The Hard Work of Listening that Nobody Wants to Do
One of the first things I teach first-year rhetoric students is the difference between denotation and connotation. Knowing the difference between these two terms has always been important, but in 2017, it’s critical to engaging with a broken society.
DENOTATION is the literal definition of a word. It’s the definition you would find in a dictionary.
CONNOTATION is much more complicated. Connotation includes the social overtones of a word—the cultural connections it evokes in a given group of people.
For example, the denotative definition of the word “home” is, “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household” (Google).
The connotative definition of the word “home,” however, is different for different people. A home might mean a place of warmth, safety, shelter, fellowship to some. To another, it might be a place of chaos, abuse, criticism, loneliness.
While the term “home” is relatively benign, many other words used in modern public dialogue are inherently explosive. Simply speaking a word like, “patriot,” “Obama,” or “Second Amendment” can produce a surge of affection or ire. In America 2017, words are triggers, which makes public discourse a walk through a field of land mines.
HOW THIS PLAYS OUT IN SOCIAL DIALOGUE : A SAMPLE CONFLICT
So let’s create a fictional but likely scenario in which to explore these terms.
Let’s say that Citizen Left is frustrated that a public university building is named after a war general who was also a slave owner. Citizen Right reads Citizen Left’s complaint, and he tweets, “Snowflakes who can’t deal with America’s actual history can get on a boat and go back to Africa.”
News of this conflict hits the press, and furious posts are written on Citizen Right’s favorite news cites, claiming Citizen Lefts are attempting to erase the past and destroy national history from coast-to coast. Journalists aligned with Citizen Right write columns about the snowballing demands of political correctness, claiming this single change will lead to removing all national landmarks. Readers on the Right grow emboldened, feeling like patriots when they stand in hostile defiance Citizen Left’s complaints.
Citizen Lefts see this response and feel threatened. Citizen Right does not simply say, “No. We do not want to change this building name.” It says, “You are the enemy for wanting to change anything.”
In the wake of this heightened response, Citizen Left feels the need to join forces with other Citizen Lefts to resist what is now a escalating movement of anger toward a declared people group. Online dialogue divides and hardens people into two groups. A request for a simple name change has become a national line in the sand.
Such a domino train of connotative conclusions is nearly impossible to stop once it begins. No issue stands alone because every single complaint or cause is impregnated with all the meaning imbued by these extreme micro-cultures. Wild expressions of generalized connotative emotion overtake focused expressions of reason, and national aggression grows.
WHAT NOBODY TAKES TIME TO SEE : OUR CONNOTATIVE CONTEXT
It’s impossible to divorce ourselves from connotation, nor should that be our prime aim. Humans are not robots, and the emotional power of words is just as important as their technical definition.
However, if America is going to heal, we must openly acknowledge the central role of connotation and begin to operate accordingly. A couple in marital counseling has to identify and admit key problems before it can to work through them, and America’s fundamental threat to unity at this time is the threat of connotative context.
Every single human being carries a connotative context into every single human interaction. This context develops over decades, beginning in our first homes. Most of us learned to either love or mistrust Jimmy Carter (or Bill Clinton) by listening to comments made by family members we trusted--not by evaluating statements during a Presidential debate. As we grow older, additional friendships and life experiences become formative, and allegiance to a faith system (or non-faith system) and political affiliations calcifies our sense of context.
Eventually, a connotative context can overtake our whole personhood, and because connotation is affective, it impacts our sense of self far more deeply than denotative facts. Connotative context is stitched together from the faces of people we know, from places that are familiar, from real-life relationships, experiences, and metaphysical affiliations grow to define “us” instead of simply defining our coordinates in a world in which we operate.
If left to itself, a connotative context becomes identity instead of simply a lens by which to see the world.
CONNOTATIVE CONTEXT AND THE CONFEDERATE FLAG:
Let’s look at one example to unpack this tendency a little more deeply.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen how the Confederate flag can evoke wild and varied responses. For one man, it evokes feelings of Southern pride, independence, and patriotism. For another, it evokes images of lynchings, KKK rallies, and threats of genocide. If these two individuals try to have a conversation, they are unlikely to find a middle ground because their presuppositions are rooted in experience.
Old white men may remember giving a happy rebel yell to the sight of that flag while riding bikes as a ten-year-old, thinking nothing of racial issues, only warmed by a sense of Southern loyalty. An African American woman may remember flagrant racial hostility that she encountered from angry men flying this flag from their trucks.
These two people have had different experiences with this one symbol, and once their connotative context is calcified by time or by pain, it’s not likely to change. The man who remembers a childhood feeling of warm glee at seeing the Confederate flag will find it very hard to empathize with a woman who feels threat of abuse at the same sight. A woman who feels the threat of abuse is unlikely to feel comforted by another man’s benign childhood memory. This one flag is nostalgic and patriotic to one person, while it is ugly and hostile to another. These two realities exist at an incredibly deep level in each of these human beings.
In fact, you may have noticed that when people argue about the Confederate flag, they use denotative details almost exclusively to support their own connotative context. One may reference the resurgence of this flag during the 1960’s as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement. Another may reference its origin as the symbol for Virginia’s Army of the Potomac. But those details almost always fall within the tsunamic force of an affective soul which remembers either feeling threatened or warmed by this flag. The real fight isn’t happening in the exchange of data, but way deep under the surface, where our first loyalties and threats are formed.
Meanwhile, to make all this more complicated, our connotative context is a reality we can hardly see because it exists too close to us. Trying to see our context is like trying to see our own eye balls without a mirror.
THE DISCIPLINE OF SEMINOTICS
The discipline of seminotics—how signs communicate meaning--might be helpful here as well. This discipline was developed by Frederick Saussure, then expanded by C.S. Pierce who introduced a triadic theory of signs. I’m offering an incredibly simple reduction of the discipline below, but knowing that a couple of these terms exist might be important.
Pierce’s model of seminotics suggests that there are three parts to how signs work in a culture:
1. First, we have a SIGN (the representation)
2. Behind this sign, we have an OBJECT (what the sign represents)
3. Finally, we have AND INTERPRETANT (the interpretation of the sign)
This language allows us to admit that every sign causing tension in our culture points back to an object for interpretants.
Ignorant people try to avoid this complexity by dismissing opponents as “snowflakes,” but it would be more intelligent and fair to take the time to say, “Here we have a sign. This sign points to ______________ (object) for me. Where does it point for you?”
Admitting this difference isn’t a move of relativism. It doesn’t require the erasing of history or the undermining of our republic. It’s a move of essential humanity—admitting that we all grew up in different contexts, in different situations, and therefore that we see the world differently.
Understanding connotation is hard and humble work, and I’m not sure how a nation addicted to pride and anger can begin this sort of dialogue. I’m incredibly angry with a huge portion of America right now, and frankly, I don’t care why certain people feel what they feel.
White supremacism, for example, is clearly a satanic force in this nation; therefore, I am unwilling to ask meaningful questions about why KKK members feel the way they feel. I don’t care what their stories are. I don’t care what their families were like. I simply want those dastardly people to go away. However, brave souls like Daryl Davis are doing the work of personal engagement, and they are seeing change as a result. I am in awe of Davis’s courage and character. If I hadn’t read his story, I wouldn’t even be able to imagine trying to do such a thing.
God also gave supernatural grace to Corrie Ten Boom as she engaged with one of her former Nazi abusers. After watching the ugliness of Charlottesville, I see now more of how astounding that move was. It would take divine empowerment to push me to care about people so driven by foolishness and hate.
I’m not ready yet to try to engage with those sorts of people. But I can take baby steps with other groups who make me angry.
For example, I’m profoundly angry with Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. because they have bastardized the gospel with political allegiance. I’m convinced that these men are living out the sins of the church of Ephesus in the book of Revelation, and I think they are misleading thousands of sincere believers, corrupting a gospel that should be kept pure at all costs.
I’m also profoundly angry with Eric Metaxas and other so-called conservatives who have abandoned their professed morality to operate from fear and political posturing. I believe they have done far more harm to the conservative cause than any liberal has ever done.
I am certain that these men are committing grave wrongs. I don’t think that engaging with them will change my opinion on how Christians should engage with politics. However, asking better questions of their followers might allow me to operate more humanely instead of dismissing them in disgust. And maybe if I am more humane, asking questions about fears and their sources, eventually those people will calm down enough to be able to hear my own viewpoint.
For example, when I realize that reading Left Behind twenty years ago caused a woman in Alabama to believe that Trump is preventing globalists from issuing in the anti-Christ, I am likely shake my head. But understanding her fear also helps me understand this woman’s decision-making process. And when I realize that thousands of people like her are operating out of a connotative context in which “America first” feels like it will prevent Nicolae Carpathia from planting sign-of-the-Beast microchips in every citizen, I see a fear strong enough to make a person unable to see Trump’s actual violations of Scripture.
Hearing all this doesn’t make me automatically patient or compassionate with people who should be acting better than they are. But as hard as it is to take time for this sort of thing, I still think it’s important.
I also think it’s essential to resolving some of the problems that are overtaking America at present. Why are some statues so offensive that people are willing to risk jail to tear them down? What stories are behind that? Why do certain people feel heard and represented by someone like Donald Trump? What does Franklin Graham fear so much that he is willing to use his social media page for political ends? Why would someone feel the need to say "Black Lives Matter" instead of just "All Lives Matter?"
If individuals don’t take time to understand their own connotative context as well as the connotative context of other individuals—if we don’t stop lazily blowing all opponents off as “snowflakes”-- if we don't start seeing why different signs mean different things to different people—we are going to end up simply killing each other for stories we never took time to hear.