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Bark good

July 12, 2019

As of yesterday, I have managed to avoid the Grim Reaper for 57 years. These days, we recognize that not really much of an accomplishment. Barring some underlying pathology, an unfortunate accident, or a refusal to learn and follow the “three rules” (don’t go stupid places, don’t do stupid things and don’t hang out with stupid people), there’s not really much to it; breathe, eat (chew, swallow, retain), eliminate, practice some semblance of hygiene, and you’re well on your way. My friends, family and I celebrated with bark.

None of which is really meaningful, other than it provides me a way to get to my point.

One of the things we hear, fairly often, about life “way back then” (think Lords, Ladies, Gentlefolk, peasants and serfs) was that life was very short. Pick an average age. I’ve heard or read everything from “late 20’s” to about 36 as the average age to which one could be expected to live. The problem is that those numbers, whichever one was correct, are meaningless absent context. Words and numbers, even when presented as being factual, are like that. Without a context they tell us nothing. People dying, on average, at 36 sounds depressing. Of course, that might be the average because so many children were dying very young (which is one thing to help explain large families, the lack of birth control and the need for someone to take care of the parents when they become frail and elderly being others). Once you reached a given age, say early to mid-teens, your odds were pretty good. So, you’d live beyond the average, but the death of so many of your siblings (and your own kids) brought the average way down.

I mention all this because I have recently encountered a tendency for some people to belittle the idea of context when it comes to understanding something. While it is true that some people (politicians, perhaps?) will say their words were “taken out of context” when they were not, it remains true that it is context that provides meaning.* Dictionaries don’t provide meaning. They only report how words are used. Think about the following scenario: You walk up to a group of people engaged in a conversation. As you get closer, you hear one person say “I don’t like the black ones.” What does that mean? The fact is that absent a context, which you lack, you simply don’t know. If they are talking about race relations, it’s possible the speaker is a racist pig. On the other hand, if the topic is licorice, he’s merely expressing his preferences regarding a kind of candy. But it can be even worse.

Let’s say you overhear him say, “I don’t like the reds.” What could that mean?

  • If the topic is licorice, see above
  • The speaker could be a racist who dislikes American Indians
  • If the topic is professional baseball, he might dislike a certain team from a city in Ohio
  • If the topic is Russia, he might dislike a particular party associated with the Russian revolution
  • If he is a Cold War vet who simply cannot let go, he might dislike Russians in general or communists in general

There could be other explanations (wines, beers and acorns come to mind), but the point is the same for all of them. If you don’t know the context, you don’t have the faintest, freakin’ idea of what he means.

How do we evaluate what someone says, or does, or thinks, or how he acts if we don’t know the context? The answer is, we don’t, at least not with any hope of accuracy. And that’s from people we encounter today. If we look at the words/thoughts/actions of someone long dead, it becomes even harder.

For understanding, context isn’t the only thing, but it is everything.

Oh, and this is what one uses to celebrate with bark. Barky Boston Butt goodness.

barky Boston Butty goodness

 

*If you disagree, please share with me your list of words or numbers which, absent context, have any meaning whatsoever. Take your time. I’ll wait.

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