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Matt Damon is ignorant of some very basic facts about communication

[Content note: Celebrities talking about assault stuff again]

“You know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?”

Yes, there is a difference! And I see people on Twitter defending Damon for bravely pointing out that there is a difference.

But this is another case of the Problem of Cascading Meaning.

“It’s 47 degrees” never just means that it’s 47 degrees. It means “we should go inside,” “I’m cold,” “I wish I had dressed warmer,” “Lend me your jacket,” etc. If you say it as a clown is passing by, it also means “this clown bores me.”

[snip] You never get to just say what you say. You say what you say and you also say all the things a reasonable listener is likely to infer from what you said.

What is plainly visible to everyone about Matt Damon’s comments is that he is not only saying that different things are different. He is also saying that when one of his buddies like Ben Affleck gropes a 21-year-old’s breast without her permission he should be forgiven in a way others are not. After all, he didn’t literally molest a child. He just molested an adult. And not even both boobs!

On just about any other topic, this tactic would be transparent. No one seriously says

There’s a difference between killing one person and strangling dozens of people, right?

matt damon photo

Unclear what he’s grabbing here. Image by theglobalpanorama

It’d be obvious that the speaker is trying to minimize killing one person. They don’t want the person who has only killed one person to receive the same treatment as the mass murderer. If that weren’t the implication, then the difference wouldn’t be worth highlighting at all.

Out of the legion of true things Damon could have said, he chose this one. His implication is clear.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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54 thoughts on “Matt Damon is ignorant of some very basic facts about communication

  1. The term you are looking for, both here and in the Dawkins case, is “pragmatics.” This is the branch of linguistics that studies how language is actually used, as contrasted with the strict meaning of the words. My standard example is Joe says “I need a ride downtown” and Bob replies “I’m going that way.” In the real world, Bob has offered to take Joe downtown. If instead Bob gets in his car and drives away without Joe, and later claims that he had not in fact offered Joe a ride but had merely made a factual statement, then we would correctly conclude that Bob is an ass. Wikipedia has a decent synopsis here.

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  2. “No one seriously says “There’s a difference between killing one person and strangling dozens of people, right?” Really? I sure as hell do, because, assuming the person killed in the beginning of the sentence is strangled also, there sure as hell is a different is killing 1 versus 12 people, and that difference is on many levels: legal, moral, situational dependent, etc. Next, I expect you’ll be telling me that killing one Jew is the same as 6 Million. I’m kinda thinking there’d be a few people who might a small issue with that.

    And the stuff about 47 degrees. You DO get to say what you say. How someone else INTERPRETS what you say is out of your control. However, you CAN make an effort to be more precise in your speaking to better convey your meaning.

    And you know, growing one adult IS different that groping a string of women over 30 years, if only in the sense that it’s likely you’d get much more prison time for one vs the other.

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    • The point, as in the pragmatics example I use in my earlier comment, is that as language is used in real life, a factual statement routinely serves a purpose beyond the literal meaning of the statement. Assuming a hurt expression of innocence when called on it, and pointing out that factual truth of the statement, is a dick move.

      Imagine this conversation: Wife: “You slept with my sister!” Husband: “Yes, but that is not nearly as bad as a threesome with your sister and mother would have been.” One of Grice’s maxims of pragmatics is the Maxim of Relation, which briefly stated is “Be relevant.” The statements by the partners in a conversation are relevant to the conversation, if the individuals are engaging in the conversation in good faith. If the husband’s reply is relevant, he is implicitly telling his wife to lighten up because he could have behaved in a far more appalling way. If she calls him on it and the falls back on the “factually true statement” defense, he is claiming that he broke the Maxim of Relation, and that his statement was not in fact relevant to the conversation. In other words, his defense is that he is a dick. Dump the guy for that alone, even apart from sleeping with your sister.

      This, in slightly different form, also is a classic usenet dick move. Joe makes an assertion. Bob disputes it. Multiple rounds of posts follow, with Joe’s assertion becoming increasingly less tenable. At some point Bob repeats Joe’s assertion so as to emphasize how untenable it is. Joe then claims that they hadn’t been talking about that assertion for days now, and Bob must be peculiarly stupid to imagine that they were. Left unmentioned is that Joe never actually disclaimed the assertion, and every step of the discussion has followed directly from it. The claim Joe is making is that the he changed the subject of the discussion without mentioning it: that he has violated the Maxim of Relation. In other word’s, Joe’s claim is that he is a dick.

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      • “The point, as in the pragmatics example I use in my earlier comment, is that as language is used in real life, a factual statement routinely serves a purpose beyond the literal meaning of the statement. ”

        I’m not disputing that statements are interpreted differently by those receiving it. And if someone interprets something I said that’s within a reasonable interpenetration of what i actually said, but not my intent, then it’s my error in communication, but it it’s WAY off the reservation, then that’s on them. Dick move? Maybe, but if I don’t care.

        “You knew this when you married me”. If this is a statement of fact. Don’t bring bitching to me about a behavior of mine you knew about but nonetheless agreed to marry me.

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  3. In part, what Vikram seems to be talking about is the problem of making analogies. As he has written earlier, argument by analogy is fraught. Murdering one person is “like” murdering 12 people or it’s not “like” that. And frankly, although I’d phrase it differently, I do agree with commenter Damon that we generally do treat someone who murdered 12 people differently from how we treat a person who’s killed “only” one person. (Maybe the law doesn’t….but I’m not so sure….)

    In part,Vikram seems to be talking about pragmatics, as Richard pointed out above. I know way too little about the context in which Matt Damon said what he said and what Affleck is alleged to have done (I skimmed the linked to article, and it appears Affleck apologized unequivocally. The rest of the article seems to be not about what Affleck did in that case, but whether and how much he knew about the Weinstein thing). Without knowing the context, I’ll say that Matt Damon seems to be implying that Affleck is being punished as someone who has done much worse. If that implication is true (I have no idea if it is, if Affleck being punished in that way, although I strongly suspect it isn’t), then Matt Damon has a point. If that is implication is true, or at least sincerely contestable, then I think I agree with what Vikram seems to be saying.

    In other words, I probably agree with Vikram, but I can imagine a way in which this case could be a tougher call and not quite a clear as Vikram presents it.

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    • we generally do treat someone who murdered 12 people differently from how we treat a person who’s killed “only” one person. (Maybe the law doesn’t….but I’m not so sure….)

      Now that I’ve thought about it, I realize I missed (some of) the point. Obviously, if we respond to the charge that someone has murdered another with “well, at least he/she didn’t kill twelve,” then of course that (assuming no other context) is minimizing what the murderer did.

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  4. I’m in a weird place where I actually had this conversation with my Mom over the weekend.

    She mentioned to me that she thought it was weird that people were conflating (horrifically egregiously evil act) with (stupid and selfish crass act) and, more than that, jumping all over people who were making points similar to the one that Matt Damon made here.

    I shrugged and pointed out that we had a similar conversation back during the Clarence Thomas hearings when I was all “why did she follow him job to job?” and she explained to me back then that sexual harassment was weird and insidious and perfectly plausibly deniable. Her expression changed a little bit and she told me a story behind why we moved to New York from Michigan a million years ago. Her boss hit on her in a weird and insidious and perfectly plausibly deniable way. So she quit and we moved and we hammered out that if we had a culture where the weird and insidious and perfectly plausibly deniable were seen as worth jumping down for a few years, maybe we’d have less weird and insidious and perfectly plausibly deniable culture.

    Which, now that I go back and re-read that, reads like a parody of some of the worst “I educated my baby boomer parents” posts that you see on tumblr. Ugh.

    Anyway, she and I came to an agreement that the stupid and selfish and crass was technically not as awful as the egregiously evil, but we’re overdue for a correction. Part of that correction is jumping down the throats of the stupid and selfish and crass and getting them to not act stupid and selfish and crass.

    When it comes to Ben Affleck in particular, does that mean that nobody should work with Ben ever again? People shouldn’t hire him? Nah. It just means that he needs to say something like “when I was young and stupid and on top of the world I felt so entitled that I did massive harm to a large number of people and I didn’t mean to… I was just having fun but, now that I am older, I look back and see that my fun was at the expense of others and I did a huge amount of harm to a lot of people… not just Hilarie Burton, but the young people watching at home were harmed by me. The young women who witnessed the assault and were appalled and the young men who witnessed it and thought that it must have been okay. I did *MASSIVE* harm. And I apologize to Hilarie Burton, I apologize to the people who watched it, I apologize to the people who found themselves in arguments against the people who defended what I did as ‘not that bad’. I don’t know how I’m going to make up for this sort of thing overall but one thing that I am going to do is be the executive producer of something or other that will deal with these issues and I’m going to ask Hilarie Burton to star in it.”

    Something like that.

    Weinstein can never make amends for what he’s done (not even if he took on the NRA). Affleck probably could because what Affleck did wasn’t as bad.

    But if Affleck doesn’t make amends, I don’t see why Affleck would deserve to be treated as if he had.

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  5. I’ll add another comment…

    Recently my jujitsu instructor told me that a woman claimed I “swatted her on the ass” in class and that I needed to stop it. Think “football ass pat”. This is a married woman, who’s husband is in the same class. She brought the complaint up to the instructor and he forgot to tell me about it for two weeks, until she reminded him about it again. I barely recall rolling with her, but since I don’t put my hand on anyone’s ass, except the girlfriends, I was at a loss. Lots of times, after a roll, the opponents fist bump or such before switching partners. I think I went for a fist bump and she had already gotten up, was turned away, and was leaving. Since I was on my knees, I fell forward and my hand grazed the back of her gui. That’s the only physical contact I’ve had with her other than rolling, and you don’t put your hands on someone’s ass when rolling. Nevertheless, I had to get her and her husband in a private room, explain things and apologize for any possible misunderstanding. In the end, she ended up hugging me twice and the husband fist bumped me, so all is well, but this could have been a shitstorm for me, the school, and the instructor, if she’d made a “federal case” out of it. That’s the real scary part of this story.

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    • In mitigation, the risk of encountering unreasonable people who interpret and react to things in unreasonable ways is an unavoidable part of life.

      This doesn’t mean that the justice system necessarily needs to collaborate in the unreasonableness of an unreasonable person. To the extent that it does, it does so in the service of having open and equal access to justice for all, which is a qualitatively different social good than people behaving reasonably towards one another.

      In your case, you got the privilege of dealing with people who, at some point in the process, began to behave reasonably. They afforded you the benefit of a charitable hearing of what you had to say, and were satisfied at having their concern raised and responded to. The good news is, this is nearly all people, nearly all of the time. The bad news is, every once in a while, not so much. Sorry about that.

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    • I completely agree that is a scary situation for you, dude, and I’m sorry you had to deal with it.

      But for me the “real scary” part of the story is that someone who was perfectly comfortable after an explanation and an apology, comfortable to the point of initiating physical contact, is so wired to experience that type of threat that her initial reaction to an accidental butt brush is to assume it was a purposeful swat. And that your innocent physical contact was still bothering her two weeks later, due to whatever previous experiences / cultural conditioning she’s had, such that she felt the need to push the instructor on it. And that most women seem to share those experiences / cultural conditioning.

      What that says about how broken our society is – that a seemingly reasonable friendly person can be that on guard at all times including in a physical-contact-oriented activity, and what it implies to me about how much it sucks to be a woman, and how much it aligns with the plethora of other such evidence I have – is scarier to me than hearing about your experience. Which might have been a shitstorm, but IME, almost certainly wouldn’t have been. Because even though a significant portion of normal guys are running around terrified by all this, abusers and system-gamers know that the odds of any confrontation being more than a minor drama are tiny at best… that’s why they keep getting away with it. And will probably keep doing so after this #metoo thing dies down, almost as much as they have done after every other such movement. Change on that front continues to be incremental at best.

      tl;dr the best way to get a society where accidentally bumping into a chick’s butt is not going to be a federal case, is to work at having a society where chicks’ collective experience of being so bumped is that it has pretty much zero chance of it being other than an accident.

      Sucks for you and her, is what I’m saying. I’m glad you sorted it..

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      • Thanks M.

        I’m not sure how all this came about, but I keep wondering why she couldn’t confront me right then and there, or even later the day it happened. As I said, she is always there with her husband–you’d think she’d be comfortable with him backing her up.

        Meh, not being a serial ass slapper, I guess I can speak for that small percentage of dudes who are pigs.

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    • While it’s certainly true that this system is set up so that a bad actor could game it and put together a situation where it’s one person’s word against another and that will automatically work to the benefit of people who are skilled bad actors with more cultural capital than their victims, that’s a tough situation to resolve.

      Maybe additional checks and balances could fix it? Better technology?

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        • Yiddish has a great term that might be useful here. “Schnorrer”. (You hear it in Groucho’s delightful “Hurray for Captain Spaulding” (around 2:15).)

          The idea is that it’s someone who consistently asks for things that would be well within the boundaries of perfectly acceptable requests but only just barely. Hey, can I borrow a pen? Hey, can I borrow a cup of sugar? Hey, can I bum a cigarette? I’m short a quarter for this purchase, can I borrow a quarter?

          In any society, this sort of thing is part of the give and take of living in a group of people. Yeah, I’ve got a pen. Man, I ran out of sugar once here you go. I’ve got an extra smoke. Sure, here’s a quarter.

          It’s almost chiseling, but what is asked for is never *THAT* bad. It’s always just barely within the bounds of acceptable. Because, hey. Sometimes you need a pen, or a cup of sugar, or a smoke, or a quarter.

          So how to deal with this sort of thing. Point out that you’ve noticed, the community has noticed, and EVERYBODY HAS FREAKING NOTICED. No, it’s not about getting the quarter back, or you buying a carton to make up for the loosies over the years. It’s about how WE’VE NOTICED.

          So too with a lot of the little perfectly plausibly deniable things. Standing just a little too close. A touch on the shoulder. Nothing that, in isolation, is worthy of censure… but, hey, if they add up, there’s something that the community can do to deal with this sort of thing.

          Point out to the person that they are at risk of being a schnorrer and point out that the community has noticed.

          Sure, maybe you just needed a quarter. That’s fine. Sometimes you need a quarter.

          Don’t be a schnorrer.

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  6. Hypothetical One: Xavier stalks and murders his wife, Yvette. He is detected, apprehended, tried, and convicted. For the murder of Yvette, Xavier receives either a sentence of life, or a sentence of death. So the result to Xavier is either to spend the rest of his life in prison, or a long time in prison followed by execution at the hands of the state. Xavier is also a murderer, and rightly receives the moral obloquy society imposes upon murder.

    Hypothetical Two: Zebulon uses a high-powered assault rifle to spray bullets at random into a crowd of thousands of people, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. He is detected, apprehended, tried, and convicted. For the murder of dozens of people, Zebulon receives dozens of either-life-or-death sentences, and for the ADW charges on the hundreds of wounded people, Zebulon receives hundreds of twenty-year terms, which the judge in her wisdom imposes are to be served consecutively. So the result to Zebulon is either to spend the rest of his life in prison, or a long time in prison followed by execution at the hands of the state. Zebulon is also a murderer, and rightly receives the moral obloquy society imposes upon murder.

    Zebulon has murdered many, many more people than Xavier, who only murdered Yvette. The practical result to both is identical because each one can only die once, and for both it’s going to happen in prison. We eventually hit a practical maximum in our capacity to impose punishment, and having done that, we must resolve ourselves to the fact that as a society we’ve done all our justice system permits to punish and otherwise respond to unacceptable conduct. We impose severe moral opproprium on Xavier, and even more severe moral opprobrium on Zebulon.

    And here’s the component that it seems Mr. Damon wants to gloss over but which remains nevertheless true: the relatively higher degree of moral opprobrium imposed on Zebulon in no way excuses Xavier’s conduct. So, to get back to what Mr. Damon was talking about, the relatively higher degree of moral opprobrium imposed on, say, Harvey Weinstein in no way excuses Ben Affleck’s conduct.

    To me, this isn’t really all that complicated and I’m a bit at a loss to understand why people are excited about this.

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    • Furthermore, if Xavier’s buddy Aloysius responds to news of Xavier murdering Yvette with “What Zebulon did was worse!” then reasonable people will understand this as an attempt by Aloysius to minimize Xavier’s culpability, not as merely an abstract discussion of morality.

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        • It doesn’t.

          But if Alex is talking about how huge Jupiter is, and Bobby replies that the sun is much larger, well….

          As for the applicability to this particular situation, and the predicament Mr Damon finds himself in: there are situations where you can just casually toss off a comment without carefully considering the meaning that others will infer from it and holy shit was this not one of them.

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    • I’m a bit at a loss to understand why people are excited about this.

      If you’re aiming for zero tolerance then pointing out that Ben isn’t even close to Harvey is a problem. It’s a big step towards letting Ben off with something less than execution (of his career if nothing else). We may be at the point where it becomes about “sending a message” and “expressing outrage” and levels of guilt (or even guilt at all) become irrelevant.

      To be fair, I’m not sure what punishments are available if we want to go less than execution. Does he keep the Batman franchise? Assume we do something which cuts his income in half… which means it’s still absurdly outrageous by the standards of most people pointing fingers.

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      • I think if the only options available range from, “Career stalled,” to, “Career basically ruined,” it will be impossible to effectively separate your Afflecks from your Weinsteins.

        Just like the justice system in @burt-likko’s example ultimately imposes functionally identical punishments on Xavier and Zebulon.

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    • The MeToo movement is creating a lot of cultural anxiety because a lot of men are genuinely confused about when, where, and how they can flirt with women without unleashing the wrath of the Goddess on them.

      In the Slate piece that Tod posted in his Linky Friday, Alison Benedickt made the point that women are sending some very contradictory messages toward men on this subject. One is don’t harass but the other is be agreesive because women liked to be chased. I think many men are afraid that they are going to receive some type of massive punishment for complementing a woman on how they did their hair today.

      These types of culture wars usually seem to involve the strictest sidebimpodinh their beliefs on everybody else. While what Ben did was harassment by any reasonable definition, there are seemingly people that want to crack down on the most innocent flirting too.

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      • sidebimpodinh

        This is either a typo, or a cool new slang.

        Please, lets make sidebimpodinh a thing.
        Or better yet, lets start confidently using it, and see if it spreads to other blogs.

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      • “The MeToo movement is creating a lot of cultural anxiety ”

        I’d say that rather than “creating” it, it’s just spreading it around. Less cultural anxiety for women on average, more for men on average. (I’d like to think that eventually we’ll get to less anxiety for everyone, but as remarked upthread, society’s going to have to make some deeper changes, around unquestionably unacceptable rather than gray area issues, before that happens… until then the gray area is going to be very gray.)

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        • If the MeToo movement is failing to note the difference between harassment and rape, and leaving women with the impression that the worst acts happen a lot more often than they really do, I’m sure that would increase the anxiety among women.

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          • In that entirely hypothetical situation, one which does not at all match the experiences I’ve had or the people I’ve observed in the last 3 months, or in general what I’ve observed to happen when women speak more about their experiences of sexual threat on whatever level, yes, it would.

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        • The anxiety seems to be mainly spreading to the men least likely to commit sexual harassment or do the still bad but lower level stuff. Besides Weinstein, the most egregious assaulters and harassers are shameless, so they can’t really understand why what they are doing is wrong. As Michelle Goldberg pointed out in the New York Times, liberal-leanings areas and organizations have been the most reactive while right-leaning organizations have generally shown immunity. There won’t be any change unless the shameless and powerful get brought down to.

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          • There won’t be any change unless the shameless and powerful get brought down to.

            I disagree.

            Trump-the-President is immune to this sort of accusation because there are other priorities, but Trump-the-Beauty-Show-Host probably wouldn’t have been immune. Moore lost a safe seat, that’s a big deal and a lesson not soon lost.

            The Right leaning groups aren’t imposing zero-tolerance-this-is-the-first-priority, but I’m hearing some of the people being fired from the Left aren’t allowed to defend themselves and there’s no due process. Doing less than everything isn’t the same as doing nothing, and it might be better in the long run.

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      • In the Slate piece that Tod posted in his Linky Friday, Alison Benedickt made the point that women are sending some very contradictory messages toward men on this subject.

        “Women” is doing entirely too much work in that sentence.

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      • The MeToo movement is creating a lot of cultural anxiety because a lot of men are genuinely confused about when, where, and how they can flirt with women without unleashing the wrath of the Goddess on them.

        I call BS on this and all sentiments like this. For any man having anxiety about when, where and how to flirt, that anxiety isn’t coming from a freaking hashtag. It’s coming from the fact that they’re bad at flirting.

        Guess what? You’re not Don Draper (I mean the proverbial you). Heck, Don Draper isn’t even Don Draper. And that’s part of the whole point of Mad Men. If you’re bad at interacting with women in the present day, then you would have been equally bad at interacting with women in some imagined pre-politically correct era of anything goes. The only difference is that more women would have had to grin and bear your being bad at interacting with women.

        A lot of dudes like to imagine that they’re Han Solo or… well, you know, at least they would be kind of like Han Solo if not for the looming, ever-present threat of opprobrium posed by political correctness. Guess what? You’re not Han Solo. Han Solo doesn’t worry about contradictory messages. Han Solo thrives on contradictory messages. That’s why Han gets Leia and why you won’t.

        There is a thing where people imagine a version of themselves in their head that is almost completely disconnected from who they are in the real world. In moments of lucidity, they acknowledge that disconnect, but rather than simply admit that it’s a fantasy and move on with real life, they often make up some rationalization story about how they would be that person if not for some social proscription keeping them from being their true inner savage. This is a thing that people have always done, but the fact that popular culture lends us so many of our archetypes has thrown this phenomenon into overdrive. People should really stop doing this. It won’t end well.

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  7. We’re at a time when people are denying that it’s 47 degrees outside. In such a time, the act of saying “it’s 47 degrees outside” can fairly be interpreted as meaning just what it says and no more.

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  8. ““It’s 47 degrees” never just means that it’s 47 degrees. It means “we should go inside,” “I’m cold,” “I wish I had dressed warmer,” “Lend me your jacket,” etc. If you say it as a clown is passing by, it also means “this clown bores me.””

    It could also mean, “I wish I hadn’t worn snow pants.”

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      • Without commenting on the rest of the piece, saying, ““It’s 47 degrees” never just means that it’s 47 degrees,” is basically an argument against words and language meaning anything.

        Never? What if someone said, “What’s the temperature?” “It’s 47 degrees” CAN mean something other than it’s 47 degrees, but certainly doesn’t have to.

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          • I take issue with the quote. Insisting that “It’s 47 degrees” never means its 47 degrees is wrong. It can mean just that. It can also mean other things. And it struck me as odd the person arguing it must mean other things ONLY saw one possible other meaning.

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                • I suppose I would say it thusly…

                  Saying, “It’s 47 degrees outside,” doesn’t necessarily mean the speaker was simply stating the temperature. Depending on the tone, context, and other cues, they may well be saying something different or more. In addition, the listener may also receive a message other than what the speaker said or intended.

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                  • From time to time as I’m walking past the thermostat my wife asks me “What’s the temperature?” My usual response is “Inside or outside?” since the thermostat shows both. After she chooses one, my response of “The sensor says it’s 47 degrees outside” really is nothing but a statement of fact — I have no idea what context is in her head. Along with a hint of “I haven’t been out myself, so can’t tell you more than what the sensor reads.” Here in Colorado, whether the sun is shining may be as important as the number.

                    There are times when I worry that I’m turning into one of Heinlein’s Fair Witnesses in my dotage…

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