The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Taken out of Context"

That string of words infuriates me, especially since I've been hearing it a lot owing to the Reverend Wright fiasco (for those who don't know, he's Barack Obama's former minister, and has been shown uttering incendiary and offensive language and sentiments).

Apologists of the Reverend, like some Islamic apologists who try to defend what is really untenable, repeat this phrase mechanically and peremptorily. The phrase has pretty much become a "get yourself out of anything" card.

Given my linguistic and theoretical training, as well as my interest in linguistics/deconstruction (Derrida and Fish come to mind), I acknolwedge that context is an often overlooked part of the chain of signification. Even when we do not think there is a context, there is, as Fish reminds us in his (in)famous "Is there a text in this class?".

However, I have yet to see a single apologist for Reverend Wright or other causes actually back up their statements and enlighten us as to just what the words mean in context, or at least what that context is. A recent example where the context argument was valid was a speech Pope Benedict made in Germany about a year ago. The Pope was accused, by people who never read or heard the speech, of being anti-Islamic because he said something about the lack of logic in Islam. In this case, his words were definitely taken out of context: the Pope opened his speech by quoting from (I believe) a medieval theologian, who was quoting a (supposed) debate that took place between the Byzantine emperor and a Muslim leader on the question of logic and faith. The Pope was asked to apologize for something he never said.

The context argument would work for Reverend Wright only if something similar happened. If he was being ironic or humorous, for instance, the context argument would apply. If he prefaced his remarks by saying something like "Some people say 'God Damn America,'" and someone removed the first part, then the context argument would apply.

The phrase has always been used in irritating ways, but it seems you can't turn the news on now without hearing it. I don't know what I'll do if I hear it one more time.

By the way, for those who recall the Don Imus fiasco: was what he said really that bad? I sure don't think so, even though it was foolish of him to say something like that. Nevertheless, I'm sure Imus's relative lack of skin pigmentation has something to do with him getting fired.


Anonymous Former Flaky Girl Next Door said...

As someone who wallows in context all day long I believe it is essential to understanding any type of public statement as the media revel at splicing and shooting out photoshopped quotes that were never uttered.
Would anyone care about this poor preacher man had he not been at the forefront of a campaign of a black candidate for the presidency?
There's context for you!
Sure a lot of the stuff he says belongs on the Hour of power, his statements are incendiary blablabla
Look what's happening to H. about what she said in Bosnia?
This is not about context, it's about politics, it's about gutting the adversary and finding the needle in the haystack...
I for one love the comment he made about Libya, at least he owns his BS. ;)

People have no sense of humour or ability to take things with a grain of salt or indifference...
There is controversy rocking the magazine world about a cover with black guy and a white model on it and everyone is upset because somehow it portrays black pple in a bad way.....
well as a fellow blonde I say I am offended by Gisele Bundchen because she portrays the perfect looking girl I will never be therefore is responsible for my boulimia, bad self-esteem and hairy arms
enjoy your weekend!!!!!

2:15 p.m.  
Blogger Pious Labours said...

Yes, like I said, context is crucial, and the argument that something has been taken out of context can often be a legitimate one. However, in the case of, say, Rev. Wright's apologists, people often use that argument to get out of anything, and they NEVER say what the statements mean IN context (they never say, "this is what he actually said or meant," etc).

I can pretty much tell someone to f@# off and die, and come back later and say "oh, it's taken out of context." It's an easy way to get out of anything.

Clear weather this weekend: you must be thrilled!

3:23 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don Imus said the Rutgers womens basketball team looked like "nappy-headed hos."

This attacks a person's physical characteristics and that is why it is offensive. Mind you, if he said, they played like snails, or attacked the system of play, that would not be offensive.

Ideally, this same principle applies to faith - prejudicing someone because they believe in something is wrong (part of who they are), but attacking what they believe is ok because it you are passing a normative judgment on topics that are open for debate in the "marketplace of ideas".

Threatening violence for disagreeing or 'insulting' a viewpoint is morally reprehensible, and those who advocate it should maybe consider that punishment to themselves if they ever 'insult' someone else...

I think you and I know which phrase I am referring to, uttered by a certain religious group advocating violence. (wont post my name, or anything further for fear of being beheaded)

8:38 p.m.  
Blogger Pious Labours said...

I still don't see the big deal with "nappy headed hos." Yes, it was stupid, but not that bad. Again, if he were black, I seriously doubt anyone would have cared.

Religion is very tricky: it's difficult if not impossible to attack legitimately someone's religious views without personally offending them. Unfortunately, many religious people use this as a form of diplomatic immunity, which is of course very convenient.

2:07 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said... - this may be the example you are thinking of with regards to context - Isiah Thomas stated "And I'm sorry to say I do make a distinction,a white man calling a black woman a bitch is highly offensive" as opposed to a black man calling a black woman a bitch.

The backlash against Isiah was that the Knicks had to pay 11.6 million in damages where the plaintiff party was only seeking 10 million.

With regards to the religious point - you can argue that anything could offend an individual. For example, one could say "the existence of offends me." But that is pure rubbish.

People exploiting that argument "finding logical fallacies in the 'religion of peace'" as being offensive should have their heads examined because the counterargument would be that I find their lack of logic highly offensive...

once again - (wont post my name, or anything further for fear of being beheaded)

10:40 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you spread word of infidels

11:33 p.m.  

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