As an English teacher I often told my writing students they needed to be clear about their intent. In order to be understood they should think about the meaning of the words they used as well as the over all tone of their writing. Did they sound sincere, sarcastic, light-hearted, or vulgar? Would their audience share or be familiar with the terms and concepts in the text? They could use facts, quotations, examples, or logical arguments for support but, as writers, they had a responsibility to define and explain each point. I warned my students that if something could be misunderstood or taken multiple ways it more than likely would be by at least one member of their audience–yours truly.
A recent FB discussion got me thinking about the instruction I used to give my students. As we often do, a friend posted a quotation as a status update. When part of the quote became the focal point that was not the “intent” of the poster a discussion ensued which left the poster and another commenter (at least from the perspective of the one playing the devil’s advocate, AKA me) slightly frustrated. This is an isolated example, but a hundred others could be given, of a piece of writing that needed better editing. The fact that it was a re-posted quotation from someone else does not eliminate the fact that it could be (and was) misunderstood or applied in unintended ways.
The news is literally littered with examples of carelessly spoken or written words. Some cause such offense that the people who spoke them have had to make public apologies, have been censured, or actually lost their positions of power. Legally, intent comes into play when determining the severity of one’s punishment but lack of intent does not let a person completely off the hook. Involuntary manslaughter, for example, still means someone was killed and someone else is responsible even though he or she did not mean to do it.
While not as serious as manslaughter, our written and spoken words have power. And, we should expect consequences from the things we say. Careless words are a reflection of a careless mind. When these words are written down and shared they also reflect a degree of laziness or a deficiency of education. Even professional writers benefit from editing. So, those of us who choose to post and blog should at least be willing to reread what we have written and do some rewriting (when the writing is original). We should also expect a certain amount of scrutiny from our readers. When people ask questions or express a different way of seeing an issue they are not normally trying to be difficult. Some readers may genuinely be confused by what we have said or have experiences and perspectives our writing does not take into consideration but they believe are relevant.
In the discussion which started me thinking about this subject I was not initially trying to be rude. When I realized my comment had come across rudely I attempted an apology, dug myself deeper in a hole (based on the response of the other commenter), and bowed out of the conversation. Once one makes a writing or speaking faux pas getting back to neutral can be rather difficult. Even when you expect a discussion to be friendly, others are not always as willing to engage in.any.kind.of.discussion.as we would like. For some people, challenging their perspective is tantamount to questioning their character. Sadly, for them, their experience of the world is much less colorful because their mindset is so black and white. For this writer, editors are welcome and the comment section is always open (but I do talk back 😉 ).