The Tragedy of Misunderstanding

Great tragedy can result from misunderstanding. Most people can probably point to times in which other people have misunderstood what they said or did. However, we are still so, so confident that we know exactly what other people mean by their words or actions. Other people need to be careful, but we do not. Shouldn’t it rather be the other way around, in a sense? By that I mean (lest I be misunderstood!) that we should make every effort to be crystal clear in our own communication, and yet be very cautious about what other people say and do? Should we not make every effort to prevent misunderstanding by clarity in our own words? And yet shouldn’t we also be very generous (or at the very least patient!) in how we read other people’s actions and words? Yet we live today in a society that tends to encourage people to put the onus of responsibility on other people: it’s their fault for misunderstanding us, not our fault for being unclear. We tend to assume that our own words were clear, and that it is other people’s fault for misunderstanding.

The other problem we have is that postmodernism has put the location of meaning within the reader instead of the author, or at the very least unbalanced the relationship between reader and author. If past generations ignored the reader, today’s people almost ignore the author.

Should we not always ask this question: what don’t I know about what I just heard? Should we not always ask: what extenuating circumstances might there be? Should we not always ask: have I heard both sides of the story? I do not get the impression that very many people are asking these sorts of self-diagnostic questions about their own interpretive procedures. Could this be one component of why America is so very, very angry today? We hear one side of an issue, and we rush to a judgment. How about slowing down a bit and listening, especially listening hard to those people we don’t agree with? We might even want to listen MORE carefully, not less, to the people we “despise.” If we don’t, then we run the risk of letting our emotions cloud our judgment of what was even said, done, meant, etc. High emotions are not conducive to understanding. They aren’t bad, but if our goal is to understand, then they can get in the way if we are not careful. Of course, many people simply don’t want to listen anymore. That is the real tragedy of misunderstanding.