Monday, December 07, 2009

Pshat in Twitter

This morning, the following Tweet appeared on my screen (1):
Got a hitch w/ a kipah sruga guy. When I got in, he said "the price for the ride is a vort on this week's parsha". #onlyinisrael
In attempting to interpret this Tweet, a distinction must be made between what the author intended, and what he actually said. I'm glad to stipulate that nothing nasty was intended, and I'll further stipulate that the author is a fine guy, who loves all Jews, equally, regardless of sect. However, I hold that once an idea is reduced to writing, the words speak for themselves, and the intention (or, to be precise, your best guess at the intention) becomes irrelevant (2). From the perspective of interpretation, it doesn't matter one bit what the writer thought he was doing because this is unknowable. We look only at what he did, ie, the words on the page.

With this in mind,  I have two related observations to make about the Tweet cited above.

First, I wonder why the author thought the style of kippa was noteworthy and submit that it suggests surprise that a "kippa sruga guy" cared about parsha. Second, why "only in Israel?" I'd expect similar conversations almost anywhere. Based on the words alone, I think its fair to say that the writer is claiming a "kippa sruga guy" cares about parsha "only in Israel." Don't believe me? Imagine the Tweet had said instead "Got a hitch with a blond woman, When I got in she said the price for the ride is a Calculus lesson. #onlyatharvard." How's this different? In the blond women Tweet, I think we can agree a claim is being made about their intelligence. Isn't a similar claim being made about "kippa sruga guys" in the original Tweet? Why, or why not?

Objections I will not accept
- Stop being so PC. There's nothing PC about this post. I'm not interested in protecting the feelings of "kippa srugah guys." I'm interested in understanding this Tweet on its own terms and making a point about interpretation.
- Its Twitter! He only has 140 characters! So what? A writer is still responsible for what he says.
- I know the writer! He's a great guy. See the initial stipulation, and remember I'm not interested in guessing what he intended. My crystal ball is in the shop. All I wish to do is examine what he wrote.
- Why can't you judge people favorably? I did judge the writer favorable. Again, see the initial stipulation. However, a writer can't put words on paper and then disown their logical interpretations.
- This is such a stupid non-issue. I may agree, but by attempting to end the discussion with this complaint you're engaging in the Sanctimony Fallacy.

(1) I don't name the author because I don't wish for his identity to influence your reading.
(2) I think attempting to divine an author's intention is an exercise in futility, and often a rude distraction. Any writer worth a grain of salt can mimic various voices and moods, and often does so for effect or other rhetorical purposes. A reader, therefore, has no justification in making any deductions about a writer's agenda, psychology, or mood, and usually these deductions reflect the reader's own biases, or what he expects to see, and not what has actually been said. All a reader can do with any certainty is explain what the reader has done. (a) A reader can't, with any justification, say why it was done unless the writer supplies the information himself (b).

(a) ie: I think the tweet makes a claim about people who wear kippot srugot; I have no idea at all what the writer really and truly thinks about people who wear kippit srugot, and no attempts to guess have been made.
(b) In my own career, readers guilty of this error have come to any number of ludicrous conclusions about me (My favorite: "DovBear has no friends, or family. He's just a lonely old grump.") These types of conclusions about me are a product of the reader's arrogance, and indicate a preference for assigning motives over accepting with humility that knowledge is often incomplete.

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