That’s Not What I Meant
That’s Not What I Meant

That’s Not What I Meant

As I’m writing, I’m sitting at my desk listening to the sound of thunder as it rolls across Indianapolis and I have to giggle as I recall a line from a song going back to 1968. The line, penned by Bobby Russell, written for the late Roger Miller, is, “God didn’t make little green apples, and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.” I laugh because Russell couldn’t have been more accurate. Looking back through my Facebook memories, which now serves as a historical repository of things I probably shouldn’t have said publicly, it has rained often on this date, ruining plans for photoshoots as this storm threatens to do the same for one scheduled for today. Hell yes, it rains in Indianapolis in the summertime.

When taken in the context of the preceding verse, the line in the song is meant to demonstrate the strength of the love one person has for their partner/spouse/mate. Eliminate the verse, though, the part that talks about stumbling out of bed and feeling the love of the unnamed lover, and the meaning of the chorus flips 180 degrees. 

“God didn’t make little green apples.” What are you, atheist or just stupid?

“It don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.” Everyone in Indianapolis would beg to differ. 

There are several challenges in play here. One is the inadequacies of the English language where the words we use may have multiple meanings and dozens of inferences. When we read, we have to consider what all those definitions mean and which inferences are influential before we can begin to understand what is being said. Without that context, misunderstanding an email or a social media post is easy.

Another issue is differences in culture. Some words and phrases are acceptable and common within specific cultures but used outside those cultures, by people who have no obvious relationship to that culture, the same words and phrases become offensive. This type of error gets people fired from jobs and canceled from society for being culturally insensitive. 

Then, there’s the matter of what one doesn’t say when an author fails to address what the reader sees as an obvious point and the inferences that omission has. If God does make little green apples, are you saying that he also made some things intentionally sour and capable of making one nauseous? Are you saying love is sour and nauseous? Or is the rain reference a sexual metaphor of some kind? When we begin trying to “read between the lines,” and do so inaccurately, one can easily concoct offenses that are nowhere near what was intended.

We also have to consider the question of whether what one says publicly inherently taints what one creates for all time. A serial abuser, unchecked for decades, creates multiple popular and Oscar-winning films. Calling out the abuser and punishing them for their crimes is appropriate, without question. What of the things they created, though? What do we do with them? There’s an additional wrinkle in this facet of the conversation. What if we don’t find out about a person’s flaws until after they’re dead? The antisemitism of Henry Ford and Walt Disney is well-known now, but during their life, that knowledge was limited to insiders who didn’t say anything. Do we stop driving cars made on an assembly line? Do we boycott Disney+? How do we judge people with flawed histories and can we separate them from their work?

We have become a society where everyone feels they have the right, even the obligation to judge the words and works of everyone else, especially those in power or with anything approaching an element of fame. Perhaps we would do well to police ourselves and those whose criticisms use genuine problems for nothing more than the bragging rights of having gotten someone canceled. 

How Do You Spell That Again?

If you’re listening to this on the podcast, you may have some difficulty with this section and I apologize for that. The English language is like no other, though, in its use of homonyms, words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings, homographs, words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciation and meanings, and homophones, words that sound the same or similar but have different meanings and spellings. And none of those have anything to do with homosexuality, but some people, believe it or not, still think that homophones are a sin. 

In most cases, one can rely on context to provide clues as to which form of a word can be used. If I say that we blew through six bottles of creamer in two days, I doubt anyone is going to think that we turned the creamer blue, though they might wonder why we were blowing on it rather than drinking it. Homophones are often a little more obvious.

However, if I say I have a minute affair with my computer keyboard, am I saying that a small problem needs to be fixed or that I am doing something odd and kinky for 60 seconds? If you listen to how I pronounce the word verbally, the difference is obvious. If you’re reading the word in an email or text, that meaning might not be so clear, especially if you don’t know me well. Hearing provides many of the contextual clues in many languages, not just English, making our reliance on text-based systems of communications unreliable.

One fun example of a homograph is in the old gospel song, “Daddy Sang Bass,” which was popular in the 1950s and 60s. The functional word there is bass. Now, if one approaches that word with no knowledge of music terms, how do they interpret what they see? Imagine the confusion for someone who thinks that the parental figure is attempting to sing like a fish! Homographs present a lot of problems for people learning English as a second language, but I’ve met plenty of people across the country who couldn’t handle them much better. They can be a serious problem.

One of my favorite homonyms is the word type. The word is especially fun when used in the context of a failed relationship, such as, “they’re just not my type.” My default reply is, “Really? Would you prefer someone more Helvetica or Times New Roman?” The person then looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind and I have to explain the homonym and they still think I’ve lost my mind. I’m a Dad. I’m allowed to make jokes of homonyms.

Wordplay like this is what gives us the puns that are the crux of almost every dad joke ever created, which is appropriate for Fathers’ Day. At the same time, many people don’t find the confusion all that funny and many serious misunderstandings have occurred because of the lack of comprehension and understanding.

I Can Say That Word, You Can’t

I was having coffee with a friend who was born in Vietnam but adopted and raised in Indiana by a Caucasian family. As a result, she wasn’t around other Vietnamese children except for two siblings who were also adopted. She knew almost nothing about Vietnamese culture. So, when she went to college and joined a Vietnamese student group, some there called her a banana as a way of saying she was yellow on the outside, white on the inside, that she didn’t fit in with the culture of her biological ancestry.

Indigenous North American peoples have a similar fruit-based insult, calling others apples, being red on the outside but having little knowledge or understanding of native culture, embracing more of the white lifestyle. 

Cultural references exist within every people group based on where one was born, what their ancestry might be and even the geographic history of their family. Some of the more frequently used words and phrases you may know. We hear them in popular music, on the street, in conversations at urban barbershops, and sometimes in literature aimed at a specific demographic. They’re colorful. They’re meaningful. They’re necessary.

What is important to realize is that those phrases are not public property. They are not part of the general public vocabulary set out there for everyone to use. They belong to the culture of which they are a part. For anyone else to use them is appropriation, taking something for your own use that doesn’t belong to you. This applies to language, certain beats and styles of music, color patterns, and clothing styles. Words, phrases, songs, and art meant specifically for use within a culture belong to that culture, not to someone who thinks it looks cool or sounds hip.

I’ve heard the objection that being offended by matters of appropriation is racist and that’s straight-up bullshit. Being offended by cultural theft is not racist. Calling theft racist is racist. Don’t ever let such obnoxious words come out of your mouth.

Is there an acceptable way to use those cultural elements appropriately? Sometimes, yes. Talk to someone within the culture, have them explain the history of what you’re wanting to use, why it’s important to their culture, what it means to their culture. When we understand the source of cultural language and art, we often find that the use we had intended isn’t an appropriate way to honor the culture at all. When it is appropriate, we have to be certain to give credit where it’s due, use the language or art carefully as directed by those within that culture, and understand that there may still be those within a culture who find external adaptation offensive.

In a country like the United States where we are so big on the concept of free speech, we need to understand that not every word is available for universal use. When a brother from a tribe calls me an apple, that’s a heads up for me to check myself and my connection with my heritage. When anyone else uses that term, expect me to be offended and respond accordingly. 

Are You Saying What I Think You’re Saying?

Ambiguity. There’s a nice twenty-five-cent word for you. Ambiguity is a word, a phrase, or perhaps even an entire book or situation that is less than clearly defined. Ambiguity is often not intended. The person doing the writing, or creating, often thinks that they have either been sufficiently clear or fail to have the perspective that creates the ambiguity in the first place. If they are indeed mistakes, the mistakes are rarely intentional, but they still generate a lot of backlash, especially in the volatile world of social media. 

Now, let me be clear, this is one of the darkest downsides of social media. Some people do absolutely nothing more than examine what other people write, say, or create for the sole purpose of exploiting potentially offensive ambiguities. These are not nice people; they are mean, untrustworthy, and add little value to important discussions of race, culture, inclusion, and language. Those who only want to stir up trouble can, in my opinion, go away forever.

Reading through Slate magazine this past week, I came across two instances where ambiguities in creative works caused enough problems the creators were forced to issue statements. Others received a lot of public attention in media, but I’ll leave those arguments for others to voice because I’m not part of the offended culture.

One involved the author Elin Hilderbrand, whose new book, The Golden Girl, is one of those leisurely summer reads for people who have enough privilege to spend weeks lying on a beach doing nothing. In the course of dialogue between two teenage characters, one refers to Anne Frank. The matter of the character’s apparent insensitivity is dealt with immediately in the narrative, a fact that was sufficient for editorial scrutiny. 

Still, that the reference appeared at all offended some, and the resulting commotion was severe enough to threaten to sink sales of the seasonal book. As a result, not only did the author issue an apology, the promise was made that the reference will be stricken from future printings of the book. 

The second matter regards the new Disney/Pixar movie, Luca. I’ll admit that I’ve not seen the movie yet. Our family schedule has not provided a time for us all to enjoy the film together. For the sake of this discussion, what you need to know is that the central figures are two best friends who happen to be sea monsters. They discover that they take the form of humans when they’re on land and set off on adventures in a small town in Italy.

Almost immediately, there were online claims that this new movie perhaps too closely followed the themes of another, Call Me By Your Name, a coming-of-age film with strong gay themes. This raised the obvious question: Are the characters in Luca gay? 

The movie’s director Enrico Casarosa insists that any gay overtones are the response of the viewer, not an intentional creation. “I was really keen to talk about a friendship before girlfriends and boyfriends come in to complicate things,” he said at a press conference, emphasizing that the events are pre-pubescent and that any sexual inference is inappropriate.

It is almost impossible to create a work of any length that considers every possible perspective. As a result, there are always going to be matters of ambiguity and with ambiguity comes offense. Creators and their editors may do their best but in many cases catching every possible point of contention may be impossible.

We Know What You Did Back Then

Writer Anne Perry was convicted of murder. William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies, was accused of rape as have been many, many other writers over the centuries. Ezra Pound, Patricia Highsmith, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and a long list of others were unquestionably racists. Others have been misogynists, abusers, cheaters, and otherwise horrible people. We look at the list of things they did that we consider offensive and wonder how anything good could have come from them.

The overlying question is whether there is such a thing as fundamental morality, standards of behavior that exceed boundaries of culture, socially accepted behavior, and contemporary beliefs. Certainly, we would consider murder and rape among the list of things that have always been wrong no matter when one lived or the conditions of their upbringing. Stealing and cheating fall into these categories to some extent, though one might argue exceptions for actions necessary to preserve one’s life or that of another.

Other matters, however, are not so clear. Let’s take racism for example. Sitting where we are now, in a society that has a clear picture of all the inadequacies and crimes committed by those who came before us, it is easy to judge them for being racists. All of them, we want to claim, should have known better and even if they didn’t, that lack of knowledge doesn’t excuse their behavior. The challenge to that manner of thinking is that often it was the authorities of the time who enforced racism, abuse, homophobia, and misogyny. Certainly, the religious entities of Western culture led the way, not only encouraging but demanding that their edicts be followed, frequently under penalty of death. Who is really at fault in those situations?

A lot of debate swirls around these questions and it grows more intense when we bring in more contemporary works by people who are still living. When an actor, director, producer, or writer is convicted of a crime, do we put all their previous works, which might have been completed under the conditions of their crimes, on a shelf without regard to the quality of the work itself?

The answer comes in whether one can separate art from its creator. Welcome to the world of philosophy, one where Twitter posts are insufficient for arguing the delicacies of reason. The ultimate example might be whether God can be blamed for the actions of humans, or do humans behave the way they do because God gave them that ability? Can there be a separation between the creator and the created? Of course, if one doesn’t believe in deity, that particular question is moot but the greater question still lingers. Is there a permanent bond between a work of art and the people who create them? One isn’t likely to find a firm answer to the question easily.

To Whom Does A Problem Belong?

I find it interesting that we are quick to find offense in the words of others but are not as careful with what we ourselves type into Facebook posts, tweets, put in Instagram stories, or spread across any other form of media. Rarely do we hold ourselves to the same impossible standards that we do others. On the rare occasion we get called out, we’re quick to say, “Hey, everyone makes a mistake.”

The problem is exactly that: everyone makes a mistake. Sometimes those mistakes manage to make their way past multiple gatekeepers and editors. Not everyone is going to have exactly the same perspective you do and perhaps, just hear me out now, maybe it’s unreasonable to expect every creative person, every politician, and every person who opens their mouth near you, to recognize, understand, and appreciate how you use a word or set of words differently than how they might have intended them.

We live in a huge world with over seven-and-a-half billion people. Each one of those people has an individual point of view. While we need to make every reasonable attempt to be clear, to be inclusive, to not misappropriate language or ideas, and consider the effects of our ambiguity, what’s not reasonable is elevating every offense to the status of a major crime. Softer words, more careful, quiet, thoughtful correction are much more likely to push us all in a positive direction.

There are multiple people in my life, for example, who prefer the use of they/them/their pronouns. Some of those people I’ve known many years and have always identified them by the gender they were assigned at birth. I want to be supportive. I want to use the correct pronouns. Yet, frequently, when I open my mouth the wrong words, he/him, she/her, are the ones that slip out. I appreciate it when they correct me gently, despite my continued struggle. There is no intent to offend, but the challenge of breaking old habits. 

Vocabulary and verbiage are, at times, difficult to manage. We all struggle and none of us get everything correct. We are going to make mistakes and there will be times when what people read or hear is not what we meant to say. Perhaps we can find better ways to help each other improve, ways that don’t hurt, inflame emotions, or cause talented people to retreat into obscurity. 

To put it in the vernacular of a once-popular advertising character, “Know what I mean, Verne?”

Leave a Reply