respond in the way we would wish unless we also addressed their own concerns and their own desire for a balanced response.  Justice is by no means easy.  We may dislike the fact that it is at times necessary to pander to what we consider to be the unreasonable demands of those who have power in a given situation, but the fact of the matter is that practical improvements in life depend on our not alienating people simply because we do not think that they have the right understanding of where the balance lies.  If we desire real situations to be made better involving imperfect people, including ourselves, we need to act with the understanding that all the people involved are extremely sensitive to what they perceive as injustice and unfairness.  After all, our own perspectives about what is and is not fair and unjust will likely be just as ridiculous to other people as their own perspectives and biases and slants are to us.  And to the extent that we wish people to act in our own interests, it behooves us to be sensitive to theirs as well.  This is a lesson that takes some of us a long time to learn and act on.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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