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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

What did you mean by that? Words, Meanings and Context

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 14th 2007

I was watching part of the Democratic Presidential candidates engage in the pre caucus debate yesterday (December 13, 2007) when Joe Biden, a long time senator in Washington D. C., was asked about his views on race in light of some remarks he had made about Senator Barack Obama, who is a black candidate running for the presidency. Of course I have no way of really knowing senator Biden's views and real opinions on race, religion and ethnicity but the question he was asked gave me pause to think of words, their meanings and how they are construed. You see, one of the comments Senator Biden is reputed to have made about Senator Obama is that he is "clean and articulate."

Clearly, these are words that can easily be interpreted as racist when used to characterize a black person. In other words, "clean and articulate" carries the implication that black people in general are "dirty and inarticulate." Again, I have now way of knowing if that is what Senator Biden unconsciously meant when he used those words. By the way, Mr. Obama dismissed the entire issue by stating he is certain that Mr. Biden is on the right side of the civil rights issue. Indeed, Mr. Biden has an excellent record on civil rights during his decades in the United States Senate.

The phrasing brought to mind things my grandmother used to say in reference to quite a few young men she had met who were white. I clearly remember her referring to one individual or another whom she may have met as "clean cut." Of course, in that context, no one would allege any racist intent as the individual in question was white. Also, the term "clean cut" did was a commonly used idiom, at the time that meant he came from an honest and hard working family. Did Senator Biden have this in mind when he used the word "clean" in reference to Mr. Obama?

An Example:

I once knew someone who was a middle school social studies teacher conducting a lesson on the American Civil War. The topic was introduced with a discussion on slavery, racial hatred and the use of prejudicial terms such as "some of my best friends are..." The class discussion centered on how that sentence could be finished depending on the ethnic group targeted for prejudice. In the case the full sentence would read: "some of my best friends are black." Interestingly, 95 percent of the class understood the meaning that the lesson had to do with the reasons for the Civil War was fought and its lasting legacy of racial bigotry on the part of some people. Two students, one white and one black went to the principal and complained that the teacher was spreading racial hatred and saying that "none of his friends are black."

Were these two youngsters lying? Probably not. In the context of their lives and their family backgrounds they "heard" or interpreted what they heard in just one way. They did not understand the metaphor, the symbolism, having to do with that sentence about friends. The principle brought the entire class in to his office, one at a time and before they could talk among themselves, and interviewed them about the lesson while the two "accusers" hid in another adjoining room with the door slightly ajar. After the series of interviews ended with the complete exoneration of the teacher, as the other students fully understood the lesson, the two
"accusers" walked back into the principal’s office, smiling triumphantly, because they were sure that they had proven their point. In other words, even then, they heard only one thing and still did not understand the meaning of the term "some of my best friends are black," nor did they understand the point of the lesson.

How can this happen and is this unusual? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding "no." We do not live in isolation from our families, our communities, our friends and our neighborhoods. We know that "context" profoundly influences not merely what we "hear" but how we interpret what we hear and see. For one thing we hear, see and interpret the kinds of things we have come to expect. It is not very difficult to deny or be blind to things heard and seen that do not fit into our expectations. When the World Trade Center was attacked many people had the initial thought that there was an airlines accident. Even today there are people so accustomed to the idea that America cannot be attacked that they view 9/11 as a CIA plot.

There are perceptual studies that demonstrate how people continue to view things from only one point of view. And so, with the famous ambiguous drawing of the "young woman/old hag" people can see either the young woman or old hag and cannot change their perception to see the alternate drawing of the opposite woman.

Perceptual Studies:

This difficulty with hearing and seeing within context and the inefficient way that memory works so called "eye witness accounts" at murder trials no longer carry the heavy weight of evidence they once did because so much of our perception and memory is influenced by dozens of factors that influence and distort memory.

It's the old story that the optimist feels great because his bottle of water is half full while the pessimist sadly complains that his bottle of water is half empty.

A Classic Movie:

Remember the famous Henry Fonda movie from the 1950's titled "Twelve Angry Men?" Eleven members of the jury believed that the accused was guilty of murder. Only one juror, Henry Fonda, believed there was reasonable doubt and therefore he could not vote guilty. As the story of the jurors progressed it turned out that each one was deeply influenced by his particular prejudices towards the trial, even including being convinced that if the majority said "guilty" then the accused must be guilty. In the end, only one juror was left who continued to insist on guilt. However, his attitude toward the accused and evidence was deeply affected by his own son who it turned out had been an ungrateful drug abuser. In the end, the accused was found innocent.

Are you sure you see and hear everything accurately? What are your experiences and opinions about this issue? Your comments are encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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