Contextual definitions are everything

Monday, March 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 30, 2010

It seems to be important now more than ever that we understand linguistics (the study of language). Almost daily, we are being made aware that some prominent figure did not mean what we thought they meant or do what we thought they did. Definitions are becoming far more important and murky. We formerly could accept the notion that a man’s word was his bond. Not anymore. We now have to have an understanding of many contexts before we can trust what is being communicated. We need some understanding of truth to function now more than ever. Communication is an integral part of our lives.

Bill Clinton's definition of sexual intercourse, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and Barack Obama’s campaign promises now leave themselves open for contextual definition.

Some statements are interpreted to mean the opposite of what was intended when the words were first spoken. We must now learn the background and circumstance of the communicator and the intended audience when the message was delivered before we can begin to discern the true meaning of the message. How can anyone be held accountable for their promises if the promises are being defined in an amorphous manner? I can remember trying to make my mother be consistent about a rule she communicated. She stated the rule was "yes" for the elders but "no" for me. In those days, this type of definition was far less frequent than it is now.

Definitions were not as much of a problem when our lives were less technology-driven. Hand crafted items were dependable. You were generally able to look a product producer in the eye. Peanut butter and other items were most likely safe. No longer is that the case. We don’t know the producers of most of our products and services, and customer service is a programmed e-mail.

Everything must be contextually defined. Literal definitions are no longer safe. Consider the definitions we now need for inflation, depression, deficit, life, death, birth, love, hate, forgiveness, good, bad, justice, freedom, democracy, truth, justice, health, education, inspection, regulation, guarantees, negotiation, nonpartisan, fair, equal and commitment. The list could go on infinitely, and even infinite must be defined contextually. The obscurity of the definitions are often compounded by the definers, i.e. doctors, lawyers, judges, rich and poor people, technicians, administrators and even educators.

We are nonetheless dependent on definitions, and we are compelled to master them to survive in this complex, communications-oriented and technologically-driven world. We must master the definitions, their context and all of the idiosyncrasies related to the definitions. We must also master their various potential impacts, and commit ourselves to teach our children to analytically address definitions and to be vigilant about them.

What we see may often be defined as the opposite of what we get.

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeretis for MU.

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