Pointless Pronouns

by Haider on February 18, 2012

Here’s an exercise for you.

A group in the United States wants to organize a protest in support of the Palestinian people. However, they weren’t given permission to hold their protest.

Someone comments: “Let them hold their protest. Otherwise they might fly planes into buildings.”

What does the comment mean? Who and what is it referring to?

Give it a bit of thought, then read on.

You can tell a lot about the commenter’s thinking and assumptions from that simple remark.

The reference is to 9/11. Although “fly planes into buildings” doesn’t make any reference to 9/11, it’s clear from the context.

The assumption is that the group wanting to protest are Muslims, and they might resort to using a similar act of aggression if their demand to hold their protest isn’t met.

You probably didn’t need a lot of time to understand the comment and the commenter’s point of view.

I recently read a similar comment on Twitter and replied to the writer about it. The context was different, but the implications of the comment were similar. I’m going to translate the following discussion I had to the example I gave above:

Me: “I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate people accusing your religious group for the crimes of a few of them, so why generalize about Muslims?”

Commenter: “I didn’t even mention Muslims. You figured it out by yourself. So every time someone mentions flying planes into buildings, are they referring to Muslims?”

My biggest problem with the commenter’s response is that he had a specific meaning in mind when he posted his original tweet. But because he didn’t explicitly specify who he meant, then the reference is open. It’s a pointless pronoun that doesn’t refer to any particular group and could mean whatever the recipient wants it to mean.

Commenter: “You are free to understand what you believe. Yet we dont want any planes flying into buildings.”

That’s not how language works. Language doesn’t exist in a separate realm free of context. Language refers to things in the real world (or specific concepts, with a clear definitions), and the meaning and scope of the words we use are shaped by their context. You should draw meaning from the context, provided that it’s clear.

In fact, the commenter’s responses continued to support the meaning I understood. “You figured it out by yourself” means that my understanding was correct, even though he didn’t make the actual reference to Muslims.

The commenter was irritated not because I misunderstood what he meant, but because I exposed it.

Shady language and fuzzy thinking doesn’t help anybody. Not the speaker, nor the listeners.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bashar February 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

sometimes there is a point to talking without naming specific groups I think, but not in this context.

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Haider February 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm

I agree. But the speaker and listener will know who’s meant, without having to mention names. Our friend here made the meaning open to interpretation, while denying the meaning he intended.

Thanks for passing by. :)

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