I mentioned in the last post the concept of cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the ability to recognize phrases as they represent cultural icons, parables, or other shared experiences. Being culturally literate allows conversations to use shortcuts rather than explain each concept in detail. One of the many issues with cultural literacy is that an icon may not actually mean what the speaker thinks it means.
My wife and I were discussing her ex, who had sent an email titled “Proof of my expenses” and contained a list of expenses he claimed. He was under the impression that because he said they were expenses, that was all the proof required. Perhaps that speaks more to illiteracy than cultural illiteracy, but it’s the discussion that brought this subject to mind.
My last wife would often use the phrase “Judge not”. What she meant was “Don’t judge me”. But by using the phrase “Judge not” she was trying to use the iconic scripture “Judge not, lest ye be judged”, which many people misunderstand and translate as “Jesus said not to judge anybody”. In reality, the phrase is part of a longer scripture (read along if you wish, Matthew 7) and goes on to say “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”. In total, it is essentially a reinforcement of the “Golden Rule”, do unto others as you would have them do to you.
So a phrase meant to tell people that they will be judged by the standards they hold others to gets turned into “don’t judge anyone”.
Of course you judge. You judge each and every thing in your life. You choose one avocado over another. You decide to make curry instead of waffles. You decide to buy a Ford instead of a Chevy. You pursue the woman with the long hair and ignore the one with short hair. You decide what you believe, and what you do not believe. These are all based on judgements, and you make them constantly.
Another frequently misused phrase is “I couldn’t care less”, meaning “There is nothing less important to me”. Unfortunately, most people will say “I could care less”, which would mean that there are things less important.
Why these misunderstandings in cultural literacy are important is because, as I said earlier, they are used as shortcuts. We live in a culture which allows us more time to communicate than ever before, yet the desire to use shortcuts overwhelms the desire to communicate clearly. Try reading a random sample of text messages if you don’t believe me.
The result is we usually do understand what the person speaking meant, even though it is not precisely what they have said. Instead of a shortcut, the icon became a detour, and our brains spent an extra second translating. Our ability to understand can be enormous, and when I say “our”, I mean those people who are of above average intelligence. Then when we want to make certain that we understand, we need to go over the conversation twice, saying to the speaker “When you said “X”, did you mean “X”, or was it actually “Y”?”
And what about that majority, those who don’t realize that they misunderstood? I believe, with no evidence other than my growing frustrations, that they spiral downwards, understanding less and less, repeating what eventually becomes gibberish.
And that brings me back to the example of my wife’s ex. How do you tell someone that they do not understand the language they have spoken all of their life? They have already become difficult to communicate with, and their self confidence precludes the possibility they may have any deficiencies. It is your problem, your inability to understand what they are saying so very clearly. They become frustrated, angry, and eventually violent. Because in their mind, they are dealing with an idiot. Can’t blame them, can’t euthanize them.
So from here, we go to Israel. The Palestinians cannot accept the existence of the Israelis, and try to drive them into the sea. The Israelis learned in the holocaust not to just march into the sea, so they give the Palestinians a bloody nose. Now the Palestinians must avenge their bloody nose so they throw rocks at the Israelis. So the Israelis throw rocks back. It never ends, and the Palestinians say to the world “Look! The Israelis are throwing rocks at us!” as justification, just as the Israelis say “Look! The Palestinians are throwing rocks at us!”.
And that, is how a failure to effectively communicate becomes lethal.
More ramblings tomorrow.