The tyranny of the perlocution

When trying to understand the statements and actions of others we often misinterpret their intentions. Depending on the subject matter, such misinterpretations can lead to heated accusations flying in both directions and end up in a situation resembling WWI style trench warfare. I believe we should be aware of two key elements in the communication process which can aid in reducing the amount of trench warfare and improve our dialog with people holding disparate ideas.

Element #1: The Perlocution

When people make statements and assertions, part of what they say is external and accessible to all: e.g. sentences, words, text layout, body language and gestures etc. Another part of what they’re saying is unspoken and internal: e.g. their specific understanding of the terms and signs being used, the connotations of the phrases, the motivation for and the purpose of the statement etc. This is an important point to recognize. Every time you interpret the statements and actions of another person, part of the work involved is in essence guess work. The meaning you associate with their statements is based in part on your ability to adequately ascertain the speakers internal understandings, motivations and views. The term perlocution stems from the speech-act theory of J. L. Austin. What I am referring to with the term (which may not be 100% congruent with Austin’s usage) are the goals and motivations of a speaker, pertinent to a speech act, which do to their subjective nature are only truly knowable by the speaker him- or herself. Even if one does not hold to Austin’s speech-act theory, I think one must concede that something exists similar to what I have described, regardless of the use of the perlocution moniker.

Element #2: Worldviews

Wikipedia defines a worldview as a “fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing natural philosophy; fundamental existential and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.” When we think about how things work in the world, what the cause and effect relationship is, the ethical evaluation of specific activities and a host of other issues, the judgments we make are related to our worldview. When a boy on the school playground through speech and action is aggressive and assertive, some may judge this behavior as “bullying” and others may view it as a demonstration of “a healthy ego.” One person sees the use of military force as a proper response to a specific threat. Another person views the same use of military force as unwarranted and even as a cause rather than solution to problems. I.e. the same activity is judged differently by different people. This is because the people in question hold different worldviews about how people should relate to one another and what role military force plays in the world.

The tyranny of the perlocution occurs when these two elements of human nature (perlocution and worldview) are inappropriately combined. Unfortunately, this appears to be the standard procedure among human beings. We combine the outward expressions from others with our personal worldview in order to deduce the related perlocutions of the other. This often results in misunderstanding and hostility. Because the communication process necessarily involves a degree of speculation about the the motives and goals of the speaker, we are forced to fill the void (the missing perlocutionary qualities) with something. The most natural source is our own worldview. When someone makes a statement, we instinctively ask ourselves, “why are they saying this?” or “what do they hope to gain from this?” The most natural answer comes from our own experience. We imagine ourselves making such a statement and deduce the perlocutionary qualities that would accompany such a statement. We then ascribe these deduced perlocutionary qualities to be those of the speaker. The problem arises when the the speaker and the hearer subscribe to differing worldviews. The actual perlocutionary qualities of the speaker may be quite different than those ascribed to him or her.

Two examples

Many people view the world through the lens of making money. Not that they themselves are greedy but they conclude that the desire for money is the primary motivation for personal sacrifice. For them this is how people tick. However, there are people in the world who view speak and act from other motivations. Perhaps they desire to order their world based on aesthetics. Others may be motivated by the belief and hope for tolerance and peaceful coexistence among people. I have repeatedly observed situations similar to the following: when someone from the “money makes the world go around” worldview hears a statement from a person who holds a different worldview, they interpret the statement based on their own worldview, which states that most things are money driven. How many times have you heard something like “everything he says is just show, all he really wants to do is make a buck.”

In the political arena in the U.S.A. the left and the right regularly condemn one another by ascribing motives that IMO are often false. The right accuses the left of negative socialist goals because this is the only explanation of the left’s activities based on the worldview of the right. The left accuses the right of desires for totalitarian and regressive control because this is the only sensible explanation of the activities of the right based on the worldview of the left. Could it not be that the left has a noble goal, for example combating oppression? Could it also not be that the right is simply acting on moral conviction about what they believe to be right and wrong? Would it not be better if the left and the right attempted to understand the worldview and presuppositions of each other before resorting to a childish demonizing of the opponent?

In short people normally interpret the statements and others by using their own worldview and often come to incorrect conclusions. My suggestion would be that we try to make a correct judgment about the motives of the other. This, however, is not always an easy task. It entails two things which often go against our nature: 1.) we must realize that everyone does not think like I do, i.e. they have a different worldview, and 2.) we must be humble and consider the possibility that my worldview may be incorrect, i.e. just because I have an understanding of how the world functions, it may not be correct.


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