Wednesday, June 8

My Actual Meaning

This is part ④ of terrette's death penalty discussion.
terrette: Thanks for your spirited reply. I am impressed by the boldness of your formulations and fairly convinced that I understand your view on the death penalty at this point. Still, I wish to reread the Kerby Anderson piece and, after that, present my own views on the death penalty and, for that, I will need more time, since other things are occupying me throughout the week. I hope that you will not have shut yourself off to me by the time I get around to presenting my own views.

For the moment, let's look again at a ground rule you referred to in your last letter. Here is the ground rule of which you say that I was in violation (on reading this legalistic turn of phrase you chose -- in violation of-- I did not know whether to laugh or tremble):

Please be sensitive to the way in which you voice your objections, being careful to respond to what I actually say and not to what you think I mean or what someone 'like me' might say.
Although I hadn't thought about this second ground rule clearly enough when I first accepted it, I think that, on inspection, although understandable in spirit (as I first accepted it), it presents an impossible request. What it attempts to do is to say: be a divine-like interpreter; know in every case how to distinguish between "actual" meaning and "unintended" meaning before you respond. Now, if things were only that simple! If only language could permit in all cases immediate, direct, unadulterated, irrefutable recognition of another's meaning! And if only such access could be erected into a code of ethics that would organize and help to police all discussions! Think for a moment about what you are requesting of me: How is it possible for me not to respect what I think you mean? How is it possible for me to distinguish what I think you say from what you "actually say"? Isn't it rather in the nature of discussion to try to determine what the other is "actually" saying at any given moment (rather than assuming that the "actual" can be identified, with stunning obviousness, in every case)? Is your "actual meaning" something that is so obvious to me, or should be? How can you so peremptorily insist that, as a rule, the other must understand your "actual" meaning? Can one think of a more heavy-handed and dogmatic and violent constriction on discussion? Shouldn't discussion between two parties allow some room for negotiation, so that misunderstandings can be corrected along the way? I would love to enter the fairy land where every thing I say is understood at once by good-willed conversation partners in its actual meaning but, unfortunately, I have to resign myself to the fact that such a world is impossible. So, from now on, I propose that this rule be retained in spirit--that is, I think that we should be allowed to correct one another's mutual characterizations and generally try hard to remain faithful to one another's thoughts--but not cast in the face of the other, should the other be suspected of having misunderstood.

Before you proposed this ground rule, I was not aware that I had in any case misrepresented your thought. There is one point in your last e-mail where I think, however, I may have misrepresented your thought, and I am willing to admit that you corrected my formulation.

Specifically, I denied that the state's killing of a woman in Florida had "raised" the value of human life, whereas, you never spoke of degrees of value, but rather of the "expression" of an "ultimate" value. This is perhaps only a subtle difference, since I still find questionable and perplexing your use of the idea of there bing an "ultimate" value, but I'll return to this point later and, for the moment, accept your corrective statement.

There are other points in your discussion in which you seem to be, if I have to express the matter with like brutality, in violation of Ground Rule #2, but I do not assume that you were so out of ill will or a desire to misrepresent my thoughts and I am willing to address these differences in our characterizations of my thought later if they seem relevant to the main issues.

As a final note, I am not yet convinced that we are speaking of a different woman. The influence of legal advisors and media on death-row convicts is immense and I still hold out the possibility that the woman in question, under long-term pressure, had changed her story so as to comply with the dominant Christian narrative of willed self-destruction, repentance, contrition, etc. To be sure, we would have to look up her name and get the facts up on our screens.

More significantly, though, it is not exactly responsible of you, is it?, to assert that: "She said these things, I didn't say any of it." One wonders why you went to the trouble of recording her words. One wonders, precisely, how you understood them. The most likely assumption I could make was that you found them convincing, found them consoling, found that they in some way confirmed your support for the death penalty. If this is so, then I would suggest your taking responsibility for quoting her by saying how you understand her words. You have charged me with a rule violation for making a reasonable interpretation of your words. When you quoted the convict, you didn't even bother to say, "She said..." Rather, you authoritatively assumed a tone of omniscient narrator, writing: "She knew she was guilty, felt that if released she would kill again... etc." So, how was I to know that your actual meaning was that she had said those things if you didn't even bother to indicate in writing that it was she who had said those things? And this brings us back to our original point, in a way, for, even if she had said such things, can you be absolutely sure that those are the things she actually meant? In incorporating her words into your own, in a way that supports your own views, can you be absolutely sure that you are not in violation or breach of Ground Rule #2?