I have always feared misinterpretation. Whether the gap between my intended meaning and the received meaning is the result of poor communication on my part, or poor comprehension on the part of the reader is, for me, secondary to the fact of the gap exists at all. As a writer, I have a dedicated responsibility to clarity of thought and expression. If I cannot come as close as possible to accurately saying what I want to say, then I’m failing to do my job. This is fine to a point. But what about situations wherein the topic is so charged that no amount of care and clarity can prevent the message from disintegrating in the reception?
Recently, the media has been covering the rise of what is being called “rape culture” on high school and college campuses – that is, the prevalence of young women drinking to incapacitation and young men engaging in (often) nonconsensual sex acts with them. Steubenville, Marysville and other similar cases have opened up the discussion of how rape is treated by everyone from a Montana judge to frat bros.
In the middle of this, Emily Yoffe, a writer at Slate, published an article suggesting that young women take steps to protect themselves by not drinking to excess at parties. Her tone was measured and her message fairly clear. But while the story was met with support by some, the majority of responses were vitriolic in their mis/interpretation. In the face of varied and vocal criticism, Yoffe then wrote a follow-up article, attempting clarify her message and acknowledge the situation while not backing down. Again, her tone was measured, but it was too late – her message had already been mis/interpreted and appropriated. No amount of follow-on could retrieve her original intent.
The merits and / or flaws in Yoffe’s position aren’t what interest me here. What interests me is that Yoffe’s attempts to control her message didn’t work. Not at all. And so, what I’m curious about is this: at what point does a writer’s ability to control her message end?
The answer, I suspect, is one I don’t particularly like. I suspect that it ends the moment the article, opinion, editorial, post, story, text, tweet or email gets read. After that, a writer can attempt to do damage control, but if a message is derailed, it’s nearly impossibly to get it back on the tracks, (as evidenced by Yoffe).
The bottom line is that readers are free to respond to a writer’s work in any way they like, through the lens of any experience, bias or ideology. The reader has the power to misinterpret, appropriate or spin anything you say. It’s like a game of telephone. So then, what’s the point? If words are essentially a Rorschach test, why do we bother stringing them together to communicate at all?
The answer to that question. and the value of the effort, is in the attempt at communication. The thing to do, whether you’re writing an email or a tweet, is craft your thoughts as consciously as you can. Be clear. Be concise. Write with the reader in mind. Compel, argue, debate and cajole. And then let it go. It’s ok. If people read your words, and misunderstand, it may be a personal frustration for you, but culturally speaking, those words will still have had an impact and prompted discussion. They will have stirred emotions and triggered thoughts.
It’s the discussion that leads to progress, as incremental as progress is. Ultimately, you cannot control your message any more than you can control how people think, but you can communicate clearly and well, and hopefully then, your thoughts will be heard, and prompt discussions of their own.