Monday, July 14, 2008

Words Against You

Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about her ex-boyfriend. She said one of the problems she had with him was that he’d use her words against her. When she explained, it seemed to amount to her not liking it when he pointed out the contradictions in what she said on different days at different times.

I had to be honest with her and say that I’d probably do the same thing. If I’m making a point which you dispute today, but which your words supported yesterday, I’m going to say so.

And I don’t consider that to be throwing your words back in your face or using your words against you.

Maybe that sounds too much like the police: “Anything you say can and will be used against you…” But that’s not my intention and hopefully, not my tone.

The fact remains, though, that plenty of people object when someone expects them to mean what they say and say what they mean. That’s unfortunate because it says, to me, that I shouldn’t pay much attention to what they say – which can be problematic.

Here are a couple of examples of the kinds of (semantics-laden) situations that I’ve encountered:

Scenario 1: “The Creative Process”

I was talking to a comic book writer about creating fictional characters. Below is an inexact recreation and summation of that conversation.

Me: A fictional character’s ethnicity can sometimes be randomly assigned. It doesn’t always have to be deliberately “Black” or Asian or anything else. A character can be created in all the ways necessary for the story and then, if the character needs to be rendered in an illustration, the ethnicity can be assigned by simply pulling a piece of paper out of a hat. If it’s black, the creator could make the character African-American. If the paper’s white, the character could be Caucasian. And so on.

Writer: No. That’s not part of the creative process.

Me: I disagree. There’s more than one creative process – possibly as many as there are creative people.

Writer: I didn’t say there was only one creative process.

Me: When you say no one creates characters that way because that’s not “the” creative process, you’re suggesting that there is no creative process besides that with which you are familiar.

Writer: That’s not what I said and it’s not what I meant. Don’t put words in my mouth.

Scenario 2: “The Other”

A couple of guys were talking about the Hulk movies.

Smith: The latest movie was good. There was plenty of action whereas the previous one was too character driven.

Wesson: They gave us the action, this time, and a little loving but that’s about all. I wouldn’t have minded something more.

Smith: They already tried it the other way, already, and it flopped.

Wesson: You say “the other way” as if there are only two ways to make a film. I think there are degrees between the two extremes of “all action” and “all talking.”

Smith: I didn’t say there were only two ways.

Wesson: When you say “the other way,” you’re saying “not this one but THAT one” – like there’s nothing else out there.

Smith: Don’t put words in my mouth.

If these examples are anywhere near as terrible as I suspect, I haven’t made my point very well. Hopefully there’s a hint of clarity in there somewhere.

The point is, of course, that the words we use matter because they a way that we share the thoughts and ideas that are hidden away in our heads. I agree with those who say it’s possible to “semanticize” a conversation to-death, but that doesn’t change the fact that words have meanings. If someone misrepresents their own thoughts by using the wrong word, they ought to admit that so the conversation can move forward. If they said what they meant and what they meant was flawed, they ought to admit that – again, so that the conversation can move forward and more ideas can be exchanged and reviewed and rejected and embraced.

All without letting pride get in the way.

I guess I’d say to those people that, it’s not me using your words against you. It’s you.


B. Good said...

Hi West!

I like this post! Your points were made very clear.

Either you said it and meant it or you didn't really mean it. Either way, they are your words, not mine, lol.

West said...

Thanks, B.