“If I have caused offence, which was not my intent,…”Every apology ever in the age of outrage
The law of torts has a concept of the eggshell skull, which means that if you carry out a tortious act you take your victim as you find them. You deal with the consequences of your actions whatever they may be. If it happens that your victim is unduly sensitive, then you must bear the consequences of your action. The guilty party doesn’t get to determine an acceptable level of damage.
Authors don’t get to prescribe the meaning of their texts. Whatever they might have meant, the text is open to interpretation by a wide and diverse community of readers who will read the lines, between the lines and through the lines. Readers will project their own experiences and interpretations into the text. The classics are often those that are most open to this projection and interpretation. Like a good constitution, their meaning evolves through the evolution of its community, their values and practice.
Angry people on social media will often seek to blame their audience for its lack of size, enthusiasm or understanding. They are failing to take their audience as they find them. Noboday is entitled to an audience. Nobody gets to project what an audience can think or feel.
Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts themVladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
We commonly see this problem of projection when we fall in love. To choose to take another into our lives often involves first falling in love with our own projection of who that other person is. Great relationships navigate the projection to truly understand the other as they are. Many failed relationships have at their heart two people who never reconciled the difference between the projection and the other.
Our current focus on racism is a consequence of systemic forces that prescribe dangerous new meaning for people of colour. Running through a neighbourhood, shopping, working, interacting with police, protesting, living at home, and even birdwatching are experiences that can be situations where others begin to define them and trigger consequnces without any consideration of that individual, their intents or actions. We must remember this when we feel entitled to say ‘but I am not a racist’. We are projecting meaning. How is it ours to determine this?
Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire – it tells you how to desireSlavoj Žižek
This desire to prescribe meaning is all around us. We see gurus prescribing what others should think about ideas, speech, work or lives. We see advocates projecting all manner of meaning and intent on others, sometimes genuinely and sometimes as tactics. We see politicians reducing complex situations to ambiguous catchphrases and dogwhistles. Like reader and author, failed lovers, or tortfeasor and victim, these prescriptions have real consequences even if in the most generous and neutral interpretation the outcomes are accidents of time and circumstances.
The commonest fight on social media is a fight to project meaning. Someone feels entitled to prescribe the meaning of an event, action or concept for others. Someone else wants a different meaning assigned. As their purposes are mutually inconsistent no constructive progress follows. There are two consistent barrier to progress.
“I never forget that a book is not an end in itself. Just like a newspaper or a magazine, a book is a means of communication, which is why I try to grab the reader by the throat and not let go to the end. I don’t always succeed, of course; readers tend to be elusive. Who is my reader?”Isabel Allende, My Invented Country
To engage in these acts of projection takes two circumstances in every case:
- the ability to treat the other as a blank screen on which to project meaning (or a stereotype): Projection takes a canvas that is capable of receiving our image. If we truly looked at others and sought to understand them, we would find projection far more difficult. True empathy and understanding differentiates an individual and requires us to treat them uniquely, with their own entitlements and actions.
- the sense of entitlement to prescribe meaning for an other: I might want to tell you what to think to be a ‘right-thinking person’ like me. However, it is foolish for me to think that I have the entitlement to tell you what to think, believe or act. To go further and seek consequences for your failure to think, believe or act as I require is an act of violent subjugation.
Nobody is entitled to define matters for their audience. We need the empathy to see others as they are. Only when the projection stops do we step out of the movie in our head and back into life with others.
Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s outMartin Scorcese