If you write, you will sometimes be misconstrued. If you read, you will sometimes misconstrue what you read. These things are part of the human condition.
If you speak, you will often be misconstrued, and if you listen you will often misconstrue. These things are even more certain. But the beauty of conversation is that you can rapidly realize the you have misconstrued or been misconstrued and correct or seek correction until you and your interlocutor arrive at a common understanding.
It is not that simple when you write. I was misconstrued recently, by Joe Pairman, in an article in the CIDM e-newsletter. Based on his reading of several post in this blog and other writings, Joe accused me of misunderstanding minimalism in three ways. (The substance of what he has to say is worth reading, despite it being inspired by a misconstruction of my opinions.)
Now, Joe is a careful reader and an honest writer. He provided links to all the articles of mine that he criticized so that his readers could judge for themselves (and I got a substantial blip in my visit count on the blog posts in question as a result). Nontheless, Joe has completely misconstrued my meaning, or, in some cases, he had read far more into passing reference to minimalism than I ever intended.
I protested his misreading rather vigorously in a comment on Google+. In reply he apologized for the misreading and provided a mild defense of his reading of my words. Privately he extended a further apology, and I accepted it, and we are now perhaps better friends than we were before the whole incident, and certainly better understand each other’s positions on minimalism.
But the question remains, who was responsible for Joe misconstruing me in this way? Was I careless in how I expressed my views, in the particular words I chose to express certain ideas, or was Joe reading something into the text that simply wasn’t there on the page. Or does the blame lie in human nature, in the limits of our language and the construction of our brains. The truth is probably that is was some of each.
There are several things that interest me about this whole incident — things which perhaps cast as general light on what it means to write, to read, and to communicate on the Web.
1. It is hard to know if this incident was bad for me or good for me overall. My refutation of Joe’s misreading did not appear in the CIDM e-newsletter, which does not support comments, so many who read his article will not have seen my response. People might be led to believe I don’t understand minimalism, and that could be bad for me. On the other hand, because Joe linked to all my articles he cited, a significant number of people read my blog and other articles that may not have read me before. Maybe I retained some of those readers, which would be good for me.
2. As in a conversation, I did detect that I had been misconstrued, and Joe did discover that he had misconstrued me, and, as in conversation, we then talked it out until we reached a common understanding. But unlike a conversation, parts of that exchange became, and remain, part of the public record of the Web. And because not all the parts of that exchange are linked to each other, people in the future may come across parts of the exchange and not know that the rest of it exists, leaving them with an incomplete picture. The Web is a media with the immediacy of a conversation, but the persistence and scope of a publication. We have not really learned how to deal with this yet.
3. The CIDM e-newsletter should be comment enabled. Everything published on the web should be comment enabled.
4. It is impossible to write quickly and publish frequently (as in a blog) and also anticipate and forestall any kind of possible misconstruction of your words. It is also unbelievably tedious to write and to read any document structured to avoid any possibility of being misconstrued. Read any legal document or technical standard and you will see what I mean. That which cannot be misconstrued often cannot be understood.
5. Precisely because it is so hard to write in a way that avoids all possibility of being misconstrued, it is also hard to avoid misconstruing others. We all look at the world through the lens of our own interests, perspectives, and pet peeves. We process what we read according to the tracks laid down in our own heads, and it can take great discipline one our part, and great effort on the writer’s part, to knock us off our familiar track and engage our minds fully on the track the author is attempting to lay down. Once we believe we are on the trail of an error on the author’s part, our focus tends to narrow further. Confirmation bias takes over and we begin to see only those parts of the author’s words that seem to confirm the opinion we have already formed. It is really really hard not to do this. (I can say this with assurance, for I have misconstrued many people in my time, and been ruefully and painfully disabused of my mistake at least some of the time.)
6. The approach that the schools typically take to teaching students to read critically is quite wrong. They teach students to be skeptical, and even cynical, about the works they are reading. What they should be teaching them is to be skeptical of their own interpretation of the author’s words. They should be teaching them about the danger of misconstruing other people’s meaning, and teaching them to question their first impressions of what the writer has said, especially if they find the author’s words shocking or misguided. Imagine how the complexion of election campaigns would change if the practitioners of gotcha journalism would adopt this discipline instead!
7. Paper allowed the words of authors to reach readers over great distance, but it did not abolish that distance. The Web brings authors and readers into intimate contact. The Web, like Jeopardy, invites us to make our responses in the form of a question. This is probably part of how we need to learn to write for the Web.
Do you think I have said something monstrously silly or outrageous in this post? Maybe I have. Maybe you have misconstrued my meaning. Fortunately there is a comment field right below this text, so you can ask me to explain or defend. Please do.