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"The great enemy of communication…is the illusion of it.” William H. Whyte

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"I need to smoke a fag."

In communication, context matters. The producers of some Walking Dead merchandise learned this the hard way. One of the breakout characters from the past season is called "Negan" an he uses a signature weapon, a bat wrapped around with barbed wire. The show introduced the character by having him kill one of the shows main characters. He picked which one to kill with the nursery rhyme, "Einee, Meanee, Minee, Moe...." A British retailer attempted to cash in on the show and character's fame with this shirt.

 

If you are familiar with the show or the nursery rhyme you know the end of the qoute "catch a tiger by the toe." But, if you are not familiar with the show, and just saw the shirt, you might think of another ending that is popular in some places and with some people, "catch a nigger by the toe." When some people complained about  the shirt and it's potentially racist connotations it was pulled. The pulling has spurred a predictable round of debate about "political correctness," largely centered around the idea that since the shirt was intended to reference a non-racist message it could not itself be racist. And, this brings me back around to the beginning of my post. Context matters.

Communication is made up of three parts; the speaker, the content (including the medium) and the listener. All three have an impact on the meaning. It is the combination of all three that creates context. The quote from the character, in the show, is clearly not racist. He uses the "catch a tiger by his toe" end to the line and it is spoken to characters so diverse they could have come right out of a Benneton ad. The speaker, the content and the listners (the viewing audience) combine to imbue a clear meaning. On a T-shirt, the meaning isn't so clear. The shirt contains less content than the show, and some listeners are familiar with the show adn some are not. Listners familiar with the show and its symbols create a meaning that is parrelel to what the speaker intended, but listners unfamliar with the show an create a meaning wildely divergent.

If you care about being understood in your communications it is important that you consider not just what you intend to say, but the impact of the medium on your message, and what listners might hear when you speak.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on, that title can either mean "I need a cigarette" or "I want to kill a gay man." Context matters.

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Discrimination isn't just Black and White