I must become all things to all people . . . .

Many of you are probably tired of reading about the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate, at least for this round; you can only take it for so long before your brain gives up. But this post is less about the debate’s focus than its execution: namely, one possible source for the difficulty of communication that I think we can all agree plagues any attempt to move forward. Based on my peripheral encounters with theories of communication, I think tablesaw is right about the ways in which the conduit metaphor shuts down the possibility of effective progress, and Reddy’s alternate metaphor of the toolmakers with their blueprints and the evil magician coming along to mess with them sounds like a pretty apt description of the situation we find ourselves in. (Not just here, either; just poke your nose into politics and watch it play out.)

But I have one big question for the “Becoming Toolmakers” portion of the essay. To quote:

In the toolmakers paradigm, to become a better one-on-one communicator, I must learn more about the person with whom I wish to communicate and communicate to that person in mind. In the toolmakers paradigm, to become a better writer and address a universal audience, I must learn more about everyone by learning about multiple, intersecting cultural contexts different from my own, and I must write with all of them in mind.

On the one hand, this is more or less how I think about communication: that you must always bear your audience in mind, and try to craft your ideas into a shape that will work within that audience’s context. On the other hand — sweet Pentecost on a pita cracker, how am I supposed to speak mindfully to everyone at once? I don’t even know who all my readers ARE! Even if we agree to leave out everybody who isn’t moderately fluent in English, according to this “solution,” in order to communicate effectively, I must learn about inner-city Chicago blacks and Pakistani immigrants in London and American-born Israeli Jews and nisei Japanese college students at Stanford and affluent Hispanic teens in Dallas and everybody else I haven’t named and then write with ALL OF THEM IN MIND.

And that’s before we even get to the possibility that the communication strategy which is effective with one group may be actively detrimental with another, and vice versa.

Dude. There is little in the world I love more than learning about multiple, intersecting cultural contexts different from my own. I spent ten years in school majoring in just that, and I’ll keep doing it on my own from now until you pry my library out of my cold, dead fingers. But the “solution” as framed above is not a solution; it’s a godlike ideal no human will ever be able to live up to. Is it sufficient if I try? Or if I decide, okay, there’s a black character in this story, so I will focus my efforts on trying to speak to the myriad of possible black perspectives (because there is no single “black perspective”) and not worry about what the Hispanics or Asians or whoever think? How do I account for all the perspectives in the world that aren’t mine, and speak to all of them at once?

I don’t have an answer to that. I think tablesaw raised some great points in that post, but I hit that bit at the end and my eyes bugged out of my head. It’s kind of like the rule we kept returning to, during the panel discussions at VeriCon: how do you do [thing X]? Be a genius! It’s the solution to everything. Except that I can’t just wave a magic wand and turn myself into a genius. I can take little baby steps toward this utopia, but will they be enough?

0 Responses to “I must become all things to all people . . . .”

  1. anghara

    That is the post that wrote using my post from elsewhere as jumping off point?

    Yes, the passage that you quote leapt out at me too. Doing the best I can means just that, doing the best I can, but I cannot hold a world of minds in mine without going insane with it.

    It’s – well – the metaphor that was used in the discussion from which ‘s post sprang was, “If I stab a puppy and then promise not to stab puppies anymore, how hard should it be for me to not stab puppies? Am I going to get confused and go for a kitty and accidentally stab a puppy? Not if I have half a brain.” All of which makes perfect sense – but let me swap out the mammal for an instant.

    You see, a puppy is a puppy is a puppy. But take, for instance, a rat. To one person – let’s call him Scientist – the rat is a lab animal, a useful tool, possibly bred solely for the purpose of dying a cold hard death somewhere so that Science may be Advanced – and this is okay, because, hey, it’s a rat, and you’re looking for a cure for cancer. The second person might be the kind that keeps rats as pets – personally I don’t GET it, I don’t find rats either cute or huggable, I look at them and I see RODENT and hey, can anyone say “the black plague”?… Let’s call this person the Pet Owner. And then there’s the third person, the Kill It Now person, the kind that sees a rat, thinks “VERMIN!” and calls the exterminator or wallops it with a baseball bat themselves, or sics their cat(s) on it – the object here isn’t for the rat to die a useful death, like the Scientist would perhaps wish. The object is for the rat to DIE.

    Now, if you write about the rat, you may be the Pet Owner, and to you what you have written is warm and fuzzy and sweet. When the Kill It NOw person sees the rat/story, they respond to it using their own rat criteria, and start screaming for extermination. The Scientists may jump in and start arguing that you might as well get some use from the thing before you smoosh it.

    We are talking about the same thing. The same rat. And if the writer of rhe rat isn’t of the same persuasion as the reader of the rat, can there be a rapprochement? Can the rat ever exist as a rat, no more than that, and the feelings that get attached to the rat by the differing worldviews of the people encountering the rat be kept out of the rat equation?

    Is it even POSSIBLE for a Kill It Now person to write a story that the Pet Owner would understand, or even want to read? Is it possible for a Scientist to make a case for a coldly objective analysis to the Kill It Now person who’s quivering in a corner with a shoe in their clenched hand?

    How are we supposed to write for all of these people?

    • Marie Brennan

      The flaw in your analogy, though, is that in practice your audience is not made up of Pet Owners and Scientists and Kill It Now people; it’s made up of rats. And what you’re trying to do is write from a perspective in which they are not vermin or test subjects or cute widdle critters — at the same time that you’re trying to understand and speak to the perspective of cats, dogs, bald eagles, and beta fish.

      (And then this debate has made me twitchy enough that I’m uncomfortable with metaphorically comparing people to animals anyway.)

      • anghara

        Well, I was comparing the story to the rat, not the people, but I do take your point.

        And you’re right on the rest of it too.

        • anghara

          Oh, and PS – I have FINALLY started reading “Midnight Never Come”, which has been on the To Be Read pile for quite long enough now – and it’s FABULOUS. *When* did you say that “Ashes” was coming out…?

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