Friday, 12 February 2010

In Defence of Reading Into Things

Something that I seem to be hearing a lot in comments threads, arguments and discussions of all sorts of things is the accusation that someone is "reading too much into" something, that the original something was "just a joke" or was somehow too frivolous to warrant anything more than a surface analysis.

So when a group of feminists complain about a facebook group called "GTA taught me if you kill a hooker, you get your money back." the response from a lot of people (as well as the usual hate speech from a couple of users who I hope get banned sometime soon) was that the feminists were overreacting, because the group's category was "just for fun - in-jokes", and this was about a game not real life. (Never mind that the title itself uses the wording "taught me"- thus suggesting that this is learned behaviour, and that people take what they have learned in the game into the rest of their life. The title is suggesting there is a link.) But because it's not explicitly saying "go out and kill hookers because you'll get your money back" people feel they can say "you're reading too much into this" - which, reading into that statement itself, essentially means either "there is no context to this, no meaning beyond the explicit, so stop looking for it. This should be taken in absolute isolation." or "I wrote it, so the only meaning in it is what I say there is," or just "there is no ill intent here, so you can't blame us when you get offended when you look at this."

Now, I'm an English Literature graduate. I have done (and am still doing) several degrees, the entire point of which is "reading into things". I have been taught that there is no way you can take anything in isolation from its context, literary, historical or social. I have been taught that one should look beyond the surface meaning - always. I have even been taught to look at a text divorced from what it's original author intended, and my reader response is as valid as that author's intent
(if not more so). Anyone who doubts that last statement should look up a guy named Roland Barthes, and an essay he wrote in 1967 called "The Death of the Author". So naturally, I feel I have to step up here, and defend... well, let's face it, the principle which my entire university education is based on.

I think it's fairly obvious to anyone who visits the aforementioned facebook group that it is full of vile little hatemongering misogynists, who have proved the aformentioned feminists' point for them quite ineloquently, but I'm not arguing the toss over freedom of speech here (I'll save that for a later post) I'm arguing why things that are ostensibly jokes, or otherwise frivolous comments (or called so by their creators) are actually no less meaningful than something meant seriously.

What it comes down to is this: no-one owns the English language. You do not, and cannot claim ownership of words, even words that you yourself say or write, to the extent that you can dictate what they mean. Words are very egalitarian in that respect. They mean what we all agree them to mean, and while that can change, the process takes years of continual usage and gradual change, not one isolated post, or one person suddenly deciding otherwise. You can choose what you want to say, you can choose what words you use, but you cannot choose what everyone understands those words to mean. You cannot possibly divorce words from context, because context is the only thing that gives language meaning in the first place.

What this means is that all the stuff that anyone chooses to read into a text (be that oral or written) is there. The author may not have realised, may not have intended that to be the message they wanted to convey, but that message has been conveyed, whether they intended it or not. The reader cannot help it if they are a better reader than the author is a writer. Essentially, if I get offended by something you say, then I'm bloody well offended whether you meant to offend me or not. You may have meant me to laugh at what you said, but it's not my fault if I don't find it funny.

And if someone does get offended by something you have said, then you have two options; stand by what you say and not care if you offend, or appologise. You can say that what you said wasn't what you meant to say, but what you cannot do is pretend that what you just said doesn't mean what I took it to mean. Because that's not up to you to say. You, the author, are deader than a GTA Hooker. (only joking!)

1 comment:

  1. Good point. I hate when I argue with people about use of the word 'girl' for women of all ages. You would never describe a man of 40 as a 'boy', but it seems perfectly socially acceptable to describe a woman over 18 as a girl, particularly if she is either a) attractive to men or b) in some low paid, low status employment.

    I point out that this is a subtle way of reducing women to their state before they were recognised as full adults with the right to vote, the ability to work, a complete education etc.

    I am usually met with some sort of half hearted response that it is flattering to be described as younger than you are or it is meant affectionately. This is bullshit: for one thing it is not necessarily flattering to be described as younger. That assumes that with age we become increasingly less favourable/acceptable/worthy.

    Often however I find I am met with a barrage of defensive remarks, mostly implying that I am being oversensitive and possibly unhinged.

    Am I reading too much into things? I think the flawed responses to my probing suggests not...