How confident are you that you understand what I write? Are you certain that you know exactly what I mean — and that your understanding can’t be mistaken? I wrote Sunday about the difficulties involved when humans communicate — how a message can be completely misunderstood because of the difficulty of moving a message from the abstract of one person’s brain to the abstract of another person’s brain through the medium of words.
Rarely have I ever seen someone so completely prove my point by disagreeing with me. The response that someone wrote is funny and ironic, so I want to share it with you as evidence of what I was saying. Sunday afternoon, a friend shared my article about communication on her Facebook page. A friend of hers shared it to his own page in order to write a rebuttal. Here’s what he wrote:
Since I am well convinced that David McElroy, in this clearly argued and written piece, perfectly communicated exactly the point he wanted to make and that I understood it perfectly well, McElroy’s own thesis — namely that objective communication in human language is defect, “imperfect” and semi-impossible — is thereby refuted. He commits the “self-reference-exclusion fallacy”: his thesis can only be true if its own content is excluded from what his thesis asserts. (Please spare me an extended discussion of Russell’s “theory of types” now: it is backassward and changes nothing.)
Throughout the years, my own Dad has often exclaimed to me: “Communication is impossible!” To which I always blithely answer: “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!” He’s never yet grasped my refutation.
It’s funny and ironic because this person proves my point. He states what he believe my thesis was — and he completely gets it wrong. He misunderstood what I was saying, because he was bringing his own biases to what he was reading. He thought the issue was about objectivity and whether it’s possible. That framing never crossed my mind. It wasn’t my point. So his assertion that I’m wrong because he perfectly understood what I wrote is the very thing that illustrates my actual point.
I can’t tell you how amused I’ve been about this.
For anyone who hasn’t read the original article yet, the point was simply about the difficulty of communication — about how we bring our biases to an interaction and how we have problems when someone sends a message and someone else interprets it. That’s about it. There’s no discussion of whether objective communication is ever possible. (If you dumb something down enough, you can be reasonably clear that something is objective, but it’s harder to be sure of clarity than you realize even with something simple.) Honestly, I don’t care enough about the specific subject he thinks I wrote about to spend any time on it. I’m interested in the effect that communication and misunderstanding have on people, not proving or disproving his philosophy.
From what the guy wrote, I’m betting that he’s an objectivist. If I’m right, he read my article through the lens of his objectivist bias. Since he was most concerned with the issue of objectivity, he assumed that was my point. It seems plain to me what I meant, of course, so there’s a part of me that says, “Hey, this guy must be an idiot to have come up with this interpretation.”
The truth is that he’s not an idiot. He’s just human. And he makes the mistake of failing to see his bias and doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, so he assigns his own explanation for what I said — in order to declare it wrong and his own pet theory safe.
Good communication is very difficult difficult. Maybe I didn’t communicate what I said clearly enough in some way. Maybe I could have written it in a way that this reader would have understood it perfectly. I doubt it, but it’s possible. I know what I meant. People who know me are likely to understand what I meant. But some of those who are coming from a different place and have different assumptions and difference intellectual or emotional priorities are bound to be confused.
Good communication is difficult, but it’s impossible when someone believes he can know for sure what someone else meant. The only real error here is the reader’s assumption that his understanding must be accurate. As it turns out, he completely missed the point. I wasn’t making a philosophical point. I was making a point about what it’s like for real live humans to try to communicate — and how easy it is for messages to be misunderstood. So I’ll just thank my confused reader for illustrating my point so well, even though I doubt he’ll understand that.
I’m laughing about that irony of that, too — the fact that he’ll probably never truly understand why I’m so amused at the irony. (Of course, I’ll bet he would argue that he understands perfectly.)