Bill Long 11/15/04
Why Communication Really is Not Possible
The headline in the newspaper screamed, "Volunteers Needed to Help Torture Victims." The first thought I had on seeing the headline was to hope that some death row inmates, whom I had just written about in my award-winning 2001 book A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon, might not volunteer to "help" these victims. At least two of them had perfected their torture techniques in ways you really don't want me to narrate to you. But, then I read the headline again and I understood it as it was intended to be understood. Torture is a noun, not a verb. How silly of me to have thought otherwise.
Thinking about Communication
This experience got me thinking, however, about the ways in which we misunderstand each other. After mulling the problem for some months, I concluded that the chances of misunderstanding or incomplete understanding between and among people are so significant that true understanding is just not possible in this life. But then I felt that maybe I was overreacting.
But then I thought again. I had a physician friend who regaled me one summer afternoon with a discourse on the nature of diseases and viruses in our world. After telling me several horror stories where perfectly healthy middle-aged people came down with incurable viruses and were dead within days, she mused, "When you consider all the stuff that's floating around out there, it's a wonder we are all not dead." Maybe that is the human condition. There are enough viruses out there, with more appearing all the time, to kill us all but, ironically, some of us manage to eke out an existence, even living longer than our parents.
By the same token, when you really examine language and communication closely, you see that most of the things we say are poorly or incompletely stated, incoherent in meaning, illogical in conception, suffused with our prejudices, limitations, short attention spans and ill will, and that these statements meet with lack of attention, inability to understand, testosterone-laden hearers who are themselves immured in the prisons of their own pain so that you wonder if any connection can happen between people at all. But maybe, just as we manage to survive despite the proliferation of deadly viruses, so we might just be able to understand each other for a brief shining moment. Maybe theologians should find the most relevant expression of God's grace in the world today not in some guy bleeding and hanging on a cross but in the experience of understanding and being understood.
The Vocabulary of Ambiguity
Lest you get too optimistic too early, however, we must try to limn the ways that language talks about things that aren't clear. Of course, there is deep unclarity in the history of talking about unclear things, and I will probably find myself enmeshed in that soon enough. But then the logicians enter into the picture to clear things up and, indeed, they provide definitions today that do clear things up, but I get the impression when I read their work (more about them in the next essay) that they have tidied up a disaster scene. Sure, they have removed the shrapnel and gravel and evidence of consuming destruction, but it can't quite ignore the fact that vast destruction has just taken place.
Making a Beginning
Actually, I think it will be helpful to start with a clear definition or two, definitions that remove the sense that there ever was a problem. I am thinking of two English words that deal with the concept of ambiguity: equivocation and amphiboly. Perhaps you have never heard of the latter or perhaps you think whenever someone is not being clear that they just aren't being clear. But, you can be unclear in a number of ways. Let me clear that up.
There can be no clearer distinction between the two than is found on a popular and generally good web site. "Linguistically, an amphiboly is an ambiguity which results from ambiguous grammar, as opposed to one that results from the ambiguity of words or phrases--that is equivocation." When I read this definitional distinction, and saw that it was supported in some dictionaries, I was overjoyed. For example, an 1870 textbook on elementary logic says: "The fallacy of amphibology consists in an ambiguous grammatical structure of a sentence which produces misconception." Here, at last, I had clarity and insight. When one or two words are subject to different meanings, we have equivocation, but when a whole clause or sentence seems to suggest two different meanings, it is amphiboly/amphibology. Amphibology has to do with grammatical issues while equivocation deals with lexical issues. Though a hard and fast line might not be able to be drawn, at least we seem to be able to draw a line. Put things in their boxes or places. Tidy things up. Freeze language. Capture life.
But I knew that this wasn't all the story or even a good part of it. So, I decided to spend some time sifting through the use of terms in the linguistic field of ambiguity. The next mini-essay describes what I found.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long